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How We Improve - Power Sports vs. Skill Sports

Updated: Mar 27


If you want to progress in your sport, you need to figure out how. The first thing to look at is the fundamental nature of your sport. Is it predominantly a power sport like running, cycling or weightlifting? Is it predominantly a skill sport like golf, cricket or equestrian? Or is it quite evenly balanced between power and skill like football, tennis and martial arts? Every sport has an element of both power and skill, but as an athlete from an equestrian sport, I will be focusing primarily on how we develop our skills.


Training vs. Practice

While power attributes develop using training (effort-stress-recovery), skill attributes develop using practice, a cycle which involves trying, failing and learning.

Training for power attributes like strength, speed and fitness is very much about the effort-stress-recovery cycle. You must put in effort, you must encounter the stress and then you must recover. It requires discipline, toughness, mental strength, pain, resilience and a good understanding of how it works. For example, if you don’t manage the recovery phases, you will fatigue and risk injury. The optimisation of training is quite scientific. Measuring your fuel (nutrition, hydration), measuring your power output (distance, speed, weight, resistance) and measuring your recovery (sleep, massage, stretching) can allow trainers to constantly refine and improve a training program which optimises an athlete’s development and performance.

Skill sports have a different progress cycle. While power attributes develop using training (effort-stress-recovery), skill attributes develop using practice, a cycle which involves trying, failing and learning.


Phase One - Effort vs. Trying


What’s the difference between effort and trying? Effort is about pushing yourself physically. Trying is about pushing yourself mentally. Concentration, reactions, reflexes, feel, touch, timing and technique. These attributes will sound familiar to weightlifters and other power-based athletes, and that is because their sports also involve skill. It’s just that those sports are most associated with power. Similarly, if you ask someone who has never ridden before to spend 5 minutes on a racehorse simulator, their body will feel plenty of stress and the resulting pain. But again, let’s stay focused on the predominant cycle of progress in order to really grasp the understanding of how we improve.


Phase Two - Stress vs. Failure


The second phase in the power training cycle, after effort, is stress. This generally refers to the physical pain that we feel from trauma to muscle fibres in a workout. In the practice cycle, the second phase - after trying - is failure. This is mentally quite painful, especially if we overload on it. Similar to physical stress, we should aim for micro levels of failure in our practice rather than biting off a lot more than we can chew, which can result in a level of failure that permanently scars us. Again, this is no different to the power sports. If you increase the load too quickly, you could cause long term or permanent trauma.


Phase Three - Recovery vs. Learning

When increasing our rate of improvement, we often neglect the third phase.

The final phase of power training is recovery which can also be described as the rest or repair phase. The difference between an elite athlete and an average athlete can be whether or not the recovery phase is active or passive. When increasing our rate of improvement, we often neglect the third phase. The first reaction is to increase effort or increase load (stress), rather than optimise recovery. If you take on a massive amount of physical trauma, you will probably incur an injury and spend a lot of time in phase three (recovery). If you train well during the day but then drink half your bodyweight in alcohol and miss hours of sleep in the process, you will severely hinder your recovery phase and therefore slow your improvement cycle.


The final phase of practice (remember that this is my term for training in skill sports) is learning. Again, like the power-based training cycle, when we look to increase the rate of progress (also referred to as development or improvement) we tend to focus on the first two phases of the cycle – ‘try harder’ or increase difficulty (resulting in bigger failure). If you spend all day trying to achieve a level of skill that is way beyond your current capabilities, you will incur an enormous quantity of failure that will be mentally draining. Golf clubs and tennis rackets have the scars to prove it. This then uses up valuable mental energy which is required for phase three to happen, the learning part.

Athletes who practice a lot but do not actively learn will not improve quickly.

Athletes who train hard but do not actively recover will not improve quickly. Athletes who practice a lot but do not actively learn will also not improve quickly. In both of the progress cycles, it is so easy to overlook the third phase. Considering that this is the phase where muscles repair and skills are learned, this phase is absolutely essential to growth, development, progress and improvement. So, how do we learn most efficiently and effectively?


Review & Feedback - Keys to Efficient & Effective Learning

You have tried a skill and you have incurred micro failures (i.e. there are things to improve). In order to now learn, you must first accept your failures and then understand them. Acceptance is achieved through a review of your performance. Understanding is achieved through feedback of your performance. This is essentially how we learn. Your coach says “hit that ball towards the flag”. You try and in all probability the result is not a perfect shot. Your coach then says “look at where your feet are pointing” (review) followed by “adjust your stance like this” (feedback). This allows us to learn why we failed and explains how to adjust. Then, what we do to improve is repeat the practice cycle again – try, fail, learn.


The Value of Video

Use video to review what you do and seek feedback in order to work out how to improve. This enhances learning speed which accelerates the improvement cycle.

In the same way as power training should never occur without recovery, I would say practice should never occur without learning. Use video to review what you do and seek feedback in order to work out how to improve. Traditionally, we review by feel and we experiment with our own feedback. I would maintain a certain amount of this traditional learning method, but like so many things in the world, technology has given us a better solution so that we can do things faster (in this case, learn).


I use the EquiRatings OnForm app. When I practice, whatever skill I’m working on, I try it a few times using feel to review and I use my own experience for feedback. Then I video my practice of the skill. This allows a visual review rather than a feel review. Sometimes I use my own experience for feedback and sometimes I share it with my coaches and get their feedback. When I coach, I am constantly using visual review to feedback to my athletes and this develops their feel. However, I love to capture some of their skill practice on video and let them see the review themselves, which is accompanied by my feedback. Again, this enhances learning speed which accelerates the improvement cycle.


Learn Smart

What we know is that ‘hard work’ alone isn’t enough.

Top athletes put in the effort (power) and try hard (skill). That’s the discipline part, that’s the determination part and that’s where successful people often credit ‘hard work’ as the secret of success. That’s phase one. The second phase - stress (power) or failure (skill) - happens automatically, we don’t have to prompt it. Okay, if it hasn’t happened, then we haven’t pushed ourselves out of the comfort zone and we haven’t tried hard enough. However, what we know is that ‘hard work’ alone isn’t enough. We have to work smart, we have to strategically devise marginal gains and that is where phase three gets overlooked. Active recovery for power-based sports and smart learning for skill-based sports.


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©2020 by Sam Watson.