Rowden Fullen (2004)
If you are to be a successful coach then it is vital that you have some system of studying what is happening. Even more important is that you know what you are looking for and are able to identify it when you see it. Unfortunately in this modern computerized world we more often than not have too many fitters and too few engineers. The specialists are disappearing and we replace the whole rather than finding out what part was defective. After a while we lose the understanding of how the whole was constructed. This applies too to our great sport. The professional coaches are disappearing – the guys who know how things work are being lost. More often than not they are replaced by players, who at the close of their career or after injury, take up the occupation of trainer. The expertise is in most cases not the same and they look at coaching from a different standpoint.
The first step even before we start to analyse technique, whether it be a stroke, a movement or a serve, is to know what we are looking for. Do we know the critical features of the skill – the back-swing or recovery phases, the force producing movements, the critical impact instant and the follow-through? The movements performed during the approach and ball contact stages are examples of critical features. They must be performed correctly in order to achieve the best results. By best results we do not always necessarily mean winning the point. Coaches must determine too whether or not the skill was performed to best advantage.
Do we have a picture in our mind of what perfect execution looks like? Because without this we have no model, no standard against which to measure! We must also consider any other relevant factors, especially those which may affect our observation of the ability. Bear in mind too that although critical features are inflexible parts of a movement they are often modified by individual differences. These unique and individual adaptations are what make up style. Do we know the difference?
We must visually and mentally break down the skill before actually attempting to observe it. Many advanced coaches already have in their mind a sound concept of the basic components of a particular skill, built up over years of experience of coaching players, lecturing to coaches or preparing and writing coaching material. However the ability to analyse and provide effective feedback is dependent upon the accuracy and relevance of the coaches’ observations. Coaches cannot possibly examine technique if for example they are unaware of exactly which components determine effective performance and are unaware of how best to observe these.
Finally we are in a position to plan how we are going to observe our skill, what aids we are going to use and even from which position we are going to carry out our observation. The critical features are the components of the movement which are essential to the performance of a skill and when we talk about optimal technique we refer to the most efficient performance of a movement pattern within the constraints and requirements of the skill or activity. The identification of the critical features is a far from simple task. It requires a broad knowledge of basic mechanical and motor concepts and an ability to apply this information to different types of movement. The first step in the development of a model is to clearly identify the performance criterion — the exact purpose or goal of the skill and exactly what constitutes successful execution.
The second stage is to simplify analysis by breaking the movement down into parts or phases. Frequently technique may be divided into 4 phases and this break-down process allows the coach to examine the mechanics which affect specific components or parts of the skill.
- Back-swing or recovery.
- Force producing movements.
- The critical impact instant.
- The follow through.
It is only after the purpose of the skill has been identified and the skill sequence simplified into parts that the coach is ready to determine the mechanical factors affecting each component or phase of the skill. Technique is largely determined by mechanical factors. This stage of the process is the most difficult as it requires an overview of all the fundamental mechanical principles. This movement analysis stage should be considered as the homework phase of the whole analysis process — take time over it. Systematically determine the mechanical factors for each part of the skill. These mechanics do not change, so once you have them figured out, your work on this step is complete. Many experienced coaches have for instance a mental check-list of exactly what to look for at this stage in the analysis.
Once the mechanical factors have been examined and determined, then the critical features can be identified and compared with our model of perfection.
Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. Movement observation must be systematic in order to be effective. The development of an observation plan answers how, when and where to observe. Coaches who approach observation haphazardly will be unable to selectively attend to and record performance of the critical features. They must be able to methodically search for the relevant features of a performance. Each observation plan is designed to relate to a specific task such as a coaching session, which focuses specifically on actions involved during the force production phase or the follow-through phase of a stroke. What is most important is not how you plan but that you do plan.
There are 4 steps involved in the design of an observation plan.
- Identify the observation task and select the relevant critical features.
- Determine the appropriate observation strategies.
- Determine the number of observations required.
- Select the positioning strategies to gather the identified information.
Coaches need first to identify the goal of the observation session. It may be to improve the movements in a particular part of the skill, or it may be to refine the skill as a whole. Critical features previously identified in the movement analysis phase are re-examined and those features relevant to the observation session are selected.
Consider for example the critical features which we may identify in the case of the forehand topspin. If the focus of the particular coaching session is to improve the actions which occur solely with the racket arm, then we only need to select for observation the critical features which are relevant. These are the amount of back-swing, the speed of back-swing, the length and plane of the arm, the speeds and application of the various parts of the arm, the force producing movement, the contact point in terms of time and place, the angle of the racket at contact, the optimum area of contact on the racket and the follow-through of the arm. We need not concern ourselves with the critical features relevant to leg movement or rotation of the body. The selection in this way of a sub-routine of relevant critical features will greatly simplify the observation process.
Observation strategies are formulated after consideration of the following questions.
- What is the best way to observe the critical features — focusing or scanning?
- On which parts of the body or the environment should the coach focus or scan?
- Are there some critical features which need to be observed simultaneously?
The number of observations needed to obtain all the necessary information is dependent on the skill. Each repeated observation should be used to view some particular aspect of the movement, so that by the final observation there is a clear record of exactly what has happened. Throughout coaches must look for consistent characteristics of the player’s performance. The absence/presence of one critical feature in one repetition is fine, but what’s important is if this characteristic is consistent.
If the vantage point is not considered, other observation techniques may be useless. The optimum position to view varies from skill to skill and from feature to feature. The position of both the performer and the observer determines what can and what cannot be seen. Many inexperienced coaches have no recollection of their positions or remain in one spot all the time. Determining how to observe from the right place and at the right time to be sure to collate the relevant information, requires serious thought and practice.
The purpose of the diagnostic stage is to identify primary errors, as this is a pre-requisite to making corrections and improving performance. A primary error is one which is the main problem and must be corrected before improvement in performance can take place. (Secondary errors are important too, as they may provide important information concerning the primary errors)
For example to spend time trying to speed up the racket arm when there is inadequate back-swing, is a waste of time. Too short or too slow a back-swing inhibits the quality and efficiency of movement and inhibits the full utilization of elastic energy — either is a primary error. An accurate identification of the primary errors must occur before making corrections to improve performance.
The starting point in identifying primary errors is to note the differences between the observed and desired performance of a critical feature. Next the coach needs to make informed decisions as to the causes of these differences. These decisions are based on a knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanical principles.
The actions which cause the differences between the observed and the desired performances are the primary errors and are what the coach needs to address. Once the primary error or errors have been identified a prescription for remedial action is decided upon — a method of correction. It may be necessary to design appropriate exercises, at appropriate speeds to improve the technique.
The diagnosis of primary errors.
- Aspects involving movement, jumping or balance – examine the take-off phase for primary errors, most discrepancies afterwards are secondary errors. Similarly most problems observed at the instant of landing or ‘arriving’ in a position to play a stroke find their roots in the initial take-off.
- Problems in the direction of movements — examine the direction of force applied for the primary error. If a stroke results in the ball going to the wrong place perhaps the contact was at the wrong timing and as a result the force was incorrectly applied.
- Problems in developing power – examine the preparation for the particular stroke, insufficient flexion and extension of the leg joints are primary errors. Often the sequence of joint rotations or of flexion and extension are not in the right order. With rotational power be aware of the principles of Angular Momentum and of the value of ‘whole body’ movement (use of free arm etc) both from the view of increased efficiency and preventing injury. The effective use of elastic energy is also important as are the use of the hips and stomach in influencing power.