Javelin Coaching

Research Institute for Olympic Sports, Finland. Rapid technique correction using Old Way/New Way®: Two case studies with Olympic athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 2002, 16, 79-99.

Yuri Hanin, Research Institute for Olympic Sports, Finland. Tapio Korjus and Petteri Jouste, Finnish Sports Association, Finland. Paul Baxter, Personal Best Academy, Brisbane, Australia.

Abstract

"Exploratory studies examine the effectiveness of Old Way/New Way®, an innovative meta-cognitive learning strategy initially developed in education settings, in the rapid and permanent correction of established technique difficulties experienced by two Olympic athletes in javelin and sprinting. Individualised interventions included video-assisted error analysis, step-wise enhancement of kinaesthetic awareness, re-activation of the error memory, discrimination and generalization of the correct movement pattern. Self-reports, coach's ratings and video recordings were used as measures of technique improvement. A single learning trial produced immediate and permanent technique improvement (80% or higher correct action) and full transfer of learning, without the need for the customary adaptation period. Findings are consistent with the performance enhancement effects of Old Way/New Way® demonstrated experimentally in non-sport settings."

Athlete's profile

M was a 25-year-old female javelin thrower who has competed in several European and World Championships and in the Atlanta Olympics. Table 1 reports the dynamics of her results over the last nine years.

Table 1. Olympic javelin thrower's performance 1992-1999
Year Competitions Mean dist. (m) Min. Max.
1992
11/2
50.34
54.00
46.84
1993
10/2
54.41
58.26
48.44
1994
12/1
55.72
58.70
51.26
1995
16/5
61.06
65.16
56.22
1996
16/4
60.74
63.28
56.50
1997
14/5
64.15
67.32
61.36
1998
66.43
1999
61.50

Background to the technique difficulty

The 1999 season was a difficult one for M. She suffered from injuries; a new type of javelin was introduced; and she experienced consistent errors in technique during competitions.

At the beginning of the season M did not react to this error at all because she was not even aware that she had a technique problem. However, when TK, her coach, pointed out the error M began to pay more attention to it. She was able to compare this incorrect technique with her previous throws using video playback and with practice the technique problem appeared to be resolved.

For the next six months everything appeared to be all right, especially during training when M was not required to perform at maximum effort. At the beginning of the season in spring there were still no obvious signs of the error. When the new javelin type was introduced in 1999, M tried to throw low, thinking that if the throw is low it would fly better.

The main emphasis at that time during training was on finding the most appropriate direction and the right trajectory for the new javelin. Little attention was paid to identifying the movement sequence required for a technically optimal performance because the technique problem was not apparent at this stage.

However, in summer with the beginning of the competition season, the technique problem became more evident and also grew more serious.

M tried stronger throws and felt more pain in her shoulder and the results were clearly below her potential and previous performances. Most of her throws were below 60 m, although her personal bests in the previous seasons were 67.32m in 1997 and 66.43m in 1998.

An important characteristic of the technique error was that during training and practices M was able to throw correctly almost every time, giving the impression that coaching had produced the desired improvement. However, in the stress of competition she would invariably fall back to her incorrect technique.

Correction of the error in technique that consistently appeared almost solely in competitions was now really important for two reasons. Firstly, this difficulty in technique was making M uncompetitive. Secondly, it caused M considerable pain in the shoulder and this could potentially develop into a serious (season-ending) injury.

Two months of skill correction and drills failed to improve the situation and the World Championship in Seville was only three weeks away, so at YH's invitation TK agreed to try Old Way/New Way®.

In the sections that follow an overview of the Old Way/New Way® session will be given, splitting the procedure into pre-, mid- and post-intervention stages.

Stage 1. Pre-learning trial stage

1. Motivation to change

Getting the athlete's agreement to participate in Old Way/New Way® is an important first step. A sport psychologist and a coach cannot change the athlete; she must make the change herself.

While a total belief in the methodology is not a pre-requisite, at least some degree of commitment to change and improvement is required. At YH's request, TK had a preliminary discussion with the athlete and, as expected, the athlete expressed some doubts as to whether she should change her old way of throwing. Her e-mail messages reveal those feelings.

(14 Jul 1999). "Yes, I did my first throwing session today after having given the elbow 2½ weeks to recover. It was not bad at all, I was of course a bit anxious about if it would hurt or not, but it didn't. I did quite many throws but only "easy" ones and mostly from walking. We talked with my coach about what you suggested I should do when throwing. Well today (mostly since I was throwing easy and we did it to "test" the elbow) I did it the "normal" way....and it was quite ok! I never really throw with a "competition run-up" in training, mostly because I feel better about my throwing when I'm throwing off grass. So I'm not 100% sure if I should still try to do the "new" way, which I also told my coach - so what do you think??? - when I throw from grass it is easy for me to "find" the throw and have the right technique!!!! I'm throwing again next week on Monday."

Two things are important to note here:

(a) M's hidden resistance to change and the fact that, as TK said, they never really tried to correct the technique before because there was no problem in training and hence no real need to change anything; and

(b) the consistent error in technique appeared only during a run-up with full speed and during the stress of competition.

Subsequent correspondence between M and YH revealed that her unstable performance and the re-occurrence of the error, especially in competitions, had made her ambivalent about the need for correction. When everything was going well she saw no need to change but the recollection of problems during competition gave her the feeling that she would like to do something about it. Her uncertainty and indecision are still apparent in the following messages.

(25.07.99). "I came back quite late from throwing training yesterday, so I'm writing this feedback today. I still remember how it felt. Well, in a way I didn't feel as focused as last time, maybe I was a bit eager to throw?! I'm not pleased with everything yet, but I guess I just need to have patience right now and not try to rush things. At the end of the session I kind of got the feel for how it should go (and I was able to focus better or "think of nothing") and my last throw was probably my best one also."

"I must admit I'm a bit nervous for Wednesdays meet, it feels like "the first meet of the summer" then again in a way it will be. My coach is coming too so that will help a little bit. The other training that I've done has been ok, so I know 'I'm getting there' -like I said a lot of patience or nice n' easy, right."

(30.07.99). "Well, this might sound a bit weird, but I felt pretty good physically and even in the warm ups, but I just can't get it right (YET) at the finish of the throw. I feel that I'm getting close (or I'm just hallucinating, he hee) to getting it right. I guess the only 'problem' is that I've got one more meet to get it right at, our Nationals. I must say I feel a lot more confident that I can throw well now than I did 5-6 weeks ago, so it will be an interesting meet on the 7th!! (1999)."

(3.08.1999). "I just thought I'd write you some comments about today's throwing. To put it short, getting there. This was probably my best throwing session for the summer!! Still not totally satisfied but it's getting better every time now! A month ago I couldn't feel a thing when I was throwing but now I'm starting to get the feel back! I know my coach talked to you earlier today so you know we did a 'normal' throwing session. I didn't focus on anything in particular to 'fix' just trying to stay relaxed and 'letting it come to me'. So, like I said today's training was a positive experience."

At this stage M appeared highly motivated and optimistic and was clearly improving during training. However, the technique problem was still not under control.

TK was ready for an Old Way/New Way® learning trial but with the recent improvement in M's psychological state and in her general attitude it was jointly decided to postpone technique correction until after the national competition.

M knew her optimal performance state and was able to mobilize at the right moment, thus compensating for her sub-optimal technique. Consequently, M subsequently won the national championships. Even more importantly, she finally broke the A-limit (60m) for the first time in the season and would now be able to go to the World Championships in Seville.

After the celebrations, however, it was still obvious that M's throwing technique was too forced and had caused her elbow injury, so M and TK made an appointment with YH to commence technique correction.

The aim of the skill correction was to help M return to the better technique she had employed during the 1998 season.

2. Error analysis

Old Way/New Way® requires a detailed understanding and description of the technique fault. Three questions have to be answered, namely, "What is she doing wrong?", "What should she be doing instead?", and "What are the differences between these two ways?"

Since Old Way/New Way® is a team effort involving the athlete, her coach and the sport psychologist acting as change facilitator, all these stakeholders have to contribute to the error analysis as well as to the other stages of the skill development process. YH asked TK to describe M's technique problem in detail.

Summary of coach's error analysis

What would we like to change?

  1. The shoulder's line turns forward too early.
  2. The speed of movement does not increase (does not go on) bravely till the end.
  3. The elbow of the throwing (right) arm moves too low in the pull.

How should it be?

  1. Left shoulder (body side) should be forward longer at the beginning of the throw . Putting down supporting foot.
  2. Left shoulder (body side) should be forward longer at the beginning of the throw . Putting down supporting foot.
  3. Stronger (more active) leg work during the final stage in crossing steps.
  4. The body stays in vertical position.
  5. Back arm is higher and starts a movement later, so javelin pull is longer.

What is the difference?

  1. Javelin pull is shorter.
  2. Rotation stretching of the body does not happen as it should.
  3. The body does not move forward enough during the pulling.

This initial description of the technique problem is very involved, with many components of the throwing action being implicated.

Although an experienced coach can spot numerous technique faults readily, the initial aim of any Old Way/New Way® intervention is to identify and select only one or two major aspects of technique for correction during a single session. Attempting to concentrate on more than one or two aspects at any one time tends to confuse and overload the athlete and also makes observation by the coach and sport psychologist during the intervention much more difficult.

The next step, then, was to condense this list of faults into one or two items that could more readily be managed during the skill correction process.

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Case Summary and Discussion

This case illustrates many of the important outcomes of Old Way/New Way® that have been demonstrated in non-sport learning settings both experimentally and in field trials.

These outcomes concern skill development, performance improvement, cognitive and affective change and the desire to continue using Old Way/New Way® as the method of choice for further technique development.

1. Skill correction

Old Way/New Way® is a behaviour change methodology. In skill correction and development in sport its effectiveness is judged in terms of technique change in the desired direction. In other words, did M's technique improve?

Table 2 shows the dramatic improvement in percentage of technically correct actions following one Old Way/New Way® learning trial lasting approximately 90 minutes. Learning gains also transferred successfully to competitive performance, indicating that the transfer of learning was enduring.

Table 2. Percentage correct actions after intervention
  Before After
 
Wrong
Right
Wrong
Right
Practice
90%
10%
15%-20%
80%-85%
Competition
100%
0%
10%
90%

 

2. Performance enhancement

The fact that M also produced a personal best following the Old Way/New Way® session is, for the purposes of this study, irrelevant, even though it is highly significant for the athlete and her coach.

This is because the purpose of Old Way/New Way® has been achieved whenever two things are accomplished, namely:

  1. The athlete's technique changes in the desired direction during a correction session.
  2. The learning gains, i.e., improved technique, transfer to competitive settings.

If the initial choice of "better" technique, i.e., the "new way", is correct then athletic performance should also improve but this is not always a natural consequence of technique development. Sometimes, a change in technique is accompanied by no improvement at all or even a decrement in performance, if the choice of the "new" technique is unsuitable for the particular athlete.

In certain situations it may not even be possible to decide in advance which of several possible technique changes is likely to produce improved performance.

M's technique problem may be such a case. Although M and TK used video playback of M's 1998 throws to decide that she should try to "regain" the better technique of the past, the fact that she had to learn to handle a new javelin meant that she was, to some extent at least, searching for an entirely "new" way and not just trying to recover or reinstate a previously successful technique.

To some degree, the idea of "getting it back" is misleading. It is an oversimplification of the real learning problem. Better to use the idea of "changing/correcting a wrong way and then learning a right way". The fact that the new, right, way may resemble something the athlete could do before is not nearly as important as the fact that she first has to unlearn the error.

The unlearning is the key to behaviour change because, according to our psychological framework, Habit pattern interference is what we are trying to overcome. Habit pattern interference is what stops her unlearning that wrong way. Old Way/New Way® bypasses habit interference so she can then successfully unlearn the wrong way.

The fact that the new way resembles a past, successful, way of doing things may be purely coincidental, although, to a coach and athlete who are unschooled in the theoretical basis of Old Way/New Way®, the idea of "getting back a lost skill" sounds logical, simple and therefore becomes an attractive explanation.

But there is more to it than that. What we are doing with Old Way/New Way® is reducing or stopping the proactive interference that normally prevents or slows down unlearning and disables transfer of training.

Old Way/New Way® is therefore an interference eliminator, you might say. It allows the association of conflicting ideas to happen in the brain and it also exerts retroactive retrieval inhibition on the "old incorrect" way so it is quickly "forgotten" and the person is then left with the new way as the normal, logical natural choice of how to act.

3. Enhanced understanding

M was able to quickly develop a conceptual grasp of the new and subtle technicalities involved in throwing the new javelin. This was apparent from the transcript of her verbalizations during the Old Way/New Way® session and her subsequent reflections. This conceptual understanding lies at the heart of the observed technique improvements.

4. Improvement in affect

In addition to skill development, one of the side effects of Old Way/New Way® also experimentally demonstrated in non-sport learning contexts is a sudden improvement in affect.

This is more than just an athlete's happy reaction to obvious signs of technique improvement; it also comes from the feeling of empowerment, i.e., increased control over the change process, that accompanies the mediation process.

This realization of control is all the more impressive to the athlete because it occurs within such a short time span and is usually unprecedented because this rate of change is completely outside the athlete's prior experience. M's observations clearly indicate that she felt strongly empowered by Old Way/New Way®.

5. Continued use of the methodology

Another outcome of Old Way/New Way® also observed in other contexts concerns the desire to do more of it. Subsequent to a properly prepared and conducted Old Way/New Way® session, athletes typically want to use Old Way/New Way® to improve other aspects of their performance. Coaches and sport psychologists also feel this way. Following their initial successes, M, TK and YH plan to use Old Way/New Way® to help develop M's technique even further.

This desire springs not just out of the realisation that this methodology is very effective but is also based on the positive personal experience with Old Way/New Way® as being a very user friendly as well as a cost-effective way of changing actual performance.

Admittedly, in certain situations other methods of skill development, e.g., behaviour modification, can also be helpful in producing fairly rapid behaviour change.

However, despite their effectiveness, the inherent complexity, resource intensiveness and low user friendliness of such alternative methods means they are not widely used by coaches.

Even the best methods of skill development are of little more than academic interest if they are not being adopted by practitioners.

The history of sport science is full of "application gaps" where important research results that could potentially revolutionize sport performance were never adopted by athletes or coaches, for these same reasons.

Perhaps for the first time, Old Way/New Way® offers a viable alternative that is readily adopted by coaches and sport psychologists.

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