Technique: Skill Learning – Motor Control

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

Another major area of expertise of a good coach is an understanding of the usual sequence for learning tennis skills.  This knowledge allows coaches to put together a thoughtful sequence of experiences commonly called a learning progression. Instruction and practice then become most effective because players develop skills when they are most ready to accomplish them and benefit from them.   Much of the art of teaching and coaching is the use of communication and motivation to get players to focus on these intermediate steps to success and not pursue inappropriate skills or short-term results. Listen to your players and know exactly what their playing goals are so you can determine the right mix of practice and conditioning for them.

A player who is learning a new skill goes through three stages of learning before she or he masters the skill:

  • Beginning
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

Knowing these stages will help you in planning players’ instruction.


BEGINNING STAGE

In the beginning stage of skill learning, your athletes will need to do three things:

  • Recognize previously learned movement patterns that can be used with the new skill
  • Learn the new movement patterns required to perform the new skill
  • Integrate and arrange the previously learned and new patterns into the proper sequence of movements for the new skill

To help them do this, verbally introduce the skill, explain and demonstrate the skill, and help them perform the skill well enough to start practicing it. (See Competency One for more on how to explain and demonstrate skills.) The introduction and demonstration should help them construct a motor program, a mental representation of how to perform the skill. This program is a sequence of general instructions that athletes’ nervous and muscular systems carry out to perform a skill. They will need to practice and revise the program based on feedback from themselves and from you until it is more efficient.


INTERMEDIATE STAGE


During this stage, players practice the skill. However, if that practice is to be effective, the players must

  • be motivated to learn,
  • attend to relevant cues or strategy,
  • receive instructional feedback on performance, and
  • receive reinforcement from you or others.

See Competency One for more on feedback and reinforcement.

Players need a lot of feedback from you at the beginning of this stage, as they may not yet have a good perception of what the skill should feel like when it is performed properly. As their performance improves, they will develop a better feel for correct performance and will not require as much feedback.

As athletes practice and progress, the following changes should occur in their performance:

  • Improved accuracy
  • Increased consistency
  • Decreased energy expenditure
  • Increased speed and improved timing
  • Increased anticipation/increased automation
  • Decreased self-talk
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Improved motor programs
  • Increased use of relevant motor abilities (such as eye-hand coordination, balance, or power)

This stage is complete when the athlete can perform the skill accurately and consistently.


ADVANCED STAGE


Once athletes arrive at this stage, they understand how to perform the skill and are confident about their ability to do so. Further improvement on the skill, though, may be more difficult to achieve. Athletes sometimes lose their motivation to keep trying at this point, partly because they may feel they have already mastered the skill and partly because practice doesn’t yield as much change in performance as it did during the intermediate stage. It becomes more difficult to pinpoint errors and takes more time to make the changes necessary to eliminate those errors.

You can help by motivating athletes to continue trying. Reward players for making a consistent effort, and point out the long-term payoff for improving the skill. 

 
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