Coaching: Developing decision-making skills crucial for nurturing children’s potential

Psychology is arguably the most fascinating element of all sporting codes nowadays, writes Peter McNamara.

Watching the documentary ‘Henry Shefflin: Winning’ on RTÉ One on Monday allowed people to appreciate the psychology of successful sports personnel.

These individuals also tend to be extremely productive decision-makers.

The brains behind the renowned ‘Teaching Games for Understanding Coaching Model’, Rod Thorpe, gave an insightful presentation on ‘Developing Decision-Makers and Teamship’ at a previous Gaelic Games Development Conference at Croke Park.

Rod Thorpe is one of the well-known coach educators.

Qualified as a Physical Education teacher in 1964, Thorpe spent four years at the profession before going on to Loughborough University in Leicestershire where he began to develop the ‘Teaching Games for Understanding Coaching Model’ in the late seventies which he and his colleagues completed in 1982.

The concept of this development was to emphasise the advantages of making decision-making and tactical awareness the focus for games lessons in Physical Education.

The reasoning behind this development was that Thorpe found that as physical educators, they were failing to meet the intrinsic interests and intrinsic motivation of individuals they were coaching.

And due to this they were failing less and more competent players as their coaching methods were lacking the element of perception and decision-making for participants of differing skill levels.

Intrinsic motivation has three key components: affiliation, competence and sensation.

Players need to build friendships with their teammates to satisfy the affiliation aspect, be able to consciously say for themselves that they can do or achieve something and feel the sensations of excitement, nervousness, tiredness or other types of emotions associated with participation.

Rod Thorpe

According to Thorpe we have developed very efficient methods to improve the ‘machine’ via technical analysis, conditioning and nutrition.

As these elements become efficient it highlights that a win or loss becomes increasingly dependent on the decisions made.

Thorpe recognised that productive decision-makers are made from a young age but the best way to develop shrewd decision-makers was based primarily on their ability to play games and learn, over time, from their own mistakes.

Thorpe believes coaches are too quick to give players the solution to every problem they face in game situations pointing out that he became a decent soccer player and never had a coaching lesson at a young age.

Instead he kicked a ball against his garage door with friends and visualised scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final.

Kids, as a rule, he says, learn more from observing games than listening to coaches.

He would encourage, for example, that if you have 12 individuals to coach, play games of four versus four but let the other four players observe.

While they are doing this ask them questions about what should be going on in the game in front of them and how they would integrate these ideas into their own plays, thus encouraging individuals to think for themselves.

In 1992 Thorpe wrote ‘PlaySport’, a report he handed over to the Aussies and Kiwis while observing coaching methods in their countries that suggested their methods were not productive enough from a game-specific point of view.

Thorpe suggested they play no single modified game but a series of progressive games.

So Thorpe developed the ‘Teaching Games for Understanding Coaching Model’.

This model consists of a warm-up, starting with a game, game-appreciation, tactical awareness, decision-making, skill which is individually determined and performance.

In game-appreciation, Thorpe says that simple games allow the development of basic concepts and terminology enabling players to understand the code better.

He used the example of playing ‘piggy in the middle’ and how certain constraints on how the game is played improves decision-making as individuals have to think on their feet.

And when you challenge your players by putting certain constraints on exercises, ask them to show you the solution to the problem.

As regards tactical awareness, Thorpe firmly believes that this takes time to evolve because while you are asking them to think you must also appreciate that they may have “limited learning capacity”.

People have limited concentration channels so filling their heads with too much information will have a negative impact on their overall performance.

Despite the brain being extremely clever, it is also quite slow.

On the concept of decision-making within the model, Thorpe first explains how perception of our environment is relevant to improving decision-makers as his ‘perception action coupling’ theory applies to elite players in an individual sport as decisions at those levels need to be almost autonomous or reflexive.

You can then link this to a skill and ask a player how they carry out a certain play in a game and how often they rehearse it.

Thorpe says that particularly in Gaelic games is ‘perception action coupling’ relevant “as players need to get their heads up” and assess the picture before them.

However, the problem Thorpe found is that there is not enough time given to developing good decision-makers whose perception of situations allows their skill to still shine through.

He says that as a coach it is sometimes intelligent to step back and allow the kids figure out the problem for themselves and try not to organise too much.

He highlights kids’ games such as ‘Mr Wolf’ and ‘TAG’ that are forgotten kids’ games but that improve perception and decision-making immeasurably.

Thorpe is of the opinion that too many coaches looking after kids from the ages of 12-16 concentrate excessively on winning when the emphasis needs to be on skill development.

He poses the question as to why Spain in soccer, New Zealand in rugby and the United States in basketball are all considered to be at the top of their disciplines?

This is so as these countries have kids playing those disciplines ‘playfully’ from a young age.

“For me, at the top level particularly, it is all about working on decision-making all of the time. It is absolutely crucial,” Thorpe explained. “One decision made can be the difference between them, a team really succeeding or missing out on success.”

As we saw throughout the Shefflin-presented documentary elite sports people, while illustrating examples of their successes and failures, indirectly explained how pre- or in-game decisions led to such occurrences.

Sonia O’Sullivan

The likes of Paul O’Connell, Sonia O’Sullivan and Shane Lowry discussed their experiences and the psychology behind each of their respective stories.

Each of the three, you will find, are extremely competent decision-makers.

However, their capacity to make and execute those decisions is an attribute they would have developed at a young age.

Coaches should, therefore, be conscious of Thorpe’s sentiments as they seek to nurture talent at the developmental phase.

This is the first in a three-part series - part two out tomorrow.

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