Taking “Eh” to “Outstanding” by Shaping Movement
In the first phase of mastering an exercise, the movement still does not look as good as I want (from a kinda technical coach’s perspective).
Mastery means that I no longer need to prompt the athlete through the exercise (they can do the med ball push throw, overhead squat, dumbbell press). They can do it on their own. When in the teaching phase of the process, I want to make sure that I am using the least amount of prompt needed to get my athlete performing the movement correctly. This is a process called “fading,” where the prompts gradually lessen. With the overhead press, I may start by physically guiding the athlete’s arm overhead to lockout, with the last prompt being my demonstrating (also called “mirroring”) the movement. Below is a fading plan I’ve used for an overhead dumbbell/Sandbell press in the past:
Holding from elbow and wrist —>Holding only elbow—>Tapping elbow—>Step back and demonstrate full movement—>Verbal cue only (This being a full fade and demonstration of mastery)
Sometimes the prompting/teaching phase is going to take a while. I find this is especially true with scoop throws for several of my Autism Fitness athletes.
The scoop throw is one of 3 throws that I teach all my athletes. Similar to a kettlebell swing, the scoop throw includes the following movements:
1) Pick up the ball
2) Stand with feet wide
3) swing the ball between legs
4) Release and throw to partner
Below is a video of the movement without the throwing part
When one of my athletes is able to perform the most basic version of a scoop throw independently, it is considered a “mastered” activity. In addition to the physical capability to perform the throw, they can also:
1) Associate the verbal cue/label “Scoop throw” with performing the action
2) Begin to perform longer periods of the activity (measured by number of repetitions)
So, on the cognitive front we have new associations of terms with their meanings (contingency) and on the Adaptive side there is an increase in tolerance or even enjoyment of the newly acquired skill.
When an exercise is first mastered, it is going to, usually, look a little bit “off” and this is okay. I am a technique-oriented coach (hence my being drawn to Olympic lifting as a pursuit), and I want my athletes to have safe, proper movement through a full range of motion. For a movement to be squeaky clean and crisp, there needs to be a balance of strength, stability, speed, and coordination. This will happen, but it needs time and practice. Even though I would consider the scoop throw mastered when my athlete can perform it successfully without prompting, some tweaks are always needed. They may need to bend the knees just an inch more, bring the ball back farther, release the ball sooner. Those are the three most common things I notice with this throw.
If I waited until the throw was stellar to provide reinforcement (either secondary or with behavior-specific praise) it would be a long, long time. Probably too long to make any of the process reinforcing. Instead, I enable the athlete to find success with the most basic “approximation” of the exercise, and then begin the refinement process. Similar to the constant cycle of “purposeful chaos” (PLAY) and “Structure” (INSTRUCTION), there is a continuum with mastery and refinement. When we, and our athletes master the basic, it opens a gateway towards exploration on the play side, and increased ability on the instructional side.