Organising training activities to maximise learning


Organising training activities to maximise learning: Lessons from the science of skill acquisition

Skill acquisition (also known as motor learning) is the sport science discipline focused on the learning and refinement of motor skills. One of the key concerns within skill acquisition is transfer: how well do training activities enhance performance in competitive situations (for an excellent discussion of this concept in relation to relay training, see this recent blog by former GB sprinter Craig Pickering). Due to the complexity of many of the movements within track and field athletics, coaches utilise a wide range of part practice activities (or drills) to develop specific aspects of an athlete’s performance. Within this blog, I will discuss how coaches can organize these training activities to maximise transfer to the whole movement pattern.

Consider running drills (e.g., A skip; B skip; straight leg bounds; etc), which form a staple of training across sprinting, endurance running and all around youth athlete development. While often used for conditioning, these drills may also serve to develop technique if applied appropriately. Indeed, research by Irish sprinter Niamh Whelan found that over 90% of a sample of 209 Irish athletics coaches reported using such drills to develop technique. A knowledge of skill acquisition can assist a coach to maximise the benefit of such drills.

For these drills to efficiently transfer to the whole skill, three features must be present:

  1. The part practice activity must be a reasonably faithful replication of the whole activity OR it must guide the athlete’s attention to the key sensations/feelings associated with performance in the whole activity.
  2. The athlete must be mentally engaged in the activity (i.e., no going through the motions).
  3. The athlete must be able to make the connection between the part practice activity and the whole movement.

Use drills that replicate the whole activity: Returning to the research by Niamh Whelan and colleagues, the Irish coaches surveyed believed that drills should be “specific to the running action and must mimic it closely”. However, several of the drills that they prioritised deviated from this requirement to replicate the whole activity. For example, the heel flick drill was utilised by almost 80% of coaches, despite the activation pattern of the hamstrings during the heel flick drill (primarily during and immediately after toe off to mid-swing phase) being markedly different to the activation of the hamstrings during sprinting (most active from the late swing phase until toe off). For maximum transfer to occur, coaches should focus on those activities that accurately replicate the whole activity.

Organise drills in a way that promotes mental engagement in the activity: A common sight at training sessions is to have lines of athletes performing multiple repetitions of a drill, walking or jogging back to the start after each repetition. Once several repetitions have been completed, the process is repeated for the next drill. While this repetition is useful for novices on their initial exposure to drills, once the athlete is familiar with what they are trying to achieve, the repetition discourages mental engagement in the activity. In the words of Coach Developer Penny Crisfield: “The brain that does the thinking does the learning”. Many developing athletes may require assistance to keep mentally engaged with such repetitive tasks. Mental engagement can come from many sources such as answering coach questions or observing and providing feedback to peers. However, with groups of athletes, the easiest way to promote mental engagement is to add variation. For example, swap drills on each repetition (table 1) or have an athlete switch drills every 10m over a 30m course. Further practical examples of how to randomise the order of drills in sprinting and hurdles can be found in these articles by Berg and Lundin in New Studies in Athletics and by Otte and Zanic in Track Coach.


Table 1. Mixing up the sequence of drills promotes mental engagement and learning

Help athletes to make connections between the part practice activity and the whole movement: Although the A-Skip mimics part of the running action, there is still a substantial difference between this part practice drill and the whole running action. How can a coach help the athlete to make the connection between the feeling of the movement they tune into during the part practice drill and the whole action? Once again, interleaving practice activities can be of considerable assistance to encourage transfer. Rather than completing a block of drills, and then progressing to the running activity, when the focus of the training session is on developing technique coaches can intersperse the drills and running activities to help the athlete carry over the feeling of the movement from the simplified drill to the whole action. For example, an athlete might alternative drills and strides. More advanced athletes might interleave drills, drills gradually transitioning into strides, and full strides. The key consideration for the coach is how to design practice activities that bridge the gap between the part practice activity and the whole action.

Summary: Think about the next session that you have planned where the focus is on developing the athlete’s technique:

  1. Have you planned drills that accurately mimic (part of) the whole action?
  2. Are you organizing your drills in a way that engages the athlete in the activity?
  3. Are you organizing your drills in a way that helps the athlete make the connection between the part practice drill and the whole activity?

Phil Kearney is the Course Leader for the MSc Applied Sports Coaching at the University of Limerick. His teaching and research focuses on the domain of skill acquisition, and in particular on the development of youth track and field athletes. Phil is a co-founder of Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland and a level-2 athletics coach working primarily in the youth participation context. You can find out more about Phil and his work by clicking here to visit his site. Phil can be contacted via email at or on twitter @kearney_phil.

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