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The difference between learned skills and metastability for hockey players

In Coaching Hockey by Malcolm SutherlandLeave a Comment

A hockey dad once approached me after practice excited.

He was excited because he had seen his son’s newly discovered “ability” on the ice and wanted to congratulate me on my coaching ability. The player’s demonstration of “learned skill” was thought to be a product of this practice session. I smiled and appreciated the enthusiasm. Carefully, I moved over a bit to make sure the athlete heard us… so the player could soak up the rich experience of sport.

As a coach I was also pleased, but I wasn’t really impressed with the suggested outcome – the learning of a skill. The truth was the athlete hadn’t learned it at this practice and most likely hadn’t learned it at all.

As a coach I was more-so impressed by the effort, and focus of this athlete during our intensive rehearsal. I knew that this player’s performance of this specific skill wasn’t theirs yet and the skill was most likely to get (even) better, then likely worsen, only to be followed by some additional improvement and so on. The athlete might even lose the skill altogether without more practice and without the correct reinforcement.

When introduced to new skills, athletes predictably to go through a process of variability (meta-instability) until the skill itself can meet differing demands and differing environments yet remain stable.

The athlete we were discussing really didn’t “have the skill” yet and although he was now well into the process of acquiring the skill, it was far from “learned” and even farther from an “automated” state. In fact, I would suggest the demonstration of the ability observed was a function of the environment we created as coaches rather than anything else.

Our designed or chosen activity allows athletes to find their abilities (physical and motor-cognitive) and discover their own unique abilities. The discovery of the “how to” required to perform it. But, more precisely what the parent was seeing in this practice situation was an improvement in their athlete’s mean time between failures (mtbf) and the start of a tipping of the balance between performance development and consistent performance capacity.

The performance of this skill in “real-time” or in open-ended game play would suggest the opposite of learning. In fact, even in a “closed ended” controlled practice environment the skill introduced was quite far from being stable and even farther from becoming an automated response for the athlete.

So my job as coach was to reset the expectation and reestablish the need for the athlete to return to the process of “getting better” and “enjoying the process” after sufficient rest and physical recovery/adaptation. But at the same time, my job as a coach was to harness that excitement, because it will be this enthusiasm that will motivate the athlete toward the many, many more hours of practice to reach metastability.

About the Author

Malcolm Sutherland


Malcolm Sutherland is a coach, physical educator, sport pedagogist, and SME in sport development, sport safety and injury prevention. As an athlete and player safety expert Malcolm has developed prevention tools and a program to control serious injury in sport. He is a Chartered Professional Coach holding designation with Coaches of Canada. In hockey specifically, Malcolm is now active as sought after development coach working internationally and nationally. Malcolm has coach at every level from professional minor leagues, varsity as well as junior and AAA levels of minor hockey.


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