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  • Writer's pictureBaldMarauder

Technique as the Cornerstone of Development

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

It has been my pleasure to spend 15 years in the National Football League as a player, coach, and performance specialist. I have been able to look at elite athletes from the perspective of an opponent, scout, position coach, strength and conditioning coach, and development coach. The size, speed, and overall athleticism in professional sports continues to evolve; I have been fortunate to see some of the greatest athletes on the planet perform amazing feats on and off the field. At the elite level there are very few ‘special’ athletes; players who can show up and dominate simply because their natural ability is so far ahead of their peers. These players have a different decision to make; whether to be satisfied with relying on natural talent, or pressing their talent with effort and focus to become a ‘generational player.’

But what about the rest of the talent pool? The other 95% of players in the NBA, NFL, EPL, and MLB are all sitting essentially with the same opportunity and the same basket of traits – on margin[TW1] . At the collegiate level, player development is as much about the system and structure of their school as it is natural ability. Scouts have a prototype for height, weight, lateral speed, coordination; grades for shooting ability, demeanor, and creativity. Why do some players fall short, while others capitalize on the opportunity of a lifetime?

If we were to approach sports like an equation, we could identify the characteristics that are fixed and those that are variable in order to maximize our success. The fixed characteristics would be the tangibles; height, weight (to some extent), arm length, etc. We could also include team, coach, scheme, etc. as where you go early in your career is not necessarily up to you. The slightly more variable traits would be strength, speed, and behavioral characteristics; these can be modified but have limits. At the other end of the spectrum, completely variable characteristics are the ones we want to focus on; they allow us to separate ourselves from our competition through force of will, effort, and grit. These traits include, mental toughness, training routine, off-the-field activities, and technique.

The ability to do your job and win individual matchups determines the length of your stay in competitive sports. There is no single advantageous trait to accomplish this greater than becoming a master of your technical skillset. This is the only characteristic not given by birthright that can allow you to play in any scheme against any opponent. Technique is the cornerstone of your development as an individual, and ultimately, as an organization. In the following, we will examine technique as a foundation for individual development, both on-field and off; and as a model for organizational development.


Why technique? Why not effort, or focus, or perseverance? Technique is the end result of all of these qualities. To be truly great in a competitive environment takes years of focused effort and perseverance. To consistently deliver a focused, deliberate practice is extremely difficult over time. That is why our greatest athletes are the rare few that have the technical skill to match their outsized athleticism. At the individual level with equal athletes, the player who has mastered their competitive technique will always prevail.

Benefits of prioritizing technique in your development:

1) The details of execution are difficult to master and take hours and years to become ‘master class.’ Those who are able to think and speak in detail are forcing an accountability to themselves and the mission. The pride, confidence, and mental toughness our athletes can gain through detailed practice will be the foundation of their gameday success.

We do not rise to the occasion; we fall to the lowest level of training

2) Scheme is designed for perfect execution. Technique is the foundation that allows any scheme to consistently outperform. Coaches do not draw up plays that only work when someone makes an error. As athletes it is our responsibility to execute the scheme as it is intended. Anything less is a disservice to the mission.

3) The discipline to become a master technician will carry over into all aspects of preparation. Discipline requires standards and accountability to one’s self. The routines developed to make consistent improvement in your technique will help you build out your in-season/offseason development plans.

Technicians grind. Grinding is not based on effort alone; it is maintaining focus during consecutive training sessions. It is focusing on the details of the movements during individual work; transitioning from one period to another, understanding the purpose behind the new period. The grind is mental; the struggle is to master technique in a static environment and transition that technique when asked to perform under duress, with distraction, at pace.

The Power Law of Practice

The power law of practice states that the logarithm of the reaction time for a particular task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials taken.

Task Time as a function of Practice

What we see from this graph is that at the tail end of skill development, we begin to spend a great deal of time practicing to become incrementally better at the task. To many this will sound like a case of diminishing returns. To those who are masters of their craft, they see this graph as full of opportunity, even at the elite level. Two things that are obvious to me about technical training; many elite level athletes are not technical masters (fall into middle phase of the graph), and those who have made it to the late phase realize the importance of being even slightly faster to react than the top players in their sport. As athletes and organizations; once we get to a certain standard, the incremental differences are what really matter. The key is to identify whether or not you have reached that standard before striving for the 1%.

Individual Development

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” - Calvin Coolidge

As athletes rise through the ranks, the differentiation in athleticism narrows. I like to use the analogy of an amusement park ride; once you are tall enough to ride the ride, the choice to proceed is up to you. As you progress through the sporting ranks and possess the minimum level requirements of physical aptitude to compete – the choice is up to you to determine how desperate you are to stand out from the crowd. Angela Duckworth has made famous the term ‘grit.’ Grit is the clean way of describing the enduring desire and fortitude to do what it takes to become good enough to consistently find victory against your opponent. This is the willingness to do the right thing as best you can over the long term. Nothing demonstrates this quality more than mastering the technique required to consistently execute what is asked of you.

“Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance”- Geoff Colvin

In today’s world of instant gratification, we do not embrace the grind. Celebrating the journey; the monotony of repetition, has been lost on an entire generation raised on iPhones. We want the path of least resistance. We want the answers to the test. We want the cheat code. For our greatest performers, the turning point came when they learned there isn’t one. It is the years of dedicated practice that create the opportunities for greatness. And within those hours in the gym, on the practice fields, in the ice baths; are the seeds of pride, confidence, and determination. Not I want this. I have earned this. I deserve this.

Deliberate practice requires intense effort, that is why it is difficult to bring it every period of every session. There are many movements in sport that are not practiced as part of a daily routine. These movements, broken down into patterns most natural for our body shape and structure, will be easier to execute for some players than others. But to master them – to perform them consistently under duress – takes planning, time, potentially travel, and focus. This is where we as athletes can make up ground quickly against our peers.

Examine tackling in American football; a technique that is difficult to master, physical, somewhat unnatural to most, and is not performed in everyday life. You basically have to buy a ticket to tackle someone, or practice the sequential movements required to tackle. This is a huge advantage to those willing to put in the effort. The learning curve for tackling at the elite level is not insurmountable; during the last football season, the professional group I worked with improved their tackling efficiency by nearly 50% by changing their training protocol to focus on the details of tackling. This was a midseason effort to improve technique; imagine what they could have accomplished with our devoted year-round training protocols!

Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history, has been quoted numerous times on the importance of tackling when assessing a potential Patriot. At any level, the ability to execute core techniques can make you stand apart from the competition. By following the progression from static to dynamic movement patterns, adding distractions, and continuing to live sessions; you have dramatically increased your chances of seeing the field! It takes ten extra minutes of dedicated practice every day to start getting ahead. Ten minutes to create the habit, understand the effort required, respect the process.

Undervaluing technical development happens more often than we would like to believe in elite level sports. We are constantly looking ahead to the ‘team’ portion of practice, instead of embracing the importance of building and reinforcing the technical foundation. As athletes, we must understand that technical development is ultimately our responsibility and must be developed outside of practice as well. But what is the message as an organization if we are throwing together plans at the last minute, trying to fill our precious individual with rapid fire drills?

Developing Mental Toughness

I define mental toughness as, the capability of an athlete to perform their job regardless of opponent, scheme, or situation. While some are born with an innate ability to demonstrate this character trait from an early age; it has been proven that individuals can develop qualities associated with mental toughness through dedicated practice. There are four markers that identify mental toughness:

1) Emotional Flexibility – the ability to handle different situations in a balanced or non-defensive manner - Technical Foundation

2) Emotional Responsiveness – the ability to remain emotionally alert and committed, even under pressure, and to stay engaged - Externally Aware

3) Emotional Strength – the ability to handle great emotional force and sustain one’s fighting spirit no matter the circumstances - Falling to Our Lowest Level of Training

4) Emotional Resiliency – the ability to handle setbacks and recover quickly from them: to quickly disregard disappointments, errors, and missed chances - Trusting the Process

We can make the connection between these sought-after traits and the direct benefits of a technique based development model. Athletes take confidence in the amount of effort they put in to development as public speakers take from hours of practiced pauses and opportune smiles. I do not know of another way to develop that confidence without earning it through preparation.

Coaches can help develop mental toughness in their athletes by taking a hands-on approach. There are two trains of thought in developing mental toughness; toughen the body to train the mind, or toughen the mind to train the body. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, we can all agree that confidence comes from knowing. Knowing what to do and how to do it breeds confidence in our athletes. By designing a progressive training program that challenges both the physical and mental state of athletes, we can give them the training knowledge required to excel in a competitive state.

1) Make the scenarios in the practice setting more difficult than a game setting. Train at a higher level than play.

· This can manifest through size of field, number of players, number of touches on the ball, etc.

· It is difficult to mimic the intensity and consequences of a game, but we can do in part through rewards and consequences

· Train the mental and the physical at every opportunity. Foundational skill in a safe setting, in a dynamic setting, with distraction, and finally in a live setting with forced decisions.

2) Advocate the importance of preparation. Take pride in the work you put in.

· Confidence can grow from the sweat of our labor

· Recognize the correlation between deliberate practice and game success

3) Strive for consistency in preparation. Take pride in the process.

· Volatility is inevitable in all training, particularly with younger athletes

· If we can smooth out the focus from one session to the next, we can make impact gains in relatively short amounts of time

We will tackle these concepts in greater detail in a follow-up piece; technique and mental toughness are closely intertwined.

Good luck!


- Technical mastery separates good from great

- Individual development creates opportunities to maximize team play

- Mental toughness is one of the many benefits of technical development

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