Posts Tagged ‘Motor Learning in Sport’

Bill Walsh innovated the planning and execution phases of the game of football

Some time ago, I was asked the question in an interview to give my interpretation of coaching theory and describe how it is applied to competitive athletics.  My initial thought was… wow, vague.

Maybe some of you who are reading this are coaches or teachers (or, maybe you just enjoy the sport and want a different perspective to draw from) and, if you are like me, you enjoy learning about the experiences of others in pursuit of similar goals, sharing ideas, searching for better ways to do things, and helping others out along their way… also acknowledging that only a fool thinks he knows everything there is to know about everything.  To this end, I have an anonymous quote posted on my office wall reminding me that:

A man doesn’t know what he knows until he knows what he doesn’t know.

With this logic, there is always going to be reason to continue to build your knowledge base, examine the way you think about things, and challenge the status quo.

Knowing the cat-and-mouse/dog-and-pony-show that interviews can be, I knew they were just waiting to see how I would respond to such an open ended question.  Could I think on my feet, make snap judgments, and ultimately decide a certain course of action and go down that road with confidence?

As far as coaching goes, I think it is fairly safe to say that many would agree there is definitely more than one way to skin a cat – concerning all things related to our profession: developing young men and women, teaching, leading, relating, explaining, demonstrating, evaluating, communicating, and much, much more.

I have found documenting and reflecting on my efforts to be extremely valuable in providing hindsight (paving way to foresight) not only in preparing for interviews, but also as a measure in evaluating choices, decisions, and actions.  When I reflect on my answer to the interview question regarding coaching theory, I ultimately felt that I did not think in global enough terms.  When I heard “coaching” and “theory” my brain automatically went to “scheme” and “philosophy.”

To compound the fact that I had just made a common interview mistake of hearing the question but not listening to it (as opposed to Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump), I was interviewing for a defensive coordinator position and the answer I provided was from an offensive perspective.  In a sense, I fell back to what I was comfortable with having coached offense for the entirety of my ten year career up to that point.

So, I answered the question with the following points from my coaching portfolio in mind as an outline to guide me – however, only briefly touching on some of the points in the following excerpt:


1. Protect the football and protect the quarterback

  • This is accomplished through various methods. Game planning and play-calling is set up with this philosophy at heart. Take external elements into consideration when deciding on play selection (weather, field conditions, score, field position, defensive strengths, etc.). Offensive line personnel strengths and weaknesses will be considered when evaluating potential use of full-slide, half-slide, man and hot principles; sprint-out, naked/boot, drop-back and play-action protection schemes. There will be simple rules and the quarterback must understand the workings of each protection employed. Also consider quarterback involvement in the run game (defensive players assigned on bootlegs, play-fakes, and options; involvement in inside/outside run game) and how that will affect his stamina, mental processing, and physical abilities during a contest.

2. Keep things simple for the offensive line

  • Maintaining consistency for this group is key in establishing any kind of offensive identity. Our base run schemes will consist of power, split flow/lead inside zone, strong and weak toss (outside zone), and fly sweep. Calls and techniques will reflect their similarities in the run (e.g., front-side power double team block mirrors technique with backside zone combination technique) and pass (i.e., front-side/back-side slide calls/techniques/assignments are the same regardless of full or half-slide) game to minimize the amount of concepts we ask the offensive line to execute. We will have the ability to carry one full-slide protection, one half-man/half-slide protection, and possibly one man protection scheme into a contest. Variations off those protections based on running back blocking responsibilities, quarterback/receiver hot adjustments, and directional calls can be made to fit into different passing concepts – but everything is still the same for the offensive line, regardless of the protection variation.

3. Put players in the best possible position to achieve success

  • Package run plays with quick screens and/or automatic quick pass check based on 1) single isolated defender 2) safety alignments and 3) number of defenders in the box. Also set up run plays to have the ability to check direction based on technique/angle advantage.
  • Work half of the field in quick passing game. Build confidence through repetition of identifying and reading isolated defenders varied by concept. Build in man-to-man automatic response process for single and double wide receiver sets.
  • Categorize drop-back and play-action concepts by route distribution and read principles (i.e., 3-man hot combos, Inside Hi-Lo’s, Outside Hi-Lo’s, Oblique, Vertical, and Horizontal stretches) and teach the quarterback the basic read principles. Once he can recall the read principles based on film study and practice repetition it does not matter how the routes are distributed. This insures that offensively we are consistent in what we are teaching, but from a defensive perspective, we are not always doing the same thing from the same looks. We can be diverse in personnel, formations, and motions but consistent in principles and rules.
  • Have a plan to get our most explosive play-makers the ball in the most effective method possible. Use of fly sweeps attached to base run game, bubble and fast screens, and special personnel packages for direct snap opportunities are all simple ways to attempt to let our best athletes make explosive plays.

As I stated previously, when I answered the question I was no where near this in depth.  I simply noted that coaching theory was such a broad area and it could encompass so many different things (as I was stalling to try to think of something profound to say).  Then, all that I could recall at the time was bits and pieces of the scheme and philosophy that I had scribed into my portfolio.  So I went with something to that end.  In retrospect, this would have been an acceptable time to physically bring out the portfolio and point to it as a reference.  Next time.

In the days following, I started to think about all the areas I could have done a better job in during the interview.  This question was one of the first things I toiled over.   There is so much regarding coaching theory in everything I do on a daily basis.  Essentially, I panicked, went blank, and reverted back to what I was comfortable with instead of digesting the question and really identifying some solid elements of true coaching theory and breaking it down.

Years ago a colleague, friend, and former teammate of mine brought up the concept of Stimulus Response (SR) in conversation as a reference to defensive line play.  The basic idea being that his defensive linemen were cued in to common offensive lineman techniques (ie, base, drive, reach, down, double, etc).  Each one of these techniques was considered a stimulus (a visual signal telling the brain to send a message to the body) to the defensive lineman’s response (the appropriate counter movement technique).

Since then I have engrossed myself in the details of applying this concept to all groups on the field, breaking it down position by position, drill by drill.  To take a closer look at some of the points in my Philosophy/Scheme section, there is an element of stimulus response built in.

In reference to keeping things simple for the offensive line:

“Calls and techniques will reflect their similarities in the run (e.g., front-side power double team block mirrors technique with backside zone combination technique) and pass (i.e., front-side/back-side slide calls/techniques/assignments are the same regardless of full or half-slide) game to minimize the amount of concepts we ask the offensive line to execute.”

The only difference between this example and that of my colleague’s is that here, our stimulus is not necessarily created by the movement of an opposing player.  In essence, an offensive lineman’s stimulus is created by the pre-snap alignment of the defenders they are assigned to and whether they are on the front side or back side of the play.

In theory, several layers of SR can be identified in terms of the play call creating stimulus to the athlete’s response –  the thought process of determining his corresponding technique/assignment.  And even deeper, the down and distance, field position, field conditions, score, etc, each present a stimulus to the stimulus (and so on) to the response.  Tony Blauer of Blauer Tactical Systems draws a correlation to this concept related to hand-to-hand combat (at the 2:10 mark he explains the SSSR model):

Ultimately I was disappointed that I hadn’t brought up anything to do with the principles of training the body and the mind for competitive athletics.  Looking back, I have a feeling that is closer to what they were looking for than some canned answers about putting people in position to achieve success, getting your play-makers the ball, and keeping things simple.

It really wasn’t a scheme question and I think that point has been established.  The real letdown is that I blew a good opportunity (by not listening and just assuming that I had the answer) to share my thoughts on a process (one of many processes including but not limited to concepts for visualization, motivation, goal setting, focus, and more; not to mention other principles such as motor learning theory and its foundation supporting skill development and application of practice, feedback, repetition, and mastery) that is crucial to coaching theory: essentially, through repetition, building stimulus response in the nervous system (reaction time) and the muscles (movement time) to improve an athlete’s overall performance.

In the end, to make a short story long, the main idea behind this anecdote is that I simply was not prepared to answer an open ended question regarding coaching theory.  As much as I wanted the job, and as prepared as I thought I was for the interview, I had simply never been asked that question before and surprisingly it never crossed my mind to connect these concepts to the context in which I was asked about coaching theory.

So all this begs the question…

I guess what they say about interviewing is true, right?  The more actual experience, the better off you are…

Well, I guess I can chalk this one up to experience.  I can tell you one thing for sure:

Next time I won’t be caught off guard by a question on coaching theory…