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Guest Blog Article by Mark Oxer: Optimal Learning Environment

This Guest Blog is from Mark Oxer, Men’s and Women’s Soccer/Futsal Head Coach at Olds College Broncos. It adds depth to recent postings about ‘keeping it real’ and the psychological aspect of training. This article from Mark (no pun intended) really makes you think… about planning training sessions for the maximum benefit for the student Goalkeeper by Making them realistic and fun…

Practice is generally considered to be the single most important factor responsible for the permanent improvement in the ability to perform a motor skill (i.e., motor learning; Adams, 1964; Annett, 1969; Fitts, 1964; Magill, 2001; Marteniuk, 1976; K. M. Newell, 1981; Schmidt & Lee, 1999). If all other factors are held constant, then skill improvement is generally considered to be positively related to the amount of practice. The generalizability of the relationship between practice and skill is so profound that it is sometimes modeled mathematically and referred to as a law (Crossman, 1959; A. Newell & Rosenbloom, 1981). Indeed, the attainment of expertise, the highest level of proficiency in a motor skill, generally requires years of practice (Ericsson, 1996). In truth, the attainment of expertise is not a goal or a reality for most learners of motor skills. Because of our incomplete knowledge of practice variables, we are often inefficient in our practice sessions. Thus, the limited opportunity for practice, coupled with the potentially small gains in expertise resulting from each session, increases the importance of maximizing the benefits gained whenever practice is undertaken. For over a century, researchers have studied means by which practice conditions can be structured so that they maximize the potential for learning (Adams, 1987); understandably, that issue remains of considerable interest to theorists and practitioners alike. Clearly, the concept of practice as a single, unitary construct that leads to improvements in performance is not a simple one.

Creating an optimal learning environment is not something that happens by chance. There are some fundamental founding principles to follow and a formula that can be applied. (Laver, 2010)

The neural networks in our brain and our nervous system are created from the moment we start moving (even before we are born). As we move we start to build up networks by linking neurons so that we can produce movement patterns. The freedom to experiment and find your own way is delivered through the most powerful learning vehicle known to man – play! (Laver, 2010)

Play is the medium though which we learn fastest and most effectively. The learning we receive during play is not ‘bolted on’ it is deeply learned and becomes part of us. This type of learning has been termed ‘genuine learning’ by psychologists. Play has been defined as “A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective”. Play in its most genuine sense is not there as a means of learning. It just so happens that learning is an almost inevitable consequence. In fact, play creates the conditions necessary for whole brain learning. Three of major ingredients for whole brain learning are ‘immersion in the activity’, ‘a state of relaxed alertness’ and ‘stimulation’ (active processing of information). These occur naturally when we play and perhaps go some way to explaining why we learn so effectively during play. Players that have mastered their bodies will tend to produce a more elegant skill, which is likely to be more effective. Remember – More networks, connections and links in our brain equals more intelligence. This is as true with ‘movement intelligence’ as it is for intellect. With more neural connections and more intelligence, we and our brains are able to adapt to novel situations more effectively (Laver, 2010).

So what does all this mean for training as a goalkeeper?

This author suggests that we make our training sessions as realistic as possible, that we move away from agility ladders, hurdles, cones, and move towards an environment that allows the keeper to form their own movement patterns. Not only does this provide a realistic environment and a fun environment, but it creates an environment that it unpredictable and it has been proved that skill retention is higher when the skill is learned randomly rather than through continuous repetition (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). Furthermore this author suggests that we seek to remove ‘formal’ punishments from training sessions, and allow the ‘punishment’ to be that of a goal being scored and the ‘reward’ of a goal being saved. Understanding the environment of football and that a keeper my face only a small number of shots in a 90 min game, as coaches rather than giving the keeper drills, we can manipulate the environment which the play is occurring, to facilitate more opportunities for the keeper to develop their movement.

As a Collegiate Head Coach, I use this method of training with my team and with my keepers, and have had very successful results. My role is to facilitate the environment, and provide helpful feedback to the team and athletes regarding their performance, with the aim of helping them develop their optimal movement intelligence.

Thank you very much Mark for this excellent article!

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