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Abstract: Execution errors have become part of the norm for sports. Errors are being categorized and counted, but coaching interventions rarely have the impact of reducing these execution errors. Maybe we don't know what is interfering with our ability to manage and reduce execution errors. Maybe it's time to recognize that execution errors are operating on a different level than the interventions being used to reduce them.
If you are watching the NFL 2015 Season Playoffs, you have been seeing a lot of dropped passes. For the purpose of this article, I'll use 'dropped pass' to mean that the receiver could/should have caught the pass. Maybe the receiver was in position, but did not successfully grasp the ball. Or maybe the receiver was not in position, and could have been in position, but did not properly read the trajectory of the ball. What is happening with receivers for these kinds of execution errors to occur?
This article will provide an 'outside the box' theory about what is happening in athletic performance preparation and execution to have these execution errors remain common and unsolved.
This theory is backed up by interpreting slow motion video of execution errors, by years of actually testing execution precision, and by training athletes so that their execution precision improves in the performance of the skills of their sport.
In an attempt to learn how to manage and reduce execution errors, analytics staff of professional teams are collecting, counting, and measuring every aspect of sports performance. So, skill coaches, conditioning coaches, and mental coaches are all getting important data about each athlete's performance in competition and in practices.
Everyone seems to be focused on the resulting information about 'What these errors are?' and 'When/Where these errors occur?', but there does not seem to be any clear information about 'Why these errors occur?'
Sure, skill coaches, conditioning coaches, and mental coaches all have either individual or consensus beliefs about what is causing these errors and what to do to reduce those errors. But, I'm not sure that any headway has been achieved in reducing these execution errors. Of course, some individual athletes are reducing their errors, and other athletes are increasing their error rates. There does not seem to be any clear-cut pattern of error reduction across any one team or sport.
Maybe we need a different model for understanding these execution errors and figuring out what to do to reduce them for individual athletes, for whole teams, and across all sports.
The elephant in the room: Every sport has some current athlete or past athlete who seems to be operating on a different level. This person has almost perfect execution, and seldom makes an execution error. When we talk about perfection in that sport, we think about that athlete. An example would be Michael Jordan. When we are asked to think about perfection in basketball, MJ will be one of our most frequent responses.
What if this exceptional athlete has something that other athletes can learn, but this something is not yet understood by coaching staff, so that they cannot see it, measure it, nor coach it? What if this something is simply some capability from a new paradigm that does not fit the current paradigm of coaching? How can that sport ever move forward past this conceptual blockage?
Of course, breaking the ice can be a dangerous situation. If you are walking across a frozen lake, breaking the ice can be devastating for everyone involved.
On the other hand, the superstar athlete we admire in each sport is still just a human being. So, human capabilities have come together for these superstar athletes in such a way that these athletes are exceptionally effective in execution.
How come this athlete's capabilities defy our abilities to identify exactly what this athlete is doing that results in more superior execution than all the others in that sport? What is going on in our own minds, which keeps us from understanding what these capabilities are and keeps us from translating those capabilities into coaching tactics so that our non-superstar athletes can elevate their quality of execution?
The thing about paradigms is that if you are stuck in a paradigm, you cannot see, recognize, or even understand how to get out of the paradigm. Sometimes, you can recognize that your paradigm is not ample enough to see anything outside your paradigm. But, this knowledge does not give you any insight about what is outside your paradigm.
The 'natural' solution to a paradigm that is restricting your community is for someone outside your community to come along and open the windows and doors for you and your community to see outside and see some more ample paradigm.
I know that it is very difficult for expert coaches to consider the possibility that the sought-after solution for execution problems would come from someone outside the sports field. And that may be the very reason that the sports field has not yet solved execution problems. I suspect that no sports field experts have conceived the solution to execution problems, because some aspect of the sport field coaching paradigm prevents those experts from conceiving that solution.
Coaches know that athletes are not executing at 100% and that the margin of error in execution usually shows up as execution errors.
The problem for coaches is that their coaching paradigm has execution as an attribute of the athlete's skills. It turns out that execution is not part of the athlete's skills. So, you cannot improve execution by practicing those skills. When an athlete has execution imprecision and execution errors, the solution is not going to be solved by any kind of practice drills of their skills.
Consider a receiver who can not catch the ball with any effectiveness and is only successfully catching the ball 20% of the time (even when in position for a successful catch). This is probably a skill problem. And, by watching directly and watching slow motion video, a skill coach can decode what is wrong with this receiver's catch-the-ball skills and establish a set of training drills to teach how to catch-the-ball. And, practice of the new version of the skill should result in improved execution.
Now, consider a receiver who is catching the ball 80% of the time (when in position for a successful catch), but should have caught the ball the other 20%. In watching slow motion video of these failures, if you see the athlete is closing his hands before the ball arrives or after the ball is already gone past, then the problem is in execution and not necessarily in the catching the ball skill.
A third possibility is the receiver who is distracted and loses focus before, or as, the ball arrives. Loss of focus is also an execution problem.
Execution comes from a functional part of the brain, known as the Executive Function (it's the manager of skill execution). This Executive Function is physically distributed across multiple physical parts of the brain, much like the skill-programs in an athlete's brain are distributed across the motor cortex and the sensory cortex (because athletic skills include motor activities as well as sensory access activities).
The Executive Function part of the brain needs a tune-up to improve execution precision.
One of the aspects of these skill-programs (which the athletes have built through practice drills) is the Muscle Fiber Recruitment activations needed for the execution of this skill. They are laid out (functionally) in a set of parallel and serial MFR steps. As the Executive Function steps down through a skill-program, whenever an MFR activation is required, the Executive Function causes the brain to send those activation signals down through the central nervous system to those individual bundles or fibers.
This is all well and good in concept, but the problem in execution precision is when the activations are sent down the CNS a little too early or a little too late.
I'm sure that you have been led to understood that MFR signals arrive at the exact moment they are needed for the motor needed motor actions. Well, when you start measuring those MFR activations, you will see that it is common for MFR signals to have timing errors of +-20ms along with random timing error spikes of
+-50ms or more.
When you watch an athletic competition where players pass and catch a ball, you often see the receiver drop an incoming pass. When you slow down the speed of the video replay of that dropped pass, you usually see that the athlete does not have body and hands in position to stop and grasp the ball or, the athlete has hands in position, but grasps too early or too late to be successful in catching that pass.
Or, you see that the athlete is distracted at a critical moment in catching the ball and loses focus and fails to catch and hold onto the ball. It's important to understand that this loss of focus is also related to those timing error spikes of
+-50ms or more.
Being in the correct position for the ball's arrival and grasping the ball at the right time, are aspects of the Executive Function's proper execution of that catch-the-ball skill-program.
But, when the skilled athlete is in position, and focused on the catch, and closes his hands too early, at that very moment his brain was executing the MFRs for grasping the ball during one of those -50ms timing spikes. And if the athlete grasps at the ball after the ball is already passed, at that very moment his brain was executing the MFRs for grasping the ball during one of those +50ms timing spikes.
And when we train an athlete's brain to stop those +-50ms spikes, that athlete's execution precision dramatically improves and execution errors fade away.
In every sport, there is execution precision and execution errors. This means that in every sport there are errors being counted and charted and coaches are trying to improve execution precision and reduce execution errors.
In Tennis there is a long list of percentages and counts, which the players and coaches study and establish strategies to improve for the next match.
In basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, running, and every other competitive sport execution precision and execution errors are being used to guide preparation and performance for the next match.
Fine-tuning the Executive Function is a new form of conditioning. It is not a part of the sport-specific skill regimen for the athlete nor for any of the coaching staff. It is not related to strength training. It doesn't look like any skill or conditioning training you have ever seen before.
The training program to make the Executive Function precise involves a testing protocol for tracking training progress. This testing protocol only takes a minute and can be useful, after training is complete, for athletes and coaches to know the precision of the Executive Function for each athlete on game-day.
The training regimen is a no-sweat, physical exercise program, which requests that the brain improve precision in execution. There is nothing to study, learn, or remember. There is nothing to think about or to imagine. There isn't any talking, except the coach describing the next exercise and how long it will take, or the coach correcting the athlete's form in performing an exercise.
Yes, this is a new paradigm. This means that many will not consider this approach until other teams have already modified their training regimen and proven the success of this paradigm in competition. If your team starts to improve execution precision, your team will start to improve your win-loss statistics.
This also means that those early adopters will have dramatically improved their team's performance for a few seasons before the late adopters either change their perception or the late adopters are changed out by upper management.
If you want to know more about this approach: You can explore these infographics
If your team has execution problems, contact me and I'll prove to you that this approach solves your teams execution problems.
Rodger Bailey, MS