I recently spent three days in Albany, NY attending a P-3 Instructional Learning Summit. The purpose of the conference was to bring school districts from New York State together and discuss upcoming curricular changes that will be rolled out during the 2020-21 school year. Even though this conference wasn’t focused on sports or coaching, I did find one big takeaway that is directly related to coaching and how athletes build their sport specific skills.
The keynote speaker spent a great deal of time discussing how kids learn through play. One of my big AHA moments came when she began talking about 21st century skills and how kids learn.
Cultivating 21st Century Skills: Successful Learning
The four traits of successful learning she began discussing directly relate to how athletes learn sport specific skills. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to spend some time applying these four skills to how athletes learn how to throw, develop their throwing skills, and how participating in track & field develops life skills that can be applied and implemented to their life.
1. Mentally Active
What does it mean to be mentally active in sport, and specifically mentally active in throwing? My interpretation of mentally active learning in throwing is what an athlete is doing when they are not in the circle, but outside of it. Think about this for a moment. Do you ever notice or pay attention to your athletes after they have taken a throw and stepped out of the circle? What do some of your athletes do? Do they engage with their cell phone, engage with their peers, get a drink, or do you see then not say anything but mentally play back what just happened? This skill may be difficult to observe however it may be something that you know as a coach when you see it. Being deliberate and focused may be another way to explain what being mentally active is about—thinking about and visualizing what you are going to do in the circle before you step in the circle. Rather than going through the physical motions of throwing for the sake of getting reps in, athletes are thinking about what they want to do before stepping in the circle and making an effort to focus on a specific skill that they may be working on for the session.
Of the four 21st century skills, being engaged may be the easiest skill to observe during a throwing practice. Are your athletes engaged in practice? Is there a lot of conversation going on between you as the coach and your throwers? In my experiences, I feel as though my throwers are more engaged in practice, meets, and the season as a whole when they are given the autonomy to be part of the planning process. I have been told on more than one occasion by other coaches that I give my throwers a lot of say in how we practice, what events we practice on given days, and the events they will be competing in at meets. Yes, I am guilty of all three. When I ask my athletes how they are feeling, what they think they want to focus on during that session, or what events they think they will compete in the best at a meet, and I am making them think about those questions among other things. Giving athletes autonomy leads to heightened levels of engagement, which I think is what we want from our throwers. Now, don’t get me wrong. I typically have a flexible training session plan in my head before practice, but I more often than not ask my athletes what they think they should be focusing on for the upcoming session. This gives them an opportunity to think about what they are going to do during that session, but most importantly it makes them think and have to verbalize why they think they should focus on that particular skill or set of skills during that session. I do this with high school throwers as well. It makes them feel part of the process and invested in how practice is going to be structured because they are providing input about it.
3. Socially Interactive
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. Are your athletes socially engaged and interactive during practice? You may be thinking that this skill is contradictory of the first skill I introduced, mentally engaged. I think you can be socially interacting with your peers and coach while also mentally engaged in the throwing skills you are focusing on during practice. I have only coached a couple of collegiate athletes that were not socially engaged and interactive with their peers. Unfortunately, they did not last long as members of our team. I don’t believe all throwers on the same team have to be best friends, but I do believe they should be able to get along with each other and be respectful.
4. Building Meaningful Connections to Their Lives
This is the skill that has the longest lasting effect on athletes. Through throwing, how are we as coaches able to build in opportunities to connect throwing to the real world? At times I probably spend more time than I should trying to build in “life” conversations in practice, traveling to meets, and at meets. For the most part, I don’t believe my younger athletes know the conversation is happening. My juniors and seniors probably sense when the conversation is beginning to happen, but they humor me and engage. These conversations have the longest lasting impact, yet they may not manifest themselves for two, four, or six years down the road. Some of the skills I’m referring to are; 1) communication skills, 2) how to overcome adversity, 3) positively channeling our emotions, and 4) engaging peers and those in authority.
What are other 21st century skills you see that are valuable in coaching? How are you able to adapt and implement those skills?
As always, thanks for reading ~ Charles
Dr. Charles Infurna
Charles Infurna, Ed.D., is the owner and lead coach of Forza Athletics Track Club. Dr. Infurna has coached National Record Holders, National Champions, All-Americans, and Conference Champions at the Post-Collegiate, Collegiate, and High School level.