The coach's role in creating a deliberate practice environment

Deliberate practice is one of the key elements of sport talent development. The notion that 'practice makes perfect' has been around a while but Benjamin Bloom's 1985 study called the Development of Talent highlighted a special kind of practice called deliberate practice. Practicing deliberately involves four components:

  1. Motivation - The athlete must want to improve. This takes effort that involves both physical and mental energy.
  2. Understanding - The athlete must understand why he is practicing and how the skills he possesses and the new skills he is practicing are integrated both with each other and into the context of the sport.
  3. Master coaching - Feedback from a master coach is important in the deliberate practice loop. Without information about the quality or accuracy of practice the athlete will not be practicing skills correctly.
  4. Repetition - Developing excellence takes time and whether it is the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice discussed in popular media or something different, correct repetition of skills is part of deliberate practice. For many sport skills automaticity of performance is important and this can only be achieved through many practice repetitions.

The coach's role

The coach has a pivotal role to play in helping athletes engage in deliberate practice. Aside from the obvious task of providing appropriate feedback, the coach of an individual or team sport has the additional role of igniting the athlete's passion for the activity. Coyle outlines three stages of talent creation in The Talent Code with ignition of passion for the activity being the first one.

The examples Coyle provides have little applicability to organized sport: Skateboarders who form an unlikely group guided by an almost Obiwan Kenobi character, tennis players that excel in the most unlikely of circumstances, and underprivileged footballers in Brazil who have no proper training facility but yet who all achieve a level of expertise no one would expect. Ignition has somehow taken place in all of these examples or else none of the athletes in Coyle's book would have been interested in deliberate practice. This is the key point of talent development. Deliberate practice, the second of Coyle's three stages, cannot or will not take place unless a passion for the activity has first been ignited.

At the youth level most youngsters begin their sport participation in some sort of organized team or league. They join for various reasons; they like the activity, they want to play with their friends, parents sign them up. It's not a certainty but it is probably safe to say that most children do not register for youth sport programs because they are passionate about the sport, that comes later and the responsibility for helping to develop this passion falls to the coach.

Young athletes cannot be expected to know or even care about the elements of deliberate practice. At the early stages of their youth sport participation the joy and enthusiasm that may spark the eventual ignition of passion for an activity has to be provided by the coach. Creating a genuinely fun atmosphere, devising challenges that keep youngsters attention on skills and strategies, and exhibiting a real interest in each youngster both as a person and athlete will keep kids coming back to practice often. This is the environment that ignition, if it is to occur at all, will most likely spring from in organized youth sport.

A youth sport coach should also encourage participation in a number of activities, thus taking advantage of cross-domain benefits while still performing deliberate practice. The coach should recognize that cross-domain participation is essential if problems associated with early single-sport specialization such as overuse injuries and boredom are to be avoided.

Finally, a coach should understand the relationship between ignition and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice needs to be an ongoing endeavor and unless the young athlete has a passion for the sport the quality of the practice they engage in will not be sufficient to be called deliberate. Also, since most practice sessions at the youth sport stage are coach-directed the coach needs to do all he can to create practice routines that challenge youngsters both mentally and physically while always aware that the activities have to be fun.

Deliberate practice cannot be required at the early stages of a youngster's sport participation; creating situations that encourage deliberate practice mindsets are the coach's responsibility. Likewise, long-term deliberate practice will not occur without ignition and although the coach can't force this to happen he can help to create the environment where it becomes possible.