Coach Jamie Smith, CSCS, is the founder and head sport preparation coach of The U of Strength, LLC. He is passionate about guiding his athletes through their developmental process and discovering unique ways that blend physical preparation and skill adaptation. As a former athlete at Merrimack College, Jamie graduated with a degree in Sports Medicine and a concentration in Exercise Physiology. As a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, he has had the opportunity to coach under some of the most knowledgeable and experienced coaches in the industry. Jamie has coached a variety of athletes from the novice to the elite skill levels, some of which include current NHL, NBA, and MLS players and the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion UConn Huskies. Through adaptive, creative, and experience-based program design, Jamie assists athletes in reaching their full potential on and off the ice, court, and field.
Freelap USA: What role does perception and cognition play in your program? What are some key “attractors” in terms of decision-making that you are trying to improve?
Jamie Smith: For most of my career as a physical preparation coach, I focused solely on enhancing my athletes’ physical abilities: training them to grow bigger, run faster, and get stronger. If their numbers, weights, and times improved, I assumed my job was done because I trusted that sport coaches were handling the skill acquisition and sport movement attunement in practice. As it turns out, sport coaches at the youth and high school levels are not holding up their end of the bargain.
Whether it is lack of knowledge, ego, or laziness on the part of these coaches, the athletes are not learning the necessary skills for long-term sporting success. Once I came to this realization, I was determined to come up with a complete redesign that offered our athletes a more effective and comprehensive training program, blending physical preparation with skill acquisition that would be appropriate for athletes of various sporting backgrounds. I spent a great deal of time educating myself on the process of skill acquisition and the psychological processes of perception and cognition as they relate to athletics.
During this evolutionary process in my programming, a major change was made to the application of our agility training. Like many in the sport field, I mistakenly thought “agility” and “change of direction” (COD) were interchangeable terms, but have since come to realize they are two entirely different skills. According to Sophia Nimphius, “Agility is the perceptual-cognitive ability to react to a stimulus in addition to the physical ability to change direction in response to this stimulus.” As you can see by this definition, agility is much more than just the preplanned physical abilities of changing direction, but also involves both perceptual and cognitive components. These are often overlooked, but need to be taken into consideration when planning a training program.
Incorporating perceptual-cognitive training into our agility work meant I had to construct a learning experience where the focus wasn’t solely on the motor output (biomechanics), but was also on the input (sensory information) and the role it plays in movement and skill. Coupled with the late Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky’s idea that “sport is a problem-solving activity where movements are used to produce the necessary solutions,” I devised and implemented a number of strategies that I refer to in my programming as problem-solving activities. The objective of these activities is to exploit information provided by the environment, task, opponent, and current situation, and manipulate constraints that create affordances, which guide the athlete to authentic movement strategies.
When creating these experiences, I focus on Shawn Myszka’s three B’s of movement: the brain, the biomechanics, and the behavior. In order for skills and movement behaviors to transfer the perception, the action and intention must be consistently coupled. Any time we separated these to solely focus on the biomechanics (action) alone, we didn’t see improvements in a chaotic environment (sport). The unique aspect to agility is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all technical model. Each athlete interprets information differently, which influences their unique movement signature.The unique aspect of #agility is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all technical model for athletes, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
It’s important to note that I am not saying that technique is unimportant and that we completely omit all closed drills. There are biomechanical laws or movement principles that every athlete must adhere to, like effective line of force application, relationship between center of mass and base of support, forward knee punch/drive, foot plant from above, and eyes focused on the appropriate perceptual information. While all of these attractors are essential for learning and performance, I found we were spending too much time with preplanned drills aimed strictly at perfecting technique.
I wasn’t allowing for fluctuations or authentic movement execution, which was doing the athletes a disservice. Because my setting imposes scheduling/time limitations, I had to make certain that every second was as productive as possible. If you follow an integrated approach, you can address these attractors and physical capacities elsewhere in the training program (pre-training, linear speed, 3-D plyometrics, and strength training).
For example, acceleration and max velocity have well-defined mechanics that are better executed in a closed, predetermined pattern. Also, there are times when change of direction drills will be appropriate during an agility session. This is especially true with a younger athlete who might need to focus their attention on internal factors or body movements (knee position, force application, etc.).
A simple strategy I’ve found to be effective is to start with a problem-solving activity that involves a simple task, less sensory information, more time to make decisions, and/or advantageous situations. I like to think of this as a daily evaluation to see what rules the athletes are breaking or what skills aren’t sticking. Then, after or during (if necessary), I choose a closed drill that addresses any breakdowns. Typically, I utilize a training tool or load (the resistance is dependent on the individual) that allows the athlete to feel the specific attractor.
The idea behind this is the training tool gives immediate feedback about the execution, and the resistance slows the movement down. Both serve a purpose, but we’re looking to spend the least amount of time as possible. Immediately following this, we always conclude with another problem-solving activity. The athlete’s abilities will dictate whether we increase the difficulty level by making the tasks more challenging, increase the sensory information, decrease the time to make decisions, and/or create disadvantageous situations. These task-orientated activities are an effective way to create a learning environment where the athlete can focus their attention outside the body and maximize the cognitive processes (decision-making, anticipation, pattern recognition) by discovering movement patterns based on interpretation of the evolving information.
Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction by Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Ian Renshaw was hugely influential in the development of my programming:
“In the human movement system, the interactions between a performer and a performance environment are critical in determining how behaviors can self-adjust or self-organize. Certain goal-directed behaviors emerge due to interactions between prevailing constraints at a point in time. Such person-environmental interactions lead to a bottom-up approach, in which the brain and the cognitive processes remain amongst a huge number of interacting personal, task and environmental constraints that influence emergent movement patterns… During goal-directed activities, information is available all the time in these continuous interactions to channel a human movement system to search for different movement solutions.”
It is important to understand that constraints help regulate the information available to the athletes. They include individual, task, and environment. Individual constraints can be both physical and psychological (functional). This is important to factor in when developing a younger athlete because physical abilities can differ between individuals and can change from week to week. After multiple sessions, the novice athletes should become stronger, faster, and more powerful, forcing coordination and attunement to their new output abilities.
On the psychological side, the inexperienced athlete will have difficulty interpreting the correct perceptual information compared to the experienced athlete, who can ignore the distractions and perceive relevant cues (pattern recognition, anticipation, and decision-making abilities). The most practical to manipulate are task constraints. This includes the number of athletes participating, work space size, amount and sources of sensory information, rules, and training implements. I have also experimented with physical environmental constraints, like weather, surface, and ambient light (daytime and nighttime).
A commonly overlooked constraint crucial to athletic functioning is the interaction between coach and athlete, more specifically as it relates to coaching cues. In my opinion, the type of feedback and how it is received by the athlete is most important because it can make or break the learning process. When strategically designed, these constraints will impact the provided information and appropriately challenge the athlete’s perceptual-cognitive, coordinative, and creative abilities.An overlooked constraint crucial to athletic function is the interaction between coach and athlete, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
It is crucial to be as representative as possible when constructing these training environments. This means that the stimuli, situations, and tasks need to be specific, but not so specific that the utilization of sport-specific implements is required (i.e., ball and hoop or puck and net). The primary stimulus for a team sport athlete is the opponent. Not only will another athlete act as a specific stimulus, but they will also create a competitive environment, increasing overall engagement and buy-in. Athletes need practice in, and exposure to, extracting and interpreting key information sources or cues created by the opposing player, teammate, environment, and situation. Continuous exploration of the perceptual-motor workspace will develop the capacity for adaptive movements and functional solutions.
Because the majority of athletes I work with are involved with invasion sports, I want them to be capable of solving problems in both offensive and defensive situations. The idea is that these experiences will allow the athlete to develop solutions through the lens of both roles and gain an appreciation for the opponent’s movement aims and strategies. The intentions for each role will be very different, as the offensive player wants to create space, make the defense overcommit or be forced into a disadvantageous position, and develop elusive abilities to evade the defender. By contrast, the defensive player wants to close space down (get into the bubble), disrupt the offense from achieving their task, maintain advantageous positions, and have effective perceptual abilities that manipulate time and space to limit the opponent’s potential movement options.
I also take it a step further by breaking down each role, organizing them by looking at the similarities among all sports: offense with ball/puck, offense without ball/puck, defense on ball/puck, and defense off ball/puck. The purpose here is to use this role classification to look at all of the common movements and situations that emerge in sports. In my opinion, this is the most effective way when planning representative learning environments for multiple sports.
It’s no surprise that our modern-day athletes are highly attuned to a rigid structure, being told exactly what to do and how to do it. We are creating automated robots, not adaptive and creative individuals. Most athletes struggle when first introduced to an activity that encourages exploration, creativity, and decision-making. However, early exposure to these activities will only allow for further development down the road. Task constraint manipulation is a key component to my activity’s design and application. As previously stated, external constraints can manage the information provided and create affordances that guide the athlete’s motor response.
I like to think of these constraints as ways to customize each rep for athletes with different skill levels and intrinsic dynamics. The constraints I find most useful to manipulate are size of workspace, number of athletes, training implements, obstacles, duration of each rep, and amount and source of sensory information. The beauty of this construction process is that it depends completely on the coach’s understanding of sport, common problems that occur, and a creative mind. I believe it’s my responsibility to create a training environment that has the appropriate information and representative problems, and directs the athlete to authentic movement solutions.It’s my duty to create a training environment with the appropriate info and representative problems, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
When investigating all of the different movements in sport, Gamespeed by Ian Jefferies has been very influential on the way I analyze my problem-solving activities. He has done an unbelievable job developing a logical movement-classification system and a target movement syllabus that can be applied to all sports. Sport is very complex and the number of potential motor patterns is endless.
According to Jefferies, there are common elements and basic movement patterns that underpin performance in all sports. He classifies these movements into three broad categories: initiation, transition, and actualization movements. Each one of these categories is broken down into subgroups of different movement patterns and main functions.
- Initiation: Starting movement & change of direction
- Transition: Waiting to react
- Actualization: Maximize performance
An important, profound concept that impacted my thought process regarding transition movements was the ineffectiveness of solely focusing on getting between two points as fast as possible. The main objective of any transition movement is not speed, but the ability to stay in an effective position where the athlete can perceive the opponent and ball/puck, and react to evolving situations. Too often, I see athletes performing these movements in a closed environment at speeds that will not allow them to read and react to a stimulus, and respond with a subsequent effective action. The idea of respecting or managing speed is always overlooked.
The best solution isn’t always the fastest response, but the appropriate response, where the athlete reacts to correct information, at the right time, and at the ideal speed. This leads me to another issue I see with most predetermined drills: They’re performed consecutively for distances and durations that are unrealistic to sport. When you look closely at sport, the majority of transition movements are typically 3-5 steps in one direction and then it’s a reaction to a stimulus with some type of deceleration, acceleration, and/or change of direction action.Most predetermined drills are done consecutively for distances and durations unrealistic to sport, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
I take the Gamespeed movement syllabus into consideration, but do not break down each category and design an activity based on a specific movement pattern in isolation. Instead, I feel it’s important to encourage the athlete to explore the different initiation, transition, and actualization movements, and teach the importance of understanding the intention for each through the offensive and defensive lens. For example, the offense will need to develop successful strategies that interfere with the defense’s positioning, creating space and challenging perceptual-cognitive abilities. This can be accomplished by including a deceptive action (i.e., fake cut step, juke, change of velocity) that requires an efficient first step and change of direction and change of speed abilities.
It’s essential that when the athlete is in offensive situations, they develop feinting movement strategies prior to the initiation and actualization patterns. On the contrary, the defense has to discover strategies that manipulate time and space, allowing for frequent movement adjustments and continuous perception of the opponent(s), teammate(s), and ever-changing situations. This requires an athlete to become proficient in maintaining effective positions where they can perform a subsequent action at any moment, in various directions, and with different movement patterns. It’s crucial in defensive situations that the athlete develops efficient transition movements and perceptual abilities that limit the options available to the opponent.
Each of my sessions includes a wide range of different situations and role-specific tasks. I look at each rep as a learning opportunity where the athlete can gain the experience to include effective and ineffective movement strategies. When applying these different situations, I believe that the appropriate amount of variability is an essential element for motor learning and skill acquisition. The goal is to expand the athlete’s execution variability (process) and develop low outcome variability, or the end result stays the same.
This is where the concept of repetition without repetition plays a major role in how I manage the situations and problems presented to the athlete. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but I can make slight changes to the starting stance, direction, angles, distance, speeds, location of implements, obstacles, and/or perceptual information.I strive to place an emphasis on athletes being comfortable in uncomfortable conditions, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
I strive to expose the athlete to varying circumstances and place an emphasis on being comfortable in uncomfortable conditions. The ability to get out of an unfavorable position or situation by self-organizing into an effective position and movement strategy is an essential for sport that is often overlooked. It’s important to understand that this process can get messy. Similar to a toddler’s first few steps, all of the stumbles, falls, and/or failed outcomes are part of motor learning. I embrace the errors and explain to the athlete that it’s during this time that they can experiment with different movement strategies and determine what works and doesn’t work under varying conditions. In my opinion, this is the most effective way an athlete can take ownership of their movements and solutions.
Most agility activities currently used by today’s coaches end with 1v1 scenarios. While these are important, and athletes need to spend time exploring the emerging motor patterns and discovering solutions, as they progress through the preparation process I believe athletes need exposure to 1v2, 2v1, 2v2, 2v3, 3v2, 3v3, etc. This is essential because the increase in sensory data and chaos challenges the athlete’s ability to complete their task. A defensive example would be the difference between 1v1, 1v2, and 2v1 situations. The defense’s task will remain the same, but the process and coordinated patterns will be very different.
The 1v1 requires the defensive athlete to perceive cues from a single opponent and use the information to determine the depth they need to create in order to keep the offense in front and limit potential movement options. The 1v2 presents a different problem, where the defense has to split the spacing between two opponents, making sure they’re interpreting the correct perceptual information while maintaining an effective position to make a subsequent response at whatever time, in any direction, and with whichever movement pattern. The 2v1 changes the affordances, and the decisions and actions are not only dependent on the sensory information provided by the opponent, but their teammates as well. These team situations develop perceptual attunement to the shared affordances and challenge coordinative and collaborative abilities, which I believe are often ignored during the developmental process.Athletes need extra practice in processing sensory information and making decisions, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
In conclusion, I believe athletes need extra practice in processing sensory information and making decisions. I have experimented and had success with incorporating perception, cognition, and variability into our pre-training (partner reactive absorption drills and skills) and plyometrics. The purpose is to increase the athlete’s exposure to problem-solving situations while simultaneously developing force acceptance abilities, elasticity, and creative expression. As a coach, I look for any physical and mental breakdowns otherwise disguised in a predetermined pattern. The beauty of this setup is that every rep presents a new set of problems that allow the athlete to continually explore and develop different solution strategies.
Freelap USA: How do you work on conditioning for athletes with this in mind? How much conditioning work should be done with perceptive factors versus traditional conditioning with only one constraint?
Jamie Smith: The majority of today’s youth and high school athletes play sports year-round, never actually having what we call a “true” off-season. This has to be taken into consideration when designing a “conditioning” program, along with the bioenergetics demands of the sport and the metabolic requirements of practice. While these factors should complement each other, I’ve often observed them to be quite different and actually counterproductive.
It’s important to take a holistic approach when addressing an athlete’s energy system development, making certain to fill in the gaps during the preparation process. Too many of the athletes I work with experience an overwhelming amount of lactic-based work in their sport practice. For whatever reason, it seems to be commonplace among team sport coaches that running an individual into the ground is the only way to prepare for competition. It is inappropriate and destructive for these coaches to implement traditional “conditioning” drills that leave athletes bent over in the corner, puking.It’s important to take a holistic approach when addressing an athlete’s energy system development, says @TheUofStrength. Click To Tweet
At The U of Strength, we’ve been successful in following a high-low model, consolidating stressors by organizing CNS intensive movements on one day and CNS extensive movements on another day. I place an emphasis on developing the aerobic system via extensive plyos, tempo runs, resisted sled marching, med ball throws, and aerobic circuits. If the aerobic component of the athlete’s bioenergetics system is underdeveloped, then their ability to recover will be impaired and they will fatigue much faster when required to produce repeated high-intensity bouts of activity. Conversely, I focus on improving the alactic power system through sprinting, agility, intensive plyos, loaded jumps, and resistance training. We concern ourselves with quality over quantity, and make it a priority to determine the minimal effective dose for each athlete.
During the early stages of the developmental process, it’s crucial to ensure novice athletes are receiving the least amount of work to elicit a positive change and the necessary adaptations. Athletes need to be able to express the power component of the energy system and adequately recover between reps, sets, and individual training sessions before trying to develop the capacity or the ability to repeat explosive bouts of movements at a certain work level.
When necessary, I do address the capacity component and primarily focus on the alactic system, typically spending 3-4 weeks prior to the start of the athlete’s main competitive season. The athlete and the problem we are trying to solve determine the drills or activities. There are times when an athlete is required to pass a “conditioning” test, like a 300-yard shuttle run. In that case, we make sure the athlete is prepared and spend part of the time addressing the specific energy system component. If the athlete doesn’t have to prepare for a specific test, then all of our capacity work is completed in a task-oriented and competitive environment.
Coaches need to fully understand the bioenergetics demands of the respective sport and manipulate the tasks, time constraints, and rest intervals accordingly. I firmly believe that in order to properly prepare an athlete, it’s essential to include specific sensory information. Instead of performing mindless “conditioning” drills, I want to challenge the athlete’s ability to problem-solve, make effective decisions, and complete role-specific tasks under fatiguing conditions. This is a great way to evaluate their movement solution toolbox and observe what happens when fatigue is present (i.e., Do they revert to a single strategy, or demonstrate dexterous movement?).
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with more 2v2 and 3v3 scenarios. This is meant to expose the athlete to team task situations, exploit the accumulation of fatigue, manipulate the information, and influence the shared affordances. These utilize an internal constraint to challenge the team members’ ability to control their decisions and actions in a coordinated manner.
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