Developing skilled athletes

Developing skilled athletes

Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland

In this article we will discuss skill and decision making. After reading this article you should have an understanding of what skill is, the role of decision making, and how to develop your players’ skills. 


Skill v techniquePeople often get confused between a technique and a skill. A technique is a basic physical action or movement; skill is the successful application of technique in a competitive situation. Techniques are the actual physical actions that players take and could include things like passing, shooting, catching, serving, dribbling and tackling. Skill involves a player selecting the appropriate technique and then executing it in an effective and efficient manner.

While a player needs to have good technical ability, unless they are skilled in using the techniques they will not be an effective player. Skill is all about putting those techniques into action successfully. Skill requires a player to be able to identify which technique to use and how to use it. This means they must also make a decision and be able to do this under pressure. This pressure could come from time constraints, limited space or from opponents.

A common sight in many sports is the player that can do something in training but cannot repeat it in a competitive match. To be able to develop skill a player needs to practice in a way that is similar to how they perform the technique in a match. Often the way players train doesn’t represent how the game is played. Let’s look at the example of a football player – Sally.

skill example

Why is Sally unable to transfer the dribbling through cones into dribbling in a match? Let’s have a closer look:

When dribbling around cones Sally is simply practicing the technique – the action of dribbling. So she may get a better feel for the ball and become better at dribbling around the cones. But the cones are not there on the field when she plays, and she will never dribble like that in a game. So what will she do in a game? To answer this, have a think about what it is like for her in a game:

  • soccer playersShe can dribble in any direction, not just the direction of the cones.
  • She has team mates she can interact with.
  • She has opponents that are trying to get the ball off her.
  • The situation changes constantly as players are continuously moving around.
  • She has a purpose – this could be to set up or score a goal, or to get the ball away from her own goal.
  • She is under a variety of pressures.
  • There are numerous elements in the environment competing for her attention: team mates, opponents, space, the goal, instructions from the side line etc.
  • She constantly has to scan the environment (look at what is going on around her) and make decisions.

Contrast this with what she does when she is dribbling through cones:

  • There is one fixed direction, and even if the cones go in another direction it is still predetermined.
  • She has her head down and is focusing on where the cones are.
  • She will make very few decisions.
  • The way that she controls the ball to dribble around the cones is different to how she will dribble in the game.

skill 4From this example we can see that dribbling around cones is just practicing a technique, while dribbling in a game is developing a skill. This is because the game is dynamic, the player is dribbling with a purpose (an end goal) and they are making decisions. A technical activity can help to develop the physical aspect of a technique, however, it won’t address the other areas that go into a successful performance.

In the technical drill, once the player gets the basics of how to perform the technique (the physical actions) they will usually be okay at completing the drill. Often the coach will equate this with the player being skilled in that technique, and expect them to be able to replicate it in a game. But they have only become competent in one area of it; they cannot yet perform the technique against opponents in a game situation. They have yet to master areas of skilled performance such as using the technique at the right time in the most appropriate way. This will require the player to modify the technique based on the situation, and to do this they must be able to make decisions.

Decision making

decision makingDecision making is a key component of a skilled performance. If you take away decision making, you are left with just the physical technique. Decision making can be stated simply as the process of determining a course of action and then doing it.

In a game players are constantly making decisions. Skilled players are those that can make the correct decisions and then execute them. They need good technical ability to do this, but if they do not make the correct decision to begin with – or if they take too long to make it – then they will not be successful.

An example of decision making in tennis is the placement of shots. David is playing an inter-club match and can see that the placement of his opponent is too far to one side. Seeing this he may decide to play the ball to the other side, and will need to decide which technique to use to do this. This decision could be based on a number of factors:

  • Which technique he is strong or most comfortable with;
  • How accurately he feels he can hit the target area;
  • What angle the ball is coming to him at;
  • How fast the ball is coming to him;
  • His opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

To be successful David will need to have good technical ability, but he must also be able to make good decisions. If he took too long to recognise his opponent’s position or to decide on the best technique to use, it is unlikely that he would have been able to take advantage of the situation.

The ability of a player to make good decisions is based on a number of factors. They need to be able to take in information and read what is happening in the game. They need to be able to see opportunities and potential threats. They need to be able to choose the best of several options. And they need to have plenty of experience to know what those options are in the first place.

During sport, decisions need to be made quickly – often within a split second. This does not allow a player time to go through a thorough decision making process. In these instances, players will rely on their intuitive decision making skills. Intuition allows players to make an instant decision as they can immediately identify an appropriate option based on the situation that they face. To do this they need to be able to recognise the situation.

 Pattern recognition

Players recognise situations by recognising the pattern that is occurring. This could be the position of certain players, the location of the ball relative to the goal, a combination of passes that has occurred, or a series of actions that have taken place. By recognising the situation the player is able to immediately identify an appropriate action, based on their experience in similar situations. Let’s look at an example from rugby:

skill 6

In the above example Kevin has recognised a pattern (defenders close together leaving space outside) and immediately made a decision based on what has been successful in similar situations in the past (drawing the defender then passing wide). To recognise this pattern Kevin needs to have been exposed to it regularly in the past and have been able to deal with the situation successfully. If he has done this enough times, he will be able to respond appropriately in the game, as he has done in this example.

For players to develop the experience base to be able to read patterns and make correct decisions, they need to be exposed to the same – or similar – situations in training. Static drills like dribbling through cones or hitting a ball back and forth do not help players to improve their decision making, as the players in these activities aren’t making any decisions. They aren’t required to look around and see what is available, and they aren’t required to assess different options. Often, there aren’t any options for them to recognise, so they do not develop the ability to assess what they can do.

Conditioned games and activities are a much better approach for exposing players to a range of situations. Within these games are the cues that players need to look for to recognise patterns. The use of questioning is an important tool to then assist the players to recognise what has occurred and the key elements of the pattern. This approach of setting realistic activities and then questioning players to draw out their understanding is an effective method for developing the decision making skills of your athletes.

Skill is the ability of a player to decide on a course of action and then successfully do it. While they will need technical ability to execute the skill, it is the ability to recognise which technique to use based on the situation that leads to a skilled performance. Using realistic activities that require players to make decisions, while exposing them to the patterns they will face in competition, is an effective method for developing your players’ skill levels.

17 thoughts on “Developing skilled athletes

  1. Thanks for the e mail, great topic and something I’m hoping to deliver around at a coaches clinic in the near future. Would it be possible to use excerpts from your blog in the presentation to explain the processes.,

    Thanks .

    Ian Dipper Safc coach & Dip & Swerve Coaching.

    • Very true – to adequate prepare for competition you need to train how you will play – which means building up to match speed, gradually increasing the load as players adapt in training.

  2. Good afternoon, I just finished my collegiate career as a competitive dancer and I read your blog piece because I am looking into why my coach was so successful and how I can replicate her coaching style while improving it to become a great coach some day. At the beginning of your blog you talked about skill development vs. technique. I completely agree with what you said about how someone can perform the skill in practice but when it comes to the game they aren’t as successful. A great coach would make practice simulations like the game so that players can practice the skills while developing the decision making and pattern recognition at the same time. This is similar in dance because when we practice our technical elements we put them in combinations either going across the floor or in center to help us flow from one move to the next seamlessly. Dancers who just practice skills separate from movement before or after the skill tend to not be successful in performing the skill during a routine. Even when practicing a skill by itself our coach would ask us to do high knees or some sort of cardio movement to make us push for perfect execution even when we are more worn down. When you discussed making decisions quickly during a game can make for a better athlete I completely agree. This can be related to dance in that when we are performing mistakes will happen or props wont work the way you had practiced. Dancers must improvise quickly to hide whatever went wrong and make it look like it was supposed to happen. A dancer wouldn’t be very good if under pressure they froze up and couldn’t make quick decisions. Thank you for this blog because I learned that even though dance isn’t a conventional sport reading coaches blogs can still help me become a better teacher and coach to young dancers.

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