What coaches can learn from watching kids throw

Recently James Marshall wrote about the need to develop general throwing skills before specific throwing skills. The topic of general throwing skills is worth diving more into. Thankfully this is a task that GAIN faculty member and award-winning physical education teacher Greg Thompson has to deal with every day at the primary school level. Watching his teaching progressions can help coaches of all levels in several areas. Below I show two key lessons we can take from Thompson: how advanced coaches can improve their understanding of movement by breaking it down to its basics, and how to balance constraints and cues in teaching movement.

Better understanding by breaking it down

Thompson’s Teach the Skill playlist on YouTube shows how to understand and teach basic movement skills like throwing, catching, rolling, skipping, galloping, and more. With each skill he breaks it down. What is unique is how he breaks it down. His focus isn’t on how each element of the throw works; the focus is on how kids progress in their learning.

Take an example from throwing. If I tell my children to throw me a ball, the first thing I notice is that it is all arm. As they get older and more experienced in throwing, gradually the shoulder, trunk, and legs become more involved. Along the way power, accuracy, and efficiency all increase in parallel. By using video analysis together with academics Thompson has broken this down even further into four levels of learning:

  • Level 1 Throwing: Little or no truck rotation.
  • Level 2 Throwing: Arm dominant trunk rotation.
  • Level 3 Throwing: Shoulder dominant trunk rotation.
  • Level 4 Throwing: Shoulder dominant trunk rotation from stretch.

By understanding the steps, you can best identify where an athlete is at and what they need to do to progress. It’s a simple idea but amazingly effective in understanding how throwing and learning works.

What does this have to do with elite sport? It helps take us back to our roots. The difference between a good throw and a bad throw is rotation and whole-body coordination. This is not natural for beginners, but even top athletes struggle with it. Even in linear throws like the javelin, the rotational element and whole body coordination is essential. In the weight room we have a focus on the sagittal plane and isolated movements as well, which doesn’t help matters. We do shoulder exercises, or pull overs, but less rotation or coordinative work. Watching kids throw well and poorly makes the different hard to ignore. It’s about time we bring these concepts back to the center of training as well.

The value of a few words

Another interesting point from the videos is about the practical application of motor learning. A constraints-led approach to learning has become popular lately, with research to back it up as well. As Rob Gray explained on the recent GAINcast 236, “With a constraints-led approach we’re taking something away to amplify and encourage you to do something else. It takes one solution or option away. That is the constraint.” This is about learning from the environment rather than through verbal feedback.

As you see in the videos, constraints can be effective for beginners too. Is your kid having trouble adding rotation to the throw? Have them straddle a line which encourages/forces them to rotate in order to throw the right direction. That is just one example of a simple constraint that can be highly effective.

But it is important to remember motor learning is not an either/or situation. The best coaches blend constraints with active feedback and cues. Thompson shares some simple but effective cues and they help illustrate how effective one or two words can be, no matter how well you design an environment.

» Related content: Learn more about optimal feedback, instructions, and constraints in coaching from Professor Kevin Becker.

PE is more relevant than you think

Elite coaches often think the world of physical education is a far away. We feel its effects through how well prepared our athletes are when they come to us, but such basic things as teaching someone to throw seem somehow less relevant. Hopefully the examples above show how we can better understand movement and motor learning by looking at kids.