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August/September 2014

August/September 2014

Coach to Coach: The Mental Fundamentals – Motor Programming

by: Tim Mitchell
Assistant Football Coach, Fossil Ridge High School (CO) and Sports Psychology Consultant
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The ball is in the air. It’s a perfect spiral flying straight into a pair of hands. He drops it! It’s like his hands exploded from the speed of the ball. The coach yells “catch the ball, you gotta make that catch” or something similar, as if the player didn’t want to catch the ball in the first place.

Why waste your breath on stating the obvious? What kind of receiver doesn’t want to make the catch? Chances are, the reason he missed the catch is because he hasn’t done it enough. How many repetitions does he have? Is anyone counting how many times he has caught the ball?

Think about this. During spring and summer you spend a lot of time with 7-on-7 football. During practice you might run 20-30 plays. Out of those 30 plays, each receiver is thrown to 4-10 times. That’s not nearly enough repetitions for them to be proficient.

There are many fundamental skills our players need to improve on and the only way is through repetitions that build a strong motor program. So why be upset when they fail to execute the things they have not been trained to do? Maybe we are failing to teach or maybe we just don’t understand how the body learns. 

Muscles Don’t Have Memories

Muscle memory is a term that most of us are familiar with. In the field of sport psychology, we prefer to use the term “motor programming” because muscles don’t have memories. There are three phases of development when building a motor program in athletes.

The first phase is the “cognitive phase”. The cognitive phase is the beginning stage of learning a new skill or movement. In this stage, the coach uses verbal instructions, demonstrations, videos and pictures to teach the athlete the desired movements. The cognitive phase is over once the athlete can perform the skill the way it was demonstrated. Athletes will spend the least amount of time in the cognitive phase.

The second stage of motor programming is the “associative phase”. This stage of learning is all about skill refinement. Athletes begin to execute with more precision and consistency. They can begin to develop a feel for what they do, a kind of sixth sense or awareness. The associative phase is where you can see the separation between teams that look sloppy and teams that look precise. Coaching athletes in the associative phase should be focused on practice and proper technique. This is what most high school football coaches do. Most athletes will spend the majority of their career in the associative phase with the vast majority never transitioning to the third phase.

The third phase of motor programming is called the “autonomous phase”. This is the expert phase where most of the Olympic and professional athletes reside. In the autonomous phase, athletes no longer apply conscious thought to the movements they are making. That level of expertise comes from a lifetime of training. Coaching players in the autonomous phase means focusing on maintaining success and motivating athletes to continue to seek improvement. Coaches must create a motivational environment that compels athletes to believe they can still get better. Coaching styles change through all three phases. You wouldn’t approach a pro the same way you would approach a 9-year old because they are in different phases of learning.
Creating Separation

Most high school and college-aged football players are somewhere inside the associative phase of building a motor program. Why are some teams clearly better at executing? There are two main philosophies that come to mind. Some coaches build schemes to take advantage of their talent or what they believe to be more conducive to that particular group of athletes (“scheme coaches”). Some coaches teach a simple system they believe can be filled by whomever they get from year to year and also be executed at the freshman level (“system coaches”).

Some coaches have big playbooks and some coaches have very small playbooks. One isn’t necessarily better than the other but coaches must consider what it takes to build a motor program. How many practice minutes do you spend on scheme vs. fundamentals? Do you want a defense that can tackle or do you want a defense that plays seven different coverages, using multiple blitzes and stunts? Do you want an offense that can block or an offense that requires a linguist to understand? It doesn’t matter what type of system you run. Any system can be simple. The genius behind simplicity is all about practice minutes. More minutes spent on blocking and tackling equals fewer minutes spent on scheme.
Be Different

So if you truly want to create separation, do what most teams don’t do. Spend your practice minutes on the things that have never failed, the things that win football games. Build a superior motor program with a minimalist approach. Do a few things better than everybody else. Do things differently. The football teams that execute extremely well do things differently. They don’t just practice more or have better talent. They have better attitudes, they show up on time, get better sleep, have better diets, play tougher competition, have higher expectations, have more thorough preparation and a support system (parents and administration) that is far better than average (set goals to achieve these things).

Being different is an elite mentality adopted by few programs that have the desire to be consistent. Take one step toward elite right now by coaching the fine points. Correct a kid for being one inch out of alignment. “Sweep the corners” with a meticulous attitude. Explore what the “mundanity of excellence” really means. Pursuing perfection is a pursuit, not a possibility. If your journey is to chase perfection, you will touch excellence along the way and you can build a superior motor program.
About the Author: Coach Tim Mitchell is a Sports Psychology Consultant and a former U.S. Navy diver. He holds a master’s degree in Sport and Performance Psychology. Mitchell has been coaching for over 20 years and is currently on the staff of Fossil Ridge High School in Ft. Collins (CO). He can be reached at


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