Learning technique in sports games: Teacher, leave us kids alone?


sports technique


Technique in sports games is a way to act efficiently, flexibly and reliably to achieve the desired result.

Written by Peter Joffe.


You may admire Messi’s creativity and technique but appreciate Ronaldo’s physicality.
So, what if Messi’s brain is transplanted into Ronaldo’s body?

This person would have all the knowledge of football skills that Messi possessed but would not have a Messi body that could implement them in Messi’s way. And it’s not just that “tool” is different. By the way, Ronaldo’s body is a very good tool. However, different body proportions, musculoskeletal properties, vision, hearing, proprioceptors, etc. will radically change Messi’s interaction with the world and his thinking. He will no longer be Messi.

At the same time, Ronaldo’s body will no longer make this player Ronaldo. He now has a Messi brain, the wiring of which were developed based on Messi’s genome and experience. That can hardly be reversed.
So we put the “ideal” brain into the “ideal” body. Will our creation be a better footballer than his donors? Hardly.

Each person is special in terms of the brain, body and environment in which he/she operates. The interaction between these three components creates a dynamic system. If we learn to appreciate the uniqueness of this system, we will have a chance to grow a harmonious athlete. However, if we impose some idealised sports technique (even one as perfect as Messi’s) on an unsuitable body (even as perfect as Ronaldo), it will be a disaster. That should be reflected in coaching.

The main questions.


Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.

Johan Cruyff.

You know, at the age of 12, I could juggle the ball 1000 times. Perhaps I can do it now, although I will most likely be bored. However, at the time, I was obsessed with numbers. Now I probably agree with the great Johan Cruyff that I could spend time better.

How exactly?
That is the main question of this article: How we should teach the technique to kids?

To answer it we will try to learn about:

What is sports technique?

Learning, training and teaching: what is the difference?

What are principle approaches to teaching sports techniques?


What is sports technique?


If there is some ideal technique in the game revealed to us by the First Teacher than I want to ask a question: Who taught that Teacher?


The technique doesn’t say anything about the capacity of Sportsman to realise it in the actual movement. It just tells us in what way the movement should be done to effectively tackle a given motor task” (sportzyogi.com) .

That may be an example of widespread thinking, but who said how “it should be done”?

Well, there are sports where technique is the goal itself.
For example, in gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, “they” —the people who run these sports — tell you how to perform technical elements. They came up with criteria and they judge athletes by them.
These sports are technique-centred.


Technique in contact and interceptive sport games.


These sports have a constantly changing environment, time pressure and direct or indirect pressure from the opponent. The goal in sports games is to score. It does not matter how you do that—just score.

The technique in these sports is the means for achieving the goal.

Consequently, in contact and interceptive sports games:

The technique is a way of acting to achieve the desired outcome efficiently (energetically, timely and tactically), flexible (adjusted to circumstances) and consistently (reliable).

Great examples:

Messi and Cruyff videos.

They do not waste their energy (minimum touches and minimum changes in movement), time ( no slow-downs), and perhaps it was the best tactical solution in current circumstances.


What came first technique or game?


Well, unlike egg and hen dilemma, here we can say that a game came first.

While some game-like movements may have existed before the dawn of the game (for example, humans may have thrown the ball into the basket before basketball was invented), only the game creates the environment and sets clear goals for technique development.
This point is important because it implies that no one provided us with the ideal technique when the game was born. Sometimes you can trace the “fathers” of games (for example, James Naismith in basketball), but then the technique goes its own way.


So how technique developed and is still developing?


First of all, development goes through natural evolution. With practice, people find more and more efficient way to complete a task.

Mimicking stars also facilitate the acquisition of a new technique. Often, stars “legalise” technique, makes it known to a wide audience; not necessary to invent it. Examples: Zidane feint, Cruyff turn.

New equipment (e.g. rackets in tennis, boots in football) promotes development as well.

And finally, a new environment: the physicality and speed of the game, new rules, and tactical trends require changes in technique.

Therefore, there is no some kind of ideal technique that was established once and for all. What is considered ideal today may be thrown away tomorrow.


Why there is no suit-for-all technique?


Movements in sports have quite complicated organisation. Usually, they are multi-joint actions with multiple degrees of freedom. Multiple muscles guide these movements with changeable tensions. Every human is built differently. So optimal technique is unique for every player and, in fact, for every situation. Nevertheless, some general, “objective”, rules still exist. They are predetermined by physical laws and the nature of the game.
Examples: “Brushing” the ball in tennis to make a top-spin. Setting the torso horizontally to hit side-volley in football.


Does the technique always involve explicit knowledge?


Can players always explain how they act?
Of course not. Moreover, sometimes this knowledge can be harmful (see article).

There is a big difference between knowing “how”, which means the ability to act in practice, and knowing “that”—having theoretical knowledge of the technique. Therefore, very often, good players with remarkable skills cannot remember how they learned this and find it difficult to explain why they choose this or that technical solution in the game.

So how people acquire techniques in sports games?
This process includes learning, teaching and training.
Even though we always consider these concepts as integral attributes of human culture, surprisingly, we can find some examples in the animal kingdom.


Do animals learn, teach and train?


We always admire how animals act. Their movements are graceful, fluid and efficient. If their actions can be called “technique”, this technique is perfect. How do they achieve that?
If some specific way of skills acquisition exists in animals, it is definitely worth considering because it passed many years of natural selection.


Learning and teaching in animals.


Though a genome rigidly predetermines some animal’s skills, for many species, genomic instructions are only scaffolding upon which important skills are built during a lifetime. They get these skills in an environment where they live (Zador, A. M. (2019).

Therefore learning is a process of getting new skills through interaction with the environment.

On the other hand, teaching is a specific way of learning, and it requires a more experienced and knowledgeable being — a teacher.

Teaching is supervised, guided, and facilitated learning.

It is important to note that not every interaction between experienced and unexperienced animals is teaching even if youngsters learn something from this interaction.

“In animal world teaching is a situation when “teacher” changes its behaviour in the presence of the “student” with the cost for itself or at least without immediate benefit” (Caro, T.M. and Hauser, M.D., 1992) . Therefore, when gorilla silverback chases youngsters “teaching them a lesson of subordination”, it is not actually teaching because he is doing that for his own sake. The same is true when a chimpanzee pulls ants out of a hollow with a stick in the presence of a younger ape. She doesn’t teach him; she is simply enjoying the ants; however, he can learn by imitating her if the youth is smart enough.

An example of training would be when a cheetah brings alive and mobile prey to its cubs so that they can learn to catch and kill it . This behaviour has no immediate benefits ( it would be more simple for the cheetah to finish off prey by herself) and may be costly (quite often, the prey takes its chances to escape). However, the cheetah is taking risks for the long-term survival of her family.

Interestingly, the more diverse learning (acquiring more complex and various skills) may indicate higher cognitive abilities. However the presence of teaching is not. Even some ants species have elements of teaching (Thornton, A. and Raihani, N.J., 2008).
So teaching is not a characteristic of higher evolutionary development. It is implemented only if the long-term benefits overweight the current cost.


Difference between animals skills and sport.


Skills that animals learn are just one step away from their genetically predetermined abilities. This step must be done because learning is a necessary component of survival.
Thus natural selection “promotes” learning and, in some instances, teaching.

Most of the sports game’s actions are further away from our innate skills. They may be overcomplicated with objects (ball, racket, hockey- stick, puck), teams tactics, special rules, etc.
For humans, sports is not their necessary need. Even introduced to sports environment, not everyone wants or can learn sports. People have other things to do, and different ways to be successful in life.
Therefore there is no natural selection towards better footballers or basketball players. And our sports skills are not so deeply and naturally embodied in us like animal’s skills imprinted in them.

On the other hand, our learning and teaching may be more flexible and comprehensive. For example, we can consider how actually learning is going on and adjust the process accordingly. In the animal’s world, it is rare.

Moreover, for acquiring motor skills in sports, humans have training.
Animals compete with each other, but they do not train to win.
For example, if a younger male wants to challenge a leader in a group of chimpanzees, he does not start doing push-ups and crunches, practice hooks and uppercuts to be better in the fight.

Training in sports is a repetitive and deliberate practice to improve specific skills.

It is possible with and without a teacher.
We train to be better. We can see areas where we lag behind and to train that.
That is our great evolutionary advantage.

So, we can conclude from all the above that:
Learning can go quite effectively through natural interaction with the environment. Teaching is not a necessary component of learning.
Sports environment is not natural and should be created. Moreover, guidance perhaps is more in demand in sports than it is in the animal world.
Both humans and animals can learn. Both can teach. Only we can train.


Different approaches to learning.


 Linear learning.


“Traditional teacher-centred methods of teaching and coaching assume a gradual, linear process of learning, with teaching methods often characterised by blocked practice drills with augmented teacher instruction and feedback designed to help students develop sound technique or idealised motor patterns” (Renshaw, I. and Moy, B., 2018).

“Historically, the coaching process in sports has emphasised traditional sports pedagogy. Learning has been understood as a linear process supported by the use of analytical and decontextualised exercises, i.e. training exercises that intend to stimulate an ‘ideal’ movement pattern prescribed by a coach to solve a specific task without respect real game situations” (Galatti, L.R., Machado, J.C., Motta, M.D.C., Misuta, M.S. and Belli, T., 2019).

To be honest, I don’t like the word “traditional” because many different approaches have been developed over the years of coaching practice, including brilliant innovative ideas and methods.
Let’s better stick to definitions “linear” and “teacher-centred”.

“Do as I do or as I told you to do”.

In linear pedagogy, repetition is the “mother of learning”. The student must bring an element to perfection, often under the same conditions, before moving on to the next stage.
Perhaps this method is justifiable in technique-centred sports.

Trainers are provided with methodological instructions with a detailed description of the training process. The linear method assumes that the same input (for example, exercise) produces the same result (motor skills) regardless of the student’s personality.
Learning methods basically are the same for everybody because they lead to an ideal technique.

In reality, of course, practice shows that output is different, and everyone has a different acquisition level. However, linear pedagogy tends to blame a student for his laziness or absence of talent or teacher for the inappropriately used method and inability to motivate, but never questioned the method itself.


Nonlinear learning.


Nonlinear learning is based on Ecological Dynamics theories (Woods, C.T., McKeown, I., Rothwell, M., Araújo, D., Robertson, S. and Davids, K., 2020).

Nonlinear learning implies that the same exercise may influence learners differently. Moreover, skills acquisition must not necessary go up gradually, and stochastic fluctuations in learning are quite normal.

The nonlinear learner gets skills by solving the game’s problems. It can be done with the teacher’s help or without a teacher at all. Usually, nonlinear methods prefer to simplify movement rather than separate it on elements, and the teacher does not give step-by-step instructions. Nevertheless, they do not exclude guidance and drills (Chow, J.Y., 2013).

Still, the main point is that learner-environment interaction is in the centre. Students acquire skills without the need to fit some idealised pattern. How good your technique  will be checked, shaped, and corrected in dealing with real-world situations. Therefore nonlinear learning favours representative exercises, which make sense for the real game (Correia, V., Carvalho, J., Araújo, D., Pereira, E. and Davids, K., 2019).


Three examples of nonlinear methods.


1. Do not teach them at all ( street games, imitation, social learning).

That probably is the embodiment of nonlinear learning.
I can call it “natural”.
In the animal’s example, we can see that learning is possible without teaching. It is enough just to be and act in the environment.
Is it possible in sport?

You know, I think, yes, it is possible to a significant extent.
Great footballers Pele, Garrincha, Maradona, Messi, Cruyff, may be an example. They grew up in great football cultures and already had robust skills at a young age. Of course, we cannot say for sure that nobody taught them at all. For example, Pele and Messi had fathers-footballers. Still, they learned a lot in informal games and unstructured practice and came to the sports clubs already technically well-prepared.

Another great example is the street basketball culture in America which naturally produces very skilful players. Here is a good film to watch about it.

Some may argue that there are technically unique games, like, for example, tennis, where it is impossible to learn without teaching.
I am not convinced. Rather it happened, that tennis does not have a street culture. If it had? Is tennis more technically difficult than, let’s say, ice-hockey?

For example, a friend of mine got excellent ice-hockey skills playing on backyard skate-rings in Russia without any coaching.
Ice skating itself is a pretty tricky skill. Also, you need to be good with a hockey stick and navigate in a very rapidly changing tactical situation. So this is a really hard game. However, during years of the cult of ice-hockey in Russia, many world-class stars grew up in these back-yard skate-rings.

It is necessary to note that the natural, non-coaching approach does not exclude training.
Backyarders do not only play the “main” game.
They spent a lot of time “kicking the ball against the wall” and practising specific skills: dribbling, honing ball/puck control, shooting, etc. Back-yard culture invented a variety of skill-specific games. That is a form of training.

Please don’t take me wrong; I am not claiming that you can play a high-level sport without training at a high-level. The technique should be tactically adjusted, polished and continuously developed in conditions of high-level sports reality. However, a solid base can be formed in informal sports culture. If such culture exists in the country, of course.

2. Constraint-led approach.

Nature provides an environment and opportunities for learning.
Survival is not an easy thing in the animal world, and learning is crucial.

In Nature, learning is guided by constraints and affordness.
Constraints may be in bodies and in the environment.

For example:
Ants are hiding in a deep and narrow hollow. That is an environmental constraint. Chimp’s hand is too big to get them — body constraint.
So chimps learned to use the stick. With learning, more options become affordable. Now chimp may eat ants that are not only on the surface but hiding inside trees.

Constraints-led approach for training sports skills takes its rationale from Nature.
In training, the coaches take the role of Nature. They need to identify short-term and long-term goals and create training constraints/exercises, which guide the search for technical solutions needed to achieve goals (Renshaw, I. and Moy, B., 2018).

Therefore, the teacher’s roles is to say “what to do”, not “ how to do”.

So if you are a chimps coach and want them to learn using stick, you may deliberately put ants in a narrow hollow and let chimps search for a solution. Ah…don’t forget to put different sticks around. The organisation is important!

If seriously, every football coach uses two-touches games to promote passing. Or a game with a few goals along the goal-line instead of one  to encourage “switching”. Those are examples of guiding constraints in sports training.

I can’t say that the constraint-led learning is a new idea. The name perhaps is. During my years in university four decades ago, our teachers encourage us to be creative and use exercises instead of talking. Sometimes a new concept is simply framing what was already known.

3. Differential learning.

This method gains popularity and claims to achieve the heights of Ecological Dynamics.
It rejects any guiding constraints, corrections and feedback (I Schollhorn, W., Hegen, P. and Davids, K., 2012).

Coach introduces random variations of target exercise, including “strange” and non-ecological (e.g. ball control with one eye closed).

The idea is to push the student-environment system towards instability and allow it to self-organise at a new level..
This method takes its rationale from the behaviour of an animate dynamics systems.

In my opinion, human learning does not work this way in reality. For more about Differential Learning see article


Ecological learning, or kind of summary.


Guide but do not over-teach.


First of all, don’t overestimate your coaching importance. Do not over-teach. That is quite a common problem. You are here not to reveal some sacred knowledge to your students but to help them find their own.
People can learn motor skills naturally, without teaching and do it quite well. So encourage your students! Leave them alone sometimes.

Still, coaching can provide an invaluable advantage. A good coach has a bird-eye view of the learning process; thus, he can set goals and see barriers in advance.


Create the environment.


Why three and half millions Uruguay continuously produces high-level football stars and has one of the strongest squad in the World? That is due to its football culture.
The environment is a crucial part of any learning.
Of course, I understand that you can not create a sports culture in your country on the whole, but try to do that as much as you can for your students in your club.

I see many examples where children spend a lot of time (often even more than necessary) in formal training imposed on them by their parents, but after class, neither they nor their parents show much interest in sports. And then parents ask: why is there no progress, despite a lot of time for training and expensive coaches? Because you don’t like it!

Not only children should train in a chosen sport, but they should also love it, play it informally, know it, be a fan of stars and teams. That is learning by being in a sports environment.


Play the game.


“They cannot play until they learn proper technique”.

We hear that from coaches quite often, especially in such “snobby” sports like tennis.
As we may see now,  there is no “proper” technique. There are variable and individual ways of solving problems. Games are a most natural way to develop creativity and great individual skills.

In every sport, an unlimited number of game exercises can be devised. That will add ecological value and emotion to the session.
In my opinion, coaches can introduce games from the early stages of learning.
At the same time, they must design games in such a way that they lead to the desired goals and are affordable for students.


Epilogue, or how to do keep-ups?


Every footballer can do keep-ups. Is it a useful exercise?
Well, I think it is. Keep-ups develops ball control. Kids learn  “touch”, timing and coordination.

So, how to do this exercise better?
Johan Cruyff said that you don’t need to juggle a thousand times. What then? Do some kind of freestyle? Juggle with the tennis ball?

Ok, let’s look at that from the learning theories position.

Juggling thousand times is a non-variable practice in non-representative conditions.
Cruyff was right: everybody can do it after some practice, and this is useless.

So, what about freestyle? Doing some tricks, for example, juggle sitting on the ground, or juggle tennis ball. Perhaps this idea is consistent with Differential Learning.
Well, most of the good players can do something of this sort. However they, actually, do not spend a lot of time on that.
Good footballers can juggle with the tennis ball and do some tricks not because they have trained that a lot but because they are very good with the normal ball. So freestyle skills is not the way of becoming good, but, instead, the consequence of being good.

So what is the best way of training keeps-ups?

Do it under pressure, do it on the move, vary your touch from hard to soft, control the ball coming with different velocities and angles, etc.

For example:
Can you juggle the ball even a few times under some pressure from the opponent? Can you juggle the ball 15 meters high just 5-10 times?

Let’s ask footballers.
You definitely don’t earn their respect for juggling 1000 times. Cruyff has already said that.
Doing freestyle? Hm… Not really. You may get some smiles and lazy applause but not real respect.

There is where you can get it!
Look at Garry Lineker tribute to Maradona (watch from 1 min. 30 sec.).
And this Messi and Danny Alves warm-up.
It looks simple, right? You can try.




Caro, T.M. and Hauser, M.D., 1992. Is there teaching in nonhuman animals?. The quarterly review of biology, 67(2), pp.151-174.

Chow, J.Y., 2013. Nonlinear learning underpinning pedagogy: evidence, challenges, and implications. Quest, 65(4), pp.469-484.

Correia, V., Carvalho, J., Araújo, D., Pereira, E. and Davids, K., 2019. Principles of nonlinear pedagogy in sport practice. Physical education and sport pedagogy24(2), pp.117-132.

Galatti, L.R., Machado, J.C., Motta, M.D.C., Misuta, M.S. and Belli, T., 2019. Nonlinear Pedagogy and the implications for teaching and training in table tennis. Motriz: Revista de Educação Física, 25(1).

Renshaw, I. and Moy, B., 2018. A Constraint-Led Approach to Coaching and Teaching Games: Can going back to the future solve the «they need the basics before they can play a game» argument?. Ágora para la Educación Física y el Deporte, 20(1), pp.1-26.

I Schollhorn, W., Hegen, P. and Davids, K., 2012. The nonlinear nature of learning-A differential learning approach. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 5(1).

Thornton, A. and Raihani, N.J., 2008. The evolution of teaching. Animal behaviour, 75(6), pp.1823-1836.

Woods, C.T., McKeown, I., Rothwell, M., Araújo, D., Robertson, S. and Davids, K., 2020. Sport practitioners as sport ecology designers: How ecological dynamics has progressively changed perceptions of skill “acquisition” in the sporting habitat. Frontiers in psychology11.

Zador, A. M. (2019). A critique of pure learning and what artificial neural networks can learn from animal brains. Nature Communications, 10(1), 3770. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-11786-6

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