Backward chaining in teaching complex skills

A key issue that coaches must consider in teaching complex skills is the order in which they will teach component parts. This is likely to have a considerable bearing on how easily the athlete can achieve fluency of movement when all parts of the skill are reassembled and performed as a whole skill. Here is a simple example of the issue in which the Snatch is broken down into four components which are learned in two completely different orders.

Forward Chaining

Forward chaining is teaching the components of the skill in the order they naturally occur. You teach first, what happens first. This seems to be logical and credible. In figure 1, there are four components of the Snatch in the order which they naturally occur.

Illustration of forward chaining in the Snatch.
Figure 1: Forward Chaining

In this simplified example, the pull from the ground to the knee would be the first component learned because it naturally occurs first. In effect the athlete would learn the first pull before learning the second pull and then continue on to learn how to move under the bar and complete the Snatch.

I doubt whether any coach would fully adopt the Forward Chaining method because it is totally reasonable to teach the receiving position first, or at the very least before the beginner tries to move under the bar. Well, you hope they would! For this reason, then, Forward Chaining seems to lack feasibility.

Backward Chaining

If the Backward Chaining method is used, the order of components is learned in reverse and the first component part of the Snatch learned would be the Receiving Position.

Illustration of backward chaining in the Snatch.

The logic of Backward Chaining method is that as each new step is learned, it is followed by parts of the lift that are already familiar and practised. For example, if the receiving position is learned first, the beginner will be more confident when it comes to learning to drop under the bar. Similarly, the beginner will develop better timing in the pull from the knee to full extension, if they have previously practised and are less anxious about movement under the bar into the receiving position.

In developing excellence in pull technique, there is great advantage for the athlete to become proficient in the Second Pull BEFORE learning the First Pull. By focusing on the Second Pull in the early learning, the beginner generally performs better in key elements of technique such as keeping the bar close to the body and achieving a good body position in the finish of the pull. Anecdotally, athletes who begin learning the pull with the First Pull tend to display more arm-bending in the pull, a gap between bar and legs in the second pull, and less powerful upward thrust in the pull finish.

You might think, however, that it is not feasible to teach a beginner to drop under the bar before they have learned at least some part of the second pull. Well, it took decades of coaching practise before discovering that this is perfectly possible. The video will show:

When is a component sufficiently practised?

Another important question in the teaching of Weightlifting technique is what degree of movement proficiency is acceptable when practising component parts before an attempt is made to join (chain) them together? For example, let’s suppose that the beginner can demonstrate a basic Power Snatch from Knee and is just starting to learn the skill drill Pull from Ground to Knee. The question is when will it be appropriate for the beginner to perform a full Power Snatch, that is starting from the ground instead of from the knee? It would be helpful to develop some criteria that makes this decision easier. The concern is that the beginner needs time to learn each step sufficiently well before moving on to the next, otherwise there is a risk that the whole skill development process is significantly compromised. Experienced coaches will make this decision intuitively based on their observations of the athlete but here are criteria that may help the less experienced coach.

The beginner athlete can demonstrate a basic Power Snatch from Knee and is learning the skill drill Pull from Ground to Knee. When can the athlete be allowed to perform Power Snatch from the ground?
Criteria 1: Key elements of technique
There are no key elements of technique poorly performed or persistent errors in either the Power Snatch from Knee or the Pull from Ground to Knee. If errors exist, work on these issues further before performing Power Snatch from the ground.
Criteria 2: Fluency of movement
The athlete demonstrates fluency in performing both exercises. An ability to perform repetitions repeatedly without hesitation or excessive conscious control is a sign of movement fluency. Small degrees of natural movement variability should be expected and should not be construed as a lack of fluency.
Criteria 3: Responds to coaching cues
The athlete responds effectively to coaching instruction or feedback to vary their body position, body movement or movement of the bar. Example 1: the athlete responds to requests to reduce movement speed when performing the Pull from Ground to knee. Example 2: the athlete responds to requests by the coach to vary the end position of the Pull from Ground to Knee (below the kneecap, above the kneecap, 5 cm above the kneecap, etc.). If the athlete does not respond effectively to coaching cues, it is probably they are not sufficiently familiar with the exercises

If the beginner demonstrates key elements of technique and fluency of movement in both the Power Snatch from the Knee and the Pull from Ground to Knee, and responds effectively to coaching cues, they are ready to begin performing Power Snatches from the floor.

These criteria can be used to answer other key coaching questions such as:

  • When is the learner ready to perform the split Jerk having learned the Power Jerk, Split Squat and Jerk Balance?
  • When is the learner ready to perform full Snatches having learned Overhead Squat, Snatch Balance, Rapid Drop Downs and Power Snatch?

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