Supercharge your coaching practice


Skill acquisition in hockey and context: A coach development course by Bradley Morland, consultant sports coach. Friday 3 October, 2014

I’ve just attended a coaching development course on skill acquisition and context in learning. It was delivered by Brad Morland, a consultant sports coach and it was brilliant. Here’s a summary of the points he made.

Brad explained that if you really want your players to learn you have to do several things…

  • Avoid ‘block drills’, repeated moves such as pass and follow. Here’s a great video explanation of block v random practice from a company call Train Ugly

  • Try to avoid drills that are in small, coned-off areas – it stops players learning how to move into space and keep out of contact.
  • Make any drills mimic what you’d encounter in a game. Limit unopposed drills whenever possible. Try to put players under pressure. It boosts their decision making.
  • Make drills rich and complex. Use ‘constrained, context-rich practice’. The more a player has to think the more they learn. So make them work out for themselves why it’s better to keep their stick on the ball (because a defender will take it – so put one in there to take it) or receive and move off straight away (because you can get away quicker – so devise a drill where they have to come up with quicker ways to receive and move or they get caught by a defender). Get them to think, think, think and they’ll learn much more.
  • Give everybody outcomes every time – attackers are usually given the outcome that they need to try and score, but even defenders need something they have to achieve in a drill. Try getting defenders to do a task such as hitting the ball back to the coach if they get it or hitting it off the side aiming for a cone. Don’t put defenders in a drill with nothing to do but try and tackle or shadow. Everybody needs an objective in every drill.
  • Stop shouting instructions ‘play it wide, keep the ball on your stick’ – research reveals this approach doesn’t work. Less is more.
  • Don’t look for immediate success. Using coaching that matches game play takes longer to see results but is more effective in the long term.

Brad recommended this website for more information about coaching in this style Teaching games for understanding

BAD Say no to block practice – passing a ball between two players, pass and follow drills

Brad is a specialist in looking at how players learn motor skills. He started by telling us about the common ‘blocked practice’. This is something you see all the time in coaching and it’s where you repeat a skill, often using cones or just one or two players and it’s nothing like what you would find in a game. For example, passing the ball between two players, pass and move along cones before shooting (yes, I know how often do we use that one in coaching!), two v one type set ups inside a block of cones.

This type of block practice only works for absolute beginners – only at that point when somebody is learning a skill from scratch. It can be good for confidence but it ‘infers no skill transfer – all you are getting good at is practice” he explained.

That’s worth repeating – all you are getting good at is that practice. So all you are getting good at is an unopposed push pass 10 yards from a partner.

Never repeat moves over and over again. Studies show that random practice is much better than drilling push passes or slap hits over and over and over again.

He said learning is retained well but immediately drops off and next week you will have virtually forgotten everything. Indeed, this type of practice is so ineffective that Brad doesn’t even use it with beginners now.

So avoid anything that has the following …

  • No opponents
  • Is repeated over and over again
  • Has predetermined outcomes

BETTER Random practice – just playing a match

At the other end of the learning spectrum is uncontrolled  ‘random practice’ – this is the sort of uncontrolled practice that you get when you are playing a match. Brad suggests that this is so far on the extreme spectrum of random practice that what you can learn playing a match is limited in comparison with what you can learn when it’s more controlled at coaching sessions. But it’s probably better than block practice as at least it mirrors a game situation.

BEST Random practice with controlled condition – match like practice with conditions

However, by far the best way to learn is by using controlled game-play practice that mirrors match conditions but has constraints so it’s not as random as your Saturday fixture.

This has better retention when learning a new skills – but you might not learn as quickly, Brad explained.

“You might not see a difference at the end of the session. There is a delayed learning effect but you’ll eventually see more learning in the long term. There is a better transference of skills,” he said.

Apparently, it’s all about getting the learner to think through it all themselves rather than being told what they need to do. If you engage their brain and they work it out themselves it’s more likely to stick.

Make the learner think for themselves

It’s counter intuitive, he said, but also the more complex you make the situation and the more you add in the more they will learn. He called this ‘contextual interference’. Add more in and the learned will have to compare and contrast and think it through and consequently they retain more.

“By adding more context – add more in – and you learn more. It’s counter intuitive but a well known learning effect called Elaboration Theory,” said Brad.

The learner has to mentally break down and rebuild everything they already know. When they are doing multiple skills they have to go back to their non immediate memory and reconstruct. This leads to cognitive reconstruction which helps you better learn motor skills.

“The best coaching helps a player learn a skill in the context of game play. Try and couple their action with a thought process,” said Brad.

So how does this work in coaching practice? He gave the example of under-16 girls ball carrying and then doing a horrible pass – lifting their ball off the stick rather than keeping it on the stick.

He suggested that if you shout at them to keep the ball on the stick it will have no effect. However, if you come up with a drill where a defender will take the ball of them if they do a horrible pass where the ball comes off the stick they will learn better. They will work out for themselves that the only way to stop the defender taking the ball is to keep it on their stick.

This is called PERCEPTION – ACTION COUPLING, or understanding the skill you are acquiring within the context of the game.

Stop shouting at your players – less is more

Brad urged us to stop shouting instructions at players we are coaching. This was a big learning point for me as I realised I shout a lot at my under-12 girls on a Sunday morning. ‘Play it wide, don’t clear it across your goal, pass, keep the ball on your stick.’ But not any more!

‘You are wasting your time shouting,” said Brad. ‘Studies show if you limit shouting, or what’s officially called ‘augmented feedback’ and players will learn quicker. They have to work it out for themselves. Less is more,” he said.

You can still give positive feedback – as long as you explain what it is they are doing well.

“By removing some of the augmented feedback, however, there appears to be an advantageous effect on retention and transfer skills. The removal of the feedback is assumed to make the task more difficult by forcing the performer to use their own cognition and intrinsic sensory feedback system to decide if the skill is being practised appropriately,” wrote Brad, on the powerpoint that accompanied the presentation.

In other words, stop shouting instructions and your players will have to think for themselves – and this makes them learn better.

Defenders – give them an outcome task

Often defenders get forgotten in coaching. They might as well be cones and don’t have much to do. But defenders need outcomes, said Brad. Give them consequences – they have to get the ball back to the coach or a team mate – or hit it off the side at a designated point. Or if the defender gets it they win a point and then have to pass it back to the other team.

Using cones

Brad didn’t seem that keen on cones. ‘If I played against cones I’d be playing for England,’ he joked. He talked about setting up cone boxes to constrain play and wasn’t keen. These are called ‘tackle boxes’ where you mark out a square for players to operate in and they have to stay inside.

The challenge with is apparently, is that it doesn’t encourage players to move into space and avoid contact. If you use a tackle box make it big or don’t use one at all.


Next, we had to get into groups and design our own coaching drill using the points he had taught us. My group had to teach a post-up and on the move ball receipt. We came up with a drill in the attacking 25 that matched game play around the D – with a white cone goal on the sideline for the defenders to aim at if they intercepted the ball. It was tough to come up with something quickly and ours was just about okay. But my learning point was that this type of coaching requires lots of pre-planning rather than just a few drills with cones. But it will be worth it in the end as players will learn more – much, much more.

The course was organised by Active Norfolk.


Academic References from Brad Morland’s presentation

  • Anderson, D.A., Magill, R.A., Sekiya, H. and Ryan, G. (2005) ‘Support for an explanation of theguidance effect in motor skill learning’, Journal of Motor Behavior, 37(3), pp. 231-238.
  • Bertollo, M., Berchicci, M., Carraro, A., Comani, S. and Robazza, C. (2010) ‘Blocked and random practice organization in the learning of rhythmic dance step sequences’, Perceptual Motor Skills, 110(1), pp. 77-84.
  • Boutin, A. and Blandin, Y. (2010b) ‘On the cognitive processes underlying contextual interference: Contributions of practice schedule, task similarity and amount of practice’, Human Movement Science, 29(6), pp. 910-920.
  • Lee, T.D. and Magill, R.A. (1983) ‘The Locus of Contextual Interference in Motor-Skill Acquisition’, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 9(4), pp. 730-746.
    Magill, R.A. (2007) Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications. 8th edn. London: McGraw-Hill.
  • Shea, J.B. and Morgan, R. (1979) ‘Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5(2), pp. 179-187.
  • Williams, M.A. and Hodges, N. (2005) ‘Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition’, Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(6), pp. 637-650.
  • Wu, W.F.W., Young, D.E, Schandler, S.L., Meir, G., Judy, R.L.M., Perez, J. and Cohen, M.J. (2011) ‘Contextual interference and augmented feedback: Is there an additive effect for motor learning?’, Human Movement Science, 30(6), pp. 1092-1101.
  • Wulf, G. (1991) ‘The effect of type of practice on motor learning in children’, Applied Cognition.

Bradley Morland

Brad has worked for many years in the sports industry, originally as a Sports Development Officer before going on to teach PE in secondary school. He has studied Sports Science at undergraduate and masters level and is a researcher at the University of East London. Brad is a consultant coach, working with individuals and teams on elements of sports training and conditioning across a range of sports. He has been coaching hockey for over 20 years at all levels from club 1st XI to junior club teams and has developed and led hockey programmes in both the state and independent school sectors. Brad is an EHB Centrally Contracted Coach with experience of the Single System at all levels


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