This was usually said in the contexts of accountability and intensity. If you want to do well, you have to put the effort in at training and hold yourself to a (healthy) high standard. I’m usually the one running around like crazy at training, quietly commentating events and celebrating the diving catches or epic throws to keep things interesting. Now, as I stand in the world of coaching and through my research, I’ve been exposed to more academic concepts like representative task design (RTD). Simply put, we need to recreate our performance environments (the game) at training, but that’s not what I’m seeing.
Like anything, this is a concept that has turned into a game of Chinese Whispers. A complex concept with good intentions has been passed along the grapevine to the local volunteer coach and now we have a very misconstrued understanding of what good RTD really looks like. Is it just a mini-game? Well in some instances it can be. There are many benefits of small-sided games in sports like football (soccer), where behaviours like finding the right passes are performed under controlled perceived pressure. Traditionally, training often starts with two lines, making fifty passes with a partner under no stress at all, without moving, and sometimes even this seems like a stretch for some people’s abilities. Well, that doesn’t mean they can’t be exposed to the fast and fun game-based training, it just means they might need a little more support through it, or a little more time before they’re forced to make a move. That’s the best part about this world of training, there are so many things that you can manipulate. It also makes it overwhelming because you need to understand the game in an intricate way. Thankfully, we know that this can be looked at from three levels which work together all the time: the person, their task, and their environment. For the uber-nerds out there like me, this is called ecological dynamics.
We’ve already accepted that each person is unique, so we each bring our own set of skills to any situation. The person level then is very individualised but can be influenced by the outside world. The environment, which can be physical or social, is never too far away either. Anything from the weather to social norms always plays a role as well. The task is what we usually manipulate as coaches to try and encourage learning. It’s the sessions we design and the activities we include, so there are some important things to consider when we do. To match the fundamental RTD principles, all the key sources of information should be there. In football, this is the space and defenders and perceived pressure and all the things that make the game a contest, not just a runaround. My main sport is cricket though, and that’s where things start to get a little tricky. Our game has sooo many sources of information. Batting is an awesome example: before the bowler comes in, I’m already searching for information. I look around the field and find ten other players watching me, waiting for me to slip up (I personally look at the gaps between them, but that visual-perception argument is one for a later date). I’ve got my unique skill set and I’m trying to use the movements of the incoming bowler and any previous knowledge to anticipate what’s coming. I then have to coordinate my body and the bat in my hands to intercept the ball coming towards me, which could be doing any number of things at various pace in the air, and try to find a gap between the ten aforementioned players that gives me enough time to run 22 yards or for the ball to travel ~60m. Simple game right?
Well, by some miracle, we learn all of these things. A lot of the time it’s implicit, which is believed to be a great way to learn something if you want it to stick. But sometimes the things we learn and the actions expected of us don’t match, which really sparked my curiosity in the first place. In cricket, we train in an enclosed environment with a carpet-covered pitch and a range of bowlers or machines or throwers delivering the ball. Now, even for the least experienced cricketers, it’s pretty clear that this is not what a game looks like. It’s deconstructed, decontextualised and frankly quite simplistic, but when you need to train six teams with twelve players each and limited space, it’s a very convenient method of training. There are some positives: you don’t have to chase the ball (unless you hit it back out of the net) and there’s usually quite a bit of variety because each person is unique. Funnily enough, despite the vivid description above highlighting how many decisions are made in a split second, there is no element of decision making. There are rarely goals, and even when there are, it’s to imaginary field settings with a net stopping the ball a metre away from you. Doesn’t really sound like the playground for implicit learning, does it?
A turf pitch, a whole field and people willing to chase the ball down aren’t realistic resources for the average cricket club, but that doesn’t mean that we have to settle for anything less than a good challenge. It just takes a bit of planning and creativity, maybe even time. Something we definitely need to do as cricketers is get better at identifying the things we cannot do (yet) and exposing ourselves to it at training. In a sport where one mistake can mean sitting on the sideline for hours, we’re not the best when it comes to accepting failure. My training sessions are spent coaxing kids into exploring, into being curious again, and finding something they suck at right now. It’s probably the opposite to the ‘feel good’ hit out sessions they’re used to having, where a machine feeds them almost the same ball over and over again and they play the same shot. But we already know that doesn’t help because it creates a different movement to what the game asks of us. We might be stuck in enclosed environments, but we can still convince real bowlers to hit different targets (which develops their skills too!) and learn to adapt to that variability. For the decision making try restricting where the ball can be hit to, and watch them get creative. It’s difficult to tell where the ball is going, but batters can still be encouraged to score runs by including visual cues in the net like pegs or markers. Ideally, you don’t want to get to the game on the weekend and see something you’ve never seen before, so search for it! And whenever you can get out the field, take your bat and gloves, and use the space around you.
We’re all curious creatures at the end of the day.