"Excellence demands effort and planned, deliberate practice of increasing difficulty." - Anders Ericsson

Woven through the seemingly endless onslaught of gloom and mounting stress in recent weeks have been golden threads solidarity and common purpose. 

Ireland is littered with instances of sacrifice at the moment, most notably through students and retirees volunteering to work on the health provision front line to face down the imminent threat.

For those of us simply enduring the discomfort of confinement and entertaining smaller but more energetic people, we need look no further than the GAA for example. Club networks across the island have been first to organise support services for the vulnerable in our communities and our icons have been prominent in reinforcing health guidelines to add credibility to the message.

A spirit of solidarity amidst collective hardship has shone through and the race to be useful and create meaningful content online has been impressive. Of course, not everything we consume digitally has to be socially impactful.

Skillz

Although we're probably creeping towards the end of tolerance with it, social distancing has created an online library of skill or trick execution – and one upmanship – that captured the imaginations of young and old. 

The depth of Mickey Quinn’s repertoire and the artistry of Ciarán Lyng should probably be acknowledged before we call a halt.

This wave of audacious tricks has brought with it a great tsunami of people getting into the garden or field with a ball to have a go and think differently about their skills and abilities. 

Social media does indeed wield serious influence amongst our young people and witnessing a positive national craze related to Gaelic Games was a notch on the isolation belt.

Of course, when the novelty has worn off – particularly for anyone with a coaching mind – thoughts begin to focus on what opportunities are presented by the extended period of leisure time many players now have to utilise while in isolation.

At this point most of us refuse to consider the possibility that sporting activity won’t return in some form over the next few months. And so, considering how to use the time well to develop their game should preoccupy players.

In many ways, skills are the most difficult aspect of an athlete to develop in isolation. Conditioning, nutrition, etc. can be measured and prescribed for very specifically. 

After all, these are elements of a player’s preparation that support their ability to play the game. Match skills – including decision making – are more fundamental to any player’s performance.

Supported by coaches, players waiting to return to any type of competitive level of games should be fixated on skills development and how to at the very least maintain standards.

Deliberate Practice

The mindless repetition of a skill, however fun or novel, loses its impact very early in the Go Games phase of development. For any competitive athlete, creating an environment to practice skills that requires concentration and urgency is the only way to improve.

Even the closed skills of free taking derive limited benefit from self pacing and repetitive parameters. Skills practice at any serious level must be done at pace and must have some element of unpredictability to the execution, the outcome or both.

In isolation – which isn’t that unusual with skills work – the player’s mind can be a massive tool to generate match like conditions. An opponent is closing in, an imminent block forces you left or right, time is of the essence, etc. are all factors that the use of visualisation can be powerful for deriving the maximum benefit from practice.

The Theory of Practice

In 1993 the acknowledged father of "Deliberate Practice Theory" Anders Ericsson set out that effective learning occurs when activities meet the following parameters:

  • Well defined
  • Appropriate level of difficulty
  • Receives useful, technical feedback
  • Opportunity for repetition and correction

Building skills practice that meet these criteria is to empower the player to "practice deliberately". 

Without this approach, practice for most players becomes an exclusively physical endeavour with minimal benefit to their preparation for match conditions.

Designing skills sessions of sufficient difficulty to enable players to practice is straight forward. Coaching the mindset that deliberate practice requires is also easily achieved. The challenge top level coaches face now, with player isolation, is in the area of useful feedback.

Coaching priorities

Without much of a leap, it is easy to imagine at county level that most conditioning coaches will be studying training footage from individual home gym sessions over the next couple of months. Technique feedback and progressions will be returned in an effort to nudge progress forward.

Would anyone be as confident that skills practice will be similarly captured and analysed for feedback? Does it even happen within skills and games practice at team training sessions?

Frequently, it is assumed that a player’s skill execution hits a ceiling at a certain point and therefore further development isn’t achievable. In Gaelic Football that is at county level.

The reality is that every player can push their capabilities within skill execution. Players close to the top of their game should be reaching for mastery with their skill execution to build a platform for excellence in performance.

That can only be achieved with the support of excellent technical coaching.

Séan O’Shea, Shane Walsh and Michael Murphy have not achieved the standards of kicking off both sides they possess independently. Throughout their development they will have been corrected and coached on greater technical proficiency. 

It would have started with bringing competence to their weaker side and continued to develop through trial, error and adjustment.

The level of mastery all three possess are a result not only of their own passion and persistence but also because of the technical coaching that nudged them steadily forward.

Surpassing the Best

The same principles of deliberate practice apply and are arguably more important at the more unstable phases of player development, when kids are learning game. Often coaches skip past the technical breakdown of skills and so leave behind the tools they need to help young players in their care.

As younger players become technically proficient with their movement, handling and distribution they need coaches to plant the seeds of deliberate practice to continue progress. Attacking the ball, avoiding contact and building the speed of passing are mental components that every player requires mentoring with.

The abilities of O’Shea, Walsh and Murphy are not accidents of circumstance; their skill levels under pressure are phenomenal but they can be imitated and surpassed through deliberate practice.