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Function or Form? What is the best approach to learning a sport?

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

How is your sport taught? Is is through a skills based system (function) or manoeuvre based system (form)? In my own sport of alpine skiing (and snowsports more generally) this has been a topic of conversation and interest over the years. So, let's first establish what I mean by skills based and manoeuvre based systems and then explore the potential advantages and disadvantages of both.

Skills based system

In chapter 7 of the IASI manual, 'The Skills Model', which I wrote with Jamie Kagan, there is a big emphasis on developing all-mountain skiers that can cope with the 'open' nature of snowsports where the environment is ever changing, not only from one day to the next but from one run to the other, be it terrain (steepness/aspect), snow conditions (ice, slush, powder etc.), weather (poor visibility, wind, sunny etc.). Sports of this nature, which would include many adventure sports in the outdoors, require the performer to be adaptable and indeed, mindful, during performance so that they have a range of skills from which to draw upon and select to suit the constant changes that the environment presents.

Mountain biking is a great example of an 'open' outdoor sport that requires the performer to be adaptable

I recently read, Phil Smith's Snoworks blog article about the land of 'Ing' which is a beautifully written and clever presentation of the importance of developing a whole range of skills in order to cope with all-mountain skiing. The essence of the message is that 'Ing' is all about doing, which in the case of skiing means being able to use a variety of skills such as steering, sliding, carving, gripping, accelerating, breaking etc. Learning should take place by experimenting hence there is more than one way of coping with the environment. Phil laments that many learners, particularly adults, have lost their way to the land of Ing and are therefore missing out on the enjoyment of the sport not to mention limiting their abilities to learn and perform well.

Even within ski instructor systems where the progression of many nations follows a similar pathway; straight run, plough, plough turn, plough parallel, parallel - simply adding 'ing' is important because it emphasises that these stages can be performed in different ways e.g. stance width, edge angle, range and rate of leg movement etc.

But can this 'skills based' system (function) be taken too far? Can it lead to poor technique? Let's take a look then at what I mean by a manoeuvre based system.

Manoeuvre based system

Returning to chapter 7 of the IASI Manual, The Skills Model, Jamie and I talk about using effective and efficient movement patterns to aid accurate steering of the skis. This suggests that good technique is required in order to achieve accuracy! However, using the phrase 'good technique' opens up a potential can of worms as there are many views on what constitutes good or perhaps even correct technique. One only has to look at some of the groups on Facebook such as 'Technical Analysis of Alpine Skiing' or 'Elite Skiing' to see how wide and varied these views can be! I am sure this is similar in other sports too?

Manoeuvre based skiing (or forms) links back to the more traditional approaches of teaching skiing where technique was very 'fixed' and different nations/ski schools promoted particular ways of skiing and very specific manoeuvres such as a stem christie, an up un-weighted parallel turn or a traverse with shoulders facing a particularly direction. Of course many schools have moved on from this more rigid approach, but there is still a degree of this evident today, even at the World Interski Congress where all the snowsports teaching nations come together and showcase their technical approaches.

Members of the Hungarian Team, at Interski 2019, illustrating a nice blend of function and form not to mention FUN

However, learning manoeuvres (a movement or series of moves) is essentially what is done as part of the skill acquisition process where motor learning takes place (see the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition). Therefore, learning specific movement patterns, that are recognised within the sport as being effective and efficient, is a necessary part of developing performance.


So, what is the answer? Function or Form? As with so many of these debates the answer probably lies somewhere between the two. On the one hand it is important to learn good techniques for the sport in which you, the reader, participate (emphasis being on the 's'). However, it is then essential that these techniques can be applied to a variety of situations (often dictated by the environment in open mountain sports) and that is why having a range of skills at your disposal allows you to be adaptable and constantly making adjustments as you perform. As I was reminded, by one of the children I was teaching this past half term week, after we had skied the boarder-cross for the second time in a row, 'FUN-NESS' is what it is all about. If you are not having FUN then you potentially limit your ability to learn. So, while you might not always be in Phil Smith's land of Ing is is vital that you visit it regularly.

About the Author

Derek Tate is an author, coach and teacher and runs Derek Tate Coaching. His mission is to help others to flourish and get more out of life through better mental, emotional, and physical health. He offers mental skills coaching, alpine ski coaching, online courses and workshops and writes self help/psychology books.

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