An explanation of the difference between skill and technique - Rob Ellis

This article was written by Rob Ellis, who you can follow on Twitter and LinkedIn.

As coaches, we are all aware of the power of our words. What we say to our players impacts upon their performance, their understanding of what they have been asked to do and their mental and emotional state. All these things have a considerable impact on the overall development of players.

There have been numerous studies carried out down the years about how much of what coaches say to their players is remembered and understood. I believe that it is hard to accurately assess to what extent players absorb the word of the coach as all players are different and all have different attention spans.

All coaches use a combination of showing and telling players what they want and will alter their coaching style depending on the personalities in the group. I have played for many coaches that gave long technical and tactical explanations as well as coaches that gave short and sharp snippets of advice. Some of the coaches I played for minimised explanations and preferred to show the players rather than tell the players what was required. As a player and a coach, I have seen and employed many ways of showing rather than telling including video analysis, tactics boards and physical demonstrations on the training pitch.

I was happy to listen to all my coaches when they spoke at length. If I felt that their delivery style was engaging, and I was confident that they were experts in what they were talking about I could show great patience and listen for long periods of time. I know that there are lots of players that prefer demonstrations and found long speeches boring, but I liked to listen carefully to my coaches and measure the effectiveness of their words on my understanding of systems of play, my own performance, and the overall functioning of the teams.

One thing that always bored was jargon. In the heat of the moment, we can all get lost in football speak and use some of the classic clichés we all know too well. I think there is a limited time and place for jargon as it can help the players relate to the coach and shows that the coach has a feel for football (even if the jargon is somewhat meaningless). The thing that bored most however, was the inaccurate use of language. I was able to filter out the jargon but found it much harder to listen to any coach that was using confused or inaccurate technical language.

As a Sports Science student at Brunel University, I attended many lectures on sports coaching. During one lecture, I listened to a very experienced and highly qualified sports academic talk about the need for coaches to be experts on technical language. He saw it as a great failing if a coach had reached a stage where they oversaw groups of players yet did not have a deep understanding of how to accurately use technical language. His lecture centred on something that I had been thinking about for some time as a player. The debate at the heart of the discussion was “What is a skill and what is a technique and how do we tell the difference between the two”?

As watchers of football, we often hear TV and radio commentators talk about how skilful a player is. We also often hear comments like “That was a great piece of skill”. After decades of being involved in football, my belief is that most of the time, the use of the word “Skill” is lazy, inaccurate and at times meaningless. The danger in the use of inaccurate technical language is that it becomes absorbed and accepted by people in the football world. The result of this is that most coaches and players will use inaccurate and meaningless technical language on a daily basis.

Without borrowing any definition (dictionary or otherwise) of what the words “Technique” and “Skill” mean, I will attempt to explain them accurately in my own words.

Technique – The physical movements required to perform an action. Every technique is made up of small and sequential actions. Depending on how accurately and efficiently these actions are performed determines the level of success and the aesthetic quality of the technique. Good technique can be indicated by a successful outcome such as hitting a free kick into the top corner or by the look of how it is performed e.g., an unopposed but graceful turn into space.

Skill – The ability to create and advantageous situation or an opportunity to successfully execute a technique. An example of a skill is a perfectly timed run into the penalty area to meet the ball or a defender reading the flight of the ball which allows them to either attack the ball with a header or drop off and gain possession of the ball. In all these cases, the skill ultimately leads to the technique. In the case of the run into the penalty area, the opportunity to finish is created and in the case of the defender the opportunity to header the ball clear or control the ball is created by the skill.

When we understand the meaning of the definitions, it is quite worrying to see how inaccurately the word “Skill” is used by coaches, players, and fans across the world. The use of “He/she is a skilful player” is frequently used without any real meaning and or accuracy. When a player dribbles past 2-3 players they are often described as “Skilful”. To my mind, dribbling is not a skill, it is a technique. The technique involves accurately moving the ball with different parts of the feet and keeping it away from one or more defenders. There is a skill to knowing when to use the dribble i.e., at an opportune moment that allows the dribbler to break into new space when a pass is not available. The skill comes from game intelligence and understanding not in the performing of the dribble.

There may be coaches and players that read this article that disagree with my thoughts and definitions however from an academic perspective, I believe that there has been a misuse of the word skill for too long to remember. As a coach and a PE teacher, I always check myself for accuracy of technical language. It is easy to fall into the trap of using skill instead of technique. Many of the kids that I teach, and coach may not have think about or even care about the use of these words however as coaches and educators, we have a duty to educate the players properly and accurately.

The over-use and misuse of “Skill” is a significant problem as it leaves the word “Technique” obsolete. If “Skill” is used when “Technique” is meant, then it renders the word “Technique” as meaningless. This is a huge problem in football because as coaches, our job is to maximise the players’ technique. If there is not an accurate use of the word “Technique” then how can coaches improve it or players understand it and then better themselves?

There are categories to both words. For example, techniques can be “Open” or “Closed” or a combination of the two. In football, a penalty kick is an example of a closed technique because the ball is still, no defenders can block the kick and the taker can take the kick in reasonable time. An open technique is influenced by defenders and movement e.g., crossing a moving ball with a defender in proximity. Skills can be broken down into physical and mental. As explained earlier, timing a run into the penalty area is a physical skill whereas knowing when best to use a pass or a dribble is a mental skill based on intelligence and experience.

It is my belief that coaches must understand the errors that are commonly made by lazy coaches, pundits, and players to make sure that our players are being coached and educated accurately. What is the point of technical language if it is not used properly? Apart from one University lecture over 20 years ago, I have never heard a serious discussion about what I have explained in this article. As the world of coaching becomes ever more pressurised and coaches are held more and more accountable for what they deliver, surely the points raised in this account are worth thinking about for all coaches.

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