Closed and Open Practice

Last year, I had a conversation with an advocate of ecological psychology explanations of skill acquisition and a constraints-led approach (CLA) to coaching. I've seen many demonstrations of CLA at conferences and online, and read examples in scholarly literature. I commented to the person I was talking with that mostly what I had seen presented as a CLA looked, from a pedagogical perspective, very much like what we use to call 30 years ago "conditioned games". Many of the activities were 'familar' practice tasks. A few examples looked like closed drills, while other examples looked like open drills. It seemed that the way CLA was discussed on social media that it could be 'everything and anything' at times, depending on what the coaching scientist wished to emphasise. That is not a criticism of the "theory". People familar with my work will know that I believe a CLA provides a very good explanation as to why deliberately designed practice activities for play with purpose can be educatively effective. My purpose in recalling this anecdote lies in the young (well, much younger than me) sport scientist I was talking with commenting that he had never heard of the classification of closed and open drills. In my opinion, it is important to understand the history of one's field. It helps shape critical thinking and inquiry. It helps to develop a healthy skepticism towards 'sales pitches'.

Closed drills are those that provide a relatively stable practice environment. For team sports, that means a practice environment where defenders or opposition are removed from the action, or placed in passive roles. Typically, it will also involve narrowing the focus of the practice to a 'moment' or to an 'action'. Closed drills are often used in "craft sessions" to develop or refine specific movement actions - such as in an Australian football context, wedging an opponent to move the opponent off balance and under the ball so as to gain the opportunity to exit the contest before one's opponent by having gained an advantageous position. The strategy of wedging is commonly used at restarts such as boundary throw-ins and around the ground ball-ups.

It used to be taught in skill acquisition courses, like the one I did at Teachers College in the mid-1980s, that closed and open drills can be thought of as a continuum from fully closed and isolated from the game through to fully open game form practice and match simulations. This paper gives a good overview of closed and open drills, and their skill and physiological demands.

I have observed in recent years some people presenting a "drill vs game form" discourse that presents closed drills in a deficit view compared with representative of the game practice forms. The discourse seems to suggest that 'closed drills' are to be treated with caution, if not completely avoided, as they do not contain desirable "perception-action coupling".

People familar with my work will know that I am an advocate of play with purpose as a form of deliberate practice, and because the work I do is located within an Australian teaching and sport coaching context, I commonly express ideas through the Game Sense approach as it is the pedagogical scaffold for the Sport Australia Playing for Life Philosophy. However, I interprete the Game Sense approach and play with purpose as 'game-based', but not 'game only'. Perhaps, that is the influence of Mosston's Spectrum of Teaching Styles 'non-verses' approach to pedagogical choice on my understanding of the role of the teacher or coach as a designer of 'learning spaces' (I have summarised key ideas of the Spectrum of Teaching Styles in a blog here, and explained game based teaching/coaching using the Spectrum of Teaching Styles here). Perhaps, it is also because I read widely and not selectively, and I am not weded to any particular ideology.

One of the first sporting biographies I read was the Craig Johnston story, Walk Alone. It is the story of remarkable football (soccer) success. One of the anecdotes shared in the story, is about when he arrived in the UK as teenager, how he quickly realised his technical ability was well below the level of skill of the locals he was competing with for a spot on the playing roster. To 'close this gap',  Craig Johnston spent countless hours away from team sessions in isolated practice using what teachers and coaches 'of my generation' would have described as closed drill practice, in order to 'close the gap' between his level of technical skill and that of the local UK lads.

It would be easy to read these biographies and come to the conclusion that the individual became a great player as of high levels of game play during their youth, including lots of "backyard" or street games, as stories of backyard/driveway/street games are common in these books. Selectively focussing on these anecdotes would provide a compelling narrative for the advantages of deliberate play in the developing 'champion player'. However, frequently, the biographies also reveal a commitment by the player to additional closed drill practices of isolated movement skills, often to work on a 'weakness' in their game - such as the anecdotes of Craig Johnston, or of Rugby champion player Nick Farr-Jones who as a 15 year old, worked on his passing by aiming to hit a thin tree. Examples of the value of "drills" and "technical work" are frequently evident in the stories, and also how the individuals character is so influential in talent development. A nice paper to read on the multidimensional nature of talent development and the role of the individual self regulation of their behaviour can be found here.

As I write this blog, I have been watching Australian batters struggle in their test match against India. Expert commentary consistently highlights that the batters struggles can be directly related to technical flaws as well as poor 'shot selection', the later a function of player decision-making or "game sense". Frequently, the commentary suggests "technique matters". The decline in Australian cricket players technical ability has been commented on for the last 5 or so years; for example:

Ashes 2015: Australia’s batsmen show technical flaws at Trent Bridge

Test batsmen battle 'basic flaws'

Often players who are held up as technically divergent and yet 'champions of the game' when exposed to a biomechanical analysis of their actions, are revealed to be technically compliant in the 'things that matter' - like stability, balance, line of force - what sometimes gets called the "shape" of the players action. 
"Amid all the talk about his unorthodox technique, his candidacy for LBW and his favouring the onside, Smith has, as so many geniuses do, simplified his game to a few fundamentals that are then applied with an iron will...No matter how much he moves about in his crease in order to work the ball into gaps on the leg side, at the precise instant that the ball strikes the bat, his head is in line with it. The importance of the head's positioning in promoting the balance required for any sport cannot be over stated and Smith gets it right, hour after hour after hour...Not only is his head in line with the ball, it is also still at the point of impact" (link to article)

Mosston's wisdom, espoused in 1966 in the original text detailing the Spectrum of Teaching Styles, is that an important 'teaching skill' is knowing when to intervene and how to intervene (which teaching style is needed at the time) - highlighting the place of professional judgement and decision making in practice design and the role of the teacher/coach in the movement skill development 'practice' environment. More recently, Dave Collins and colleagues have advanced a theory of professional judgement and decision making to explain the pedagogical work of the sport coach that I believe coaches should be looking at and considering with respect to the nature of their work. See here for readings. 

"I had to be innovative to satisfy my insatiable desire to be active and improve. Mum's stockings provided the solution. A tennis ball was placed inside an old pair, which then hung from a beam in the garage. To make it more realistic, electrical tape was bound around the ball to give it hardness. Later, the tennis ball was replaced by an old cricket ball, with tape now used to reinforce the stocking. To adjust the height of the ball, all I had to do was wind the stockings around the beam a few times to simulate shorter-pitched deliveries. The trick of the whole exercise was to play as straight as possible, so the ball would crash into the tiled roof and then fly down at a good pace directly back to where I was waiting. If I got it slightly wrong, the angle would be accentuated by the ricochet and the sequence would be broken, much to my frustration. I believe I learnt patience and perserverence from the thousands of hours I spent alone in the garage. I would keep trying until I could hit 10 in a row, then 20, eventually 100. I loved the challenge I would set myself to maintain the pleasure I gained from playing the perfect shot, the one that 'pinged' off the bat. Without knowing it, I was enthusiastically searching for the perfect technique and developing routines that would later form the basis around which my game evolved" 
Steve Waugh. Out of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography

There is some empirical support for the arrangement of activities into a closed to open continuum (for example, see here) Recently, I have observed CLA coaching scientists to have incorporated the idea of a continuum of complexity into the CLA concept, descriptions of which that from a pedagogical viewpoint, appear not unike the closed to open continuum. At a conference I heard one of the CLA coaching scientists describing and pictorially illustrating the continuum, and the description sounded like Mosston's Spectrum of Teaching Approaches (1966). Now I am very aware that I draw these parallels because I look at the enacted concepts from a pedagogical lens and therefore from the pragmatics of the teaching/coaching episode, and not from an attempt to explain the teaching/coaching episodes using a psychological theory. If I was a coaching scientist, I no doubt would look at the world through the paradigm of my epistemological stance and therefore think differently.


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