Understanding the demonstration effect in the coaching process

283142001_34a09d125d_oConsistently learning is the key to high level weightlifting performance. Wikipedia describe learning as the process by which you acquire new or modify existing knowledge and skills. When observed, weightlifting performance- defined as the performance of the snatch and clean and jerk- really is a simple task. However, it is mechanically and neurally extremely complex. Imitation is one way of simplifying the complex task at hand and using what we have got (prior knowledge and skills) to reproduce somewhat the task at hand. It however has its drawbacks.

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Two coaching approaches 

If you coach somebody, the best question you can ask yourself is ”How do I go about teaching the skill of weightlifting”. There are many coaches around which means that there are many coaching styles and methodology around. That being said, you can resume everything that is being done in two category of teaching. The first category is coaching through description. Description learning is as technical as it gets. It implies that the coach describe the lifts, and what happens at every phase of the lift. It implies that the athlete is being told what he is doing and what is expected of him/her in words, rather than ”images” or ”visual cues”. It works best when coaching one on one.

This approach provides the best learning experience to the athlete. For one, the athlete learns about concepts like center of gravity, biomechanics and positioning. For two, such approach allows the athlete to visualize what’s asked and required. Visualization of movements leads to better outcomes. More importantly, the athlete can discuss the concepts with the coach, which can result in challenging the concepts and the coach understanding of the concepts. Although not every coach likes that, I believe that it is healthy to discuss and debate concepts.


The second approach is based on visual cues, or in other words on demonstration. The coach – or another athlete- shows the movement so that the athlete can imitate it. You don’t really need to understand the why and how of everything, just replicate what is shown. This approach is pretty good for people that really need the visual cues. You don’t learn much on the theoretical side of things, but as long as it works and produce results, it’s good. According to Wikipedia, the demonstration effect are ”effects on the behavior of individuals caused by observations of the actions of others and their consequences”

In the grand scheme of things, you want a coach that use both approaches very well. Actually, all things considered, approach 1 is better than approach 2 in most cases. The demonstration approach has a few culprit that are rarely mentioned. Demonstration without instruction is often not productive. I guess the point I am trying to make is that your coaching strategy has to involve the right instructions and the right demonstration


The Culprit of the demonstration effect 

While approach one is all about the technicalities and clarity, approach number 2 works of the capacity of observation and perception of the athlete. Since observation and perception are really subjective, the coach has to select the right kind of material to observe if we want to pass on the right message. For instance, when showing the second pull of a lift to an athlete, the athlete may see that the bar touches the thighs or that the shoulder are over the bar or that the knee is at a certain angle. Which one do you really want the athlete to pay attention to?

Now what if the athlete does not see the right thing and emulates the wrong thing? Naim Suleymanoglu yanked very violently on his First Pull. By most standards, we don’t want to coach that because it just does not work most of the time (the lifter loose control of the bar). If you show a video of Suleymanoglu to your athlete to show the speed of weightlifting, your athlete may see the yanking and emulate it. I have seen this quite often. Another very common example is the set up approach of Klokov. For some reasons, people emulate that before lifting : Sitting at the bar, grunting, looking mean, showing your teeth, grunting again, looking sideways, rocking back and forward and one more grunt for the luck.

The other day, I was showing the speed of the second pull and finished the pull on my toes and shoulder shrugged. I have said many times that these things happen naturally and that there are more important things to coach than that. Anyhow, the athlete in question saw that and kept trying to go on her toes very early in the pull (which I did not show, but she somehow interpreted that this was happening).

I asked : Why are you on your toes so early? She replied : ”That’s what you just showed me”. My intention was never to have her look at my toes, but at the speed of the bar and how close it is to the body.This is why athletes have to be careful about what they want on Youtube or online. You may pick up flaws without knowing. On the other hand, coaches have to make sure the right instructions are given upon demonstration.

On filming your own lifts and looking at them

Technology is amazing. I get to write here, and you get to read me on your computer screen. Phones are amazing these days and allow for some pretty good lifting. In other words, athletes that film every lift have the mean to collect a large amount of data in a short time. It is irrelevant to have such data if you don’t have the knowledge to interpret it.  Even worse is that this experimental procedure is biased by the athlete feelings.

If the athlete feels like he/she did not do ”x”, they will review the video until they get clear with it. This is biased research, if you will. Moreover, if the athlete does not have the proper knowledge to interpret what’s happening (the whys and how comes), then the result is that time will be wasted trying to correct something that may not need corrections.

Common Sense

You may say that this is common sense and, really, it is. No matter how logical this is, we still see athletes trying to correct the wrong things and demonstrations resulting in the wrong behavior or not the behavior we are looking for. Coaching is a process that involves bi-directional communication and can only work if everything is very clear. Instruction cannot really change by definition (a snatch is still a snatch regulated by the rules of the snatch), but demonstrations can be enhanced for better coaching results. At the end of the day, it makes or break the athlete.

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