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Guidelines for helping athletes develop tactical skills

This is an excerpt from Sport Skill Instruction for Coaches by Craig Wrisberg.

Team Strategy

Depending on your philosophy of coaching, you will have your own opinions as to the best ways to maximize your athletes' chances of success. The team strategy you come up with will depend on the skill level of your athletes and the anticipated strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. Athletes who have a clear understanding of their team's strategy will have a better sense of the kinds of tactical decisions that are consistent with that strategy. A soccer team with slower than average foot speed might have a team strategy that encourages players to maintain closer spacing in order to advance the ball by using shorter passes. If players understand that strategy, they will be less tempted to try long passes their teammates are unable to catch up to.

Variable Factors

Tactical decisions do not occur in a vacuum but are always made within the context of a particular competition. That context usually varies from one competition to the next because of a number of factors, including the quality of the opponent, field conditions, weather conditions, time left in the game, and score differential. In tennis, it is not a good idea to hit lob shots on a windy day because the longer the ball is in the air, the more likely it will be blown out of bounds. Sometimes tactical decisions vary at different times within a single competition. In baseball, as the adage goes, the visiting team should play for the win when it is behind in the ninth inning, while the home team should play for the tie. Presumably, the reason the home team should play more conservatively is because it always bats last. Therefore, if the game goes into extra innings, the home team always has one more chance to tie or win the game should it fall behind.

Helping Your Athletes Develop Their Tactical Skills

It has been said that “experience is knowledge acquired too late.” As a coach you want to do all you can to speed up your athletes' learning of tactical skills rather than wait for them to learn by experience. The best way to do this is by exposing them to information and experiences that will enhance their decision-making capabilities. Pass on to your athletes the rules of the sport, a clear presentation of your own team strategy, an understanding of their individual roles on the team and their individual strengths and weaknesses, an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of opponents, competition-like experiences during practices, and reminders of the keys to success before and during competitions.

Teaching the Rules

Depending on the age and experience level of the athletes you coach, you may need to alert them to certain rules. Football players need to know that a kickoff fielded in the end zone does not have to be advanced. However, if the ball is advanced outside the goal line, it is in play. In addition to the formal rules of the sport, there may be informal rules you need to alert your athletes to before competitions. Wrestlers need to know that a referee might stop the match whenever he sees either wrestler venture outside the circle because the size of the apron is too small for safe combat. To help your athletes gain an understanding of the rules of your sport, you must obviously know the rules yourself as well as which ones your athletes may not be familiar with. Once you know which rules your athletes need to learn, you should both verbally explain them and physically demonstrate them as clearly as possible.

It's a good idea to simulate a situation in which the rule applies and then have several athletes demonstrate what should be done (or avoided) in each case. After your athletes have observed the demonstration and been allowed to ask questions, give them opportunities to experience the rule in competition-like practice situations. In softball and baseball, when there are fewer than two outs, baserunners need to be sure a batted ball contacts the ground before they attempt to advance. Players could strengthen their knowledge of this rule during batting practice by running to first base after they have completed their turn at bat and then gradually advancing around the bases as the subsequent players practice batting. Each time the next batter makes contact with the ball, the runner would wait until she sees it hit the ground before advancing to the next base. If the batted ball were caught on the fly by an infielder, the runner would stay at first base.

Presenting Your Team Strategy

The importance of devising a global strategy that maximizes the strengths of your athletes and minimizes their weaknesses was discussed earlier. Depending on the maturity of the athletes you work with, it is a good idea to obtain feedback from some of your players before sharing your strategy with the entire team. Once you and your team leaders have settled on a strategy you think the team can commit to, it is essential to present that strategy in as clear a fashion as possible and then reinforce it on a regular basis. In this way the strategy becomes your team's “identification badge.” A team strategy might include components such as “swarming on defense” or “patience on offense.” Once you've communicated the strategy to your athletes, remind them of the key ingredients at timely moments during practice sessions, or devise other tangible symbols, such as signs placed in the locker room that they will see on a regular basis. For example, if offensive players are experiencing frustration when running their plays during a football scrimmage, it would be a good time to remind them to “stay patient.” Similarly, signs posted in the locker room that read “Stay patient” or “Victory goes to the team that is patient” can serve as tangible reminders of this strategy.

Clarifying Individual Roles and Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses

Your athletes will have a better idea about the most appropriate tactical decisions they should make during competitions if each has a clear understanding of his or her role on the team and an appreciation of his or her individual strengths and weaknesses. You can clarify these issues in individual meetings between you (or perhaps an assistant coach) and each of your athletes. Be consistent in what you say and what you do by giving each of your athletes a role that conforms to his or her strengths. In addition, you can demonstrate a sincere desire to see your athletes improve by suggesting some ways each might work on specific weaknesses. A basketball player who demonstrates good vertical jumping ability but is not a particularly good shooter might be given a role that primarily involves rebounding and setting picks. Thus, this player's tactical decisions would primarily pertain to the various ways she might achieve effective rebounding position or set effective picks. However, you could also encourage the player to spend some extra time on her shooting and obtain additional coaching assistance to improve that technical skill.

Identifying the Strengths and Weaknesses of Opponents

In some sports it is important for athletes to know something about each of their opponent's strengths and weaknesses. A basketball player would benefit from knowing that the person he will be guarding is left-handed, always likes to drive to his left, and doesn't dribble well with his right hand. In other sports, knowing something about an opponent's tendencies can eliminate some surprises an athlete might otherwise encounter when she faces the opponent in competition. A distance runner who knows that a particular opponent likes to sprint off the start line and take the lead during the first part of the race will be less likely to panic and lose her focus when the opponent does that during a track meet. By gaining knowledge about their opponents' tendencies in various types of situations, your athletes will be better able to anticipate the opponents' actions and prepare their responses in advance.

You can also provide valuable practice experiences by simulating the various actions of opponents and teaching your athletes the best ways to respond in each case. In the example of the basketball player, a left-handed teammate might simulate the moves of the upcoming opponent so that the player who will be guarding the opponent can develop an anticipation of those moves when he encounters them in a game. Similarly, a teammate of the distance runner might serve as a “rabbit” during a simulated race so that the runner can practice resisting the tendency to lose focus and to abandon her own race plan when she encounters an opponent's fast start during a track meet.

Providing Competition-Like Experiences During Practice

As mentioned earlier, a games approach to practicing skills will be discussed in chapter 7. Basically, this approach is grounded in the notion that the best practice experiences place athletes in the kinds of situations they can expect to encounter during actual competitions. In the sport of soccer, for example, the center forwards, wingers, and halfbacks might practice various and random three-on-two scoring opportunities to test the quality of their tactical decisions about when to pass and when to shoot. Of all the ways you might help your athletes develop their tactical skills, using the games approach is the most productive.

Emphasizing the Keys to Success

You can never emphasize the tactical keys to success too much with your athletes. Before each practice and competition, review each of the keys and emphasize again the important components of your team strategy. In addition, encourage your athletes by providing them with positive tactical reminders throughout the course of a competition. You might remind the batter who has struck out during his previous two times at bat because he tried to pull an outside pitch to “just hit the ball where it is pitched.”

Tactical “keys” can pertain to general principles such as the one illustrated in the previous example or to specific decisions that are appropriate for particular situations. Pat Head Summitt, one of the most successful collegiate basketball coaches of the past 30 years, uses time-outs near the end of games to remind each player of her role and of the tactical options she will have during the upcoming possession. By periodically reminding your own athletes of the keys to success, you can greatly facilitate their development of tactical skills. Then when they find themselves in the midst of the most heated competitions, your athletes will be more likely to do what they have been practicing all along.

Creating a Blueprint of Tactical Options

As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” In much the same way, there is no shortcut to the development of tactical skills. Rather, athletes develop those skills by repeatedly encountering tactical situations and doing the things that give them the best opportunity to achieve success. Table 4.1 contains a blueprint for developing specific tactical skills for a distance runner and a basketball team. You should use this type of blueprint or something like it to identify the tactical decisions your athletes will likely face in various competitive situations. Then you should incorporate those situations on a regular basis in your training sessions. Since the tactical options may be different for different athletes depending on their respective strengths and roles on the team, create tactical blueprints for each of your athletes as well as for the team as a whole.

By equipping your athletes with both the technical and tactical skills of your sport, you will enhance their chances of success (i.e., the appropriate and effective execution of technical skills in any and all situations) every time they compete. Notice that the emphasis here is on effective execution, not on winning the game, finishing first in the race, or beating an opponent. When it comes to tactical decisions, the only thing your athletes have control over is the choices they make at any given time. However, if their decisions are based on a clear understanding of the rules of the sport, a knowledge of team strategy, an awareness of their respective roles and capabilities as well as the capabilities of their opponents, and an appreciation of miscellaneous variable factors, they are more likely to make the right decisions.

Learn more about Sport Skill Instruction for Coaches.

More Excerpts From Sport Skill Instruction for Coaches



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