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The art of practice: Intentional training a model way of embedding new skills

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Dan Abrahams

Dan Abrahams is a former professional golfer and golf coach who is now forging a successful career as a qualified sports psychologist and author. Headhunted recently by Eddie Jones to work with the England rugby team, he is also employed by Premier League side AFC Bournemouth. Here we pick his brain on the importance of training with mental intensity, explore his concept of intentional training and demonstrate how to embed its principles into your coaching practice.

  • The model of intentional training is Dan’s brainchild. It fuses several learning theories around skill development – including deliberate practice – with his own experiences as a professional sportsman, coach and psychologist.
  • Intentional training requires performers to practice with purpose and with unswerving mental focus. The training or practice has to be interesting, intense, integrated and internalised.
  • It is important that sports psychologists strive to demystify their profession by translating their performance philosophies into layman’s terms so it is accessible and understandable by grass-roots coaches and performers as well as elite practitioners. 

The volume of high-profile international coaches who extol the benefits of incorporating a psychological approach to training continues to grow. 

The belief that mental conditioning is as crucial as physical conditioning is fast becoming accepted as a universal truth.

The standpoint is one in the eye for scoffing psyhcosceptics, who seem to be dwindling in number every year – their voices drowned out by the great and the good of world sport. 

When sports psychologist Dan Abrahams was invited in April to become the England rugby team’s ‘mind guru’ building up to the World Cup in Japan in 2019, it was the coming together of two kindred spirits, with head coach Eddie Jones a self-confessed sports psychology aficionado. 

Dan doesn’t deal in psychobabble. Psychoprofitable is an altogether more apt term to describe his methods. 

His number one topic of interest is the controversial link between practice and excellence and its fundamental role in developing new skills and making them stick. 

And he was only too pleased to share his views for the benefit of ConnectedCoaches members. 

Quality of practice determines rate of progress 

Dan is convinced that an intention to train hard and improve, and then act on those intentions with physical intensity, is not nearly enough. To develop permanent new skills, what performers must do is train intentionally. There is a hugely significant difference between the two. 

More than simply giving your all physically, intentional training is when performers practice with purpose, with focus and with intelligence. 

Essentially, the term coined by Dan is an evolution of the concept of deliberate practice. 

Anders Ericsson’s principle – popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success – claims 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ are needed to become world class in any field. 

You have to train long, but you also have to train smart, which means engaging in the right kind of practice. Quality of practice is key and it is not sufficient to simply accumulate hour upon hour, upon hour.

‘Where I do agree with Ericsson is this notion of improvement and excellence lying within training and practice. I’m a big believer in the quality and efficiency of your training and/or your practice being the biggest determinant of your progress in any sport,’ says Dan. 

‘Where I would differ slightly is, in line with the popular consensus, it is not the only determinant, and I would also disagree that you can train or practice your way to become world number one. I’m certainly not convinced by that hypothesis but I am a big believer that it is a massive factor in achieving excellence, and the single biggest that you can control. 

‘So it is vital for any athlete in any sport to engage in what I call intentional training.’ 

Dan believes that in his experience, footballers in particular – and he has worked previously with West Ham, QPR, Fulham and Derby County – are often guilty of believing they are training well while, in actual fact, instead of practising with purpose, they are training on autopilot. 

They may be getting stuck in physically, be aggressive in their challenges and possess the will to win. But while they undoubtedly have the psyched up element, they are missing the vital psychological element. 

It is not that they are unwilling to move out of their comfort zone, it is that they don’t know how to, says Dan – who also runs an online academy for football players, coaches and parents. 

‘Footballers need to be more pro-active and highlight areas of their own game they think they need to improve or act on, seek feedback from the coach and take that objective out onto the pitch with them. 

‘For me, and in line with the research, where they do themselves a disservice is they have a misunderstanding of how they can improve. I always say to footballers, absolutely, have that physical intensity, but in line with that you have to have a mental intensity. You have to practice with purpose and with focus.’ 

Dan’s intentional training model seeks to turn performers – whatever their age or performance level – from passive to active learners. 

The I’s have it 

Dan divides intentional training into four areas: interesting, intense, internalise and integrated. 

For optimum results, a performer must deliver on all four fronts.

  1. Interest – ‘From a coaching perspective, you should set up a training or practice regime that, even more than holding your athlete’s attention, is going to captivate and absorb them. This doesn’t mean it is always fun, but it is meaningful to the individual in question. The best way for athletes to become fully engaged and switched on, outside of what their coaches are delivering, is for them to have their own mini-objectives – and these should be stretch objectives that exceed their set goals. For example, taking a risk and saying, “I’m always using my right foot. Today I am going to predominantly practise with my left foot”.’
  2. Intense – ‘Not just physical hard work but mental hard work. A focused effort. Absorbing yourself in the moment and really paying attention to what you are doing. Intentional training should stretch you and push you out of your comfort zone. It requires an inner voice that energises and shouts “push”.’ 
  3. Internalise – ‘From an athlete perspective, there has to be some self-reflection in the moment. This is key to active learning and how you change the wiring in your brain. Players can’t have the attitude that they will automatically get better through training. They should be constantly asking questions and examining the process of their practice. Again, relating this to footballers, this means asking: Am I keeping my body shape? Did I get in the right position there? Have I taken more shots than yesterday? Am I timing my jumps from corners correctly? From a coach’s perspective, that internalisation can happen through good questioning, intelligent feedback or through providing key words.’
  4. Integrated – ‘The need for players to integrate their personal reflections with feedback from their coach. “When I hear some feedback, am I taking that on board? Am I getting it spot on? Do I need to change anything?” Maybe ask the coach directly for feedback to check on the progress of a particular skill or technique, bearing in mind that players can’t actually see themselves perform in the moment.'

Dan Abrahams

The volume control button 

‘Four eyes’ is a common playground insult directed at children who wear glasses and is met with the standard riposte of ‘four eyes are better than two!’ Well, if you’ll forgive the odd parallel, utilising all ‘four I’s’ during a training session helps bring the benefits of intentional training into sharper focus than just using one or two. 

The different elements often overlap and, says Dan, at any given time during intentional training you might feel it appropriate as a coach or performer to ‘dial up’ or ‘dial down’ the volume levels of each one. 

A coach may decide to turn down the volume of interest for example, and go completely against the constructivist approach to coaching by asking their players to carry out a repetitive drill – if they feel it is necessary at that point in time to embed a particular piece of learning. 

‘Or you might turn up the volume of interest to make the session more playful, more fun or more game-based,’ adds Dan. ‘You might even abdicate your coaching role at certain times so there is not as much integration with regards feedback. 

‘To keep it interesting, it can sometimes be beneficial to modify the length of your practice or training.’ 

Dan worked with a host of USPGA and PGA Tour professionals during his three years at England Golf. One tactic he employed was to oversee practice for 25 minutes, then allow the player a five-minute break, before telling them to find something else to do away from the golf course for 25 minutes.

‘I used this technique to keep it interesting and to maintain their mental intensity. If it is too intense then the player won’t be able to internalise efficiently.’ 

Which is wonderfully ironic, considering the conclusions of Gladwell’s much maligned 10,000-Hour Rule advocating endless hours’ repetitive practice. 

In layman’s terms 

For Dan, demystifying the principles of sports psychology is an important part of his job. 

The use of complex terminology and jargon in academic texts and research papers is a stick that is sometimes used to beat psychologists with. 

Dan endeavours to express his methodologies ‘in plain English’ so that executing the principles become that much easier for coaches and performers. 

‘Academia is the lifeblood of our profession, whether in education or coaching, but it is not necessarily the heartbeat,’ he says. 

‘For me the heartbeat is your coaching attitude, your character, your personality, your communication and your ability to put across what you want to impart in an appropriate way at any given time.’

And being faithful to that latter notion, while at the same time pledging allegiance to empirical evidence, underpins Dan’s attitude towards the art of practice. 

‘If we take the research of deliberate practice, and flow, and what we know of optimal learning experiences, then how we put that across to grass-roots coaches who have 9-5 jobs, who don’t have the time, and possibly don’t have the inclination to delve deep into the research literature, is crucial. 

‘I think sometimes there can be a bit of academic snobbery in terms of expecting them to be able to do that. Well, we can’t expect them to. 

‘What I have tried to do is combine the work on deliberate practice, the concept of flow or being ‘in the zone’ [when a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus] and Dan Kahneman’s work [on the psychology of decision-making] with my own experiences.’ 

Intentional training is the final result. A hybrid view of practice in a simple to follow framework that is, according to Dan, still very much a model in progress.

A learning model for everyone 

I ask Dan if grassroots coaches can benefit from the concept as much as elite level coaches and if intentional training translates across all sports? 

‘Absolutely. When you are a coach you are involved in the three Ps: participation, progression and performance. At elite level it is less about participation, and at grass-roots it is more about participation. But the middle ‘p’ is relevant to both, no matter the age. So intentional training is relevant to all because it is all about progressive learning.

‘I come back to the flexibility and robustness of this model because, say I am coaching 10 year olds, I might decide to turn up the level of interest, and make a session more playful and games-based, and turn down the volume of intensity, through my communication, my body language, through my less command-style coaching approach.

‘I might also turn down the volume in terms of internalising and integration. I might not ask them as many questions and just let them play, drag out some cones and let them make up their own game.’ 

Neuroplasticity (the ability to rewire the brain) is maximised if performers are attending to the task at hand in a purposeful and focused manner. This quality of practice and reinforcement is the prime mediator in every case, amateur or professional, and determines the extent to which new connections and neural pathways are created. 

A question of empowerment 

A question that interests Dan is whether deliberate practice should be coach driven, or whether coaches should be empowering players to drive their own deliberate practice? 

There is a subtle difference. For Dan, the emphasis should be on empowering players to take charge

But that does not negate the need for coaching input.

‘Setting up the environment for players to take charge is only part of it. There also needs to be an intellectual conversation here, where coaches sit down with players or small groups of players and describe what deliberate practice, or intentional training, is so they can begin driving themselves and start embedding those underlying skills they need to be an active learner.

‘And this is where I think the message isn’t getting across, especially in football.’ 

The good news is coaches, says Dan, thanks to more psychologically aware FA courses and qualifications, are becoming educated consumers. 

He says working with Derby County last year was the first time that he felt challenged by football coaches from an academic and intellectual standpoint. 

‘The next stage is for [these enlightened] coaches to begin empowering the players to rewire their brains. 

‘I come from the perspective that it is not the athletes’ fault and that we need to be better at presenting these concepts in an engaging manner.’ 

You have heard of the proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, well it seems the road to excellence is paved with good intentional training.

What are your views on intentional training and deliberate practice? Please post a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

Further reading

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