Friday, August 10, 2012

Applied Behavior Analysis - A Better Approach for Coaches and Athletes

By Lynn Loar Ph.D., LCSW - President, The Pryor Foundation

Have you ever wondered how trainers get dolphins to do such exquisite moves in synch without uttering a word or demonstrating the desired behavior? Have you longed for such precision and enthusiasm in the students you coach? Those trainers use a method called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and you can, too!

What is applied behavior analysis (ABA)?

ABA teaches new behaviors by breaking down each behavior into very small pieces, teaching them one by one at whatever pace the student can go successfully, clustering them and building complexity incrementally so the student succeeds and grows in confidence and skill.

Many ABA practitioners use an auditory marker, a short sharp click, to pinpoint precisely the correct movement (or first step in the right direction). Coaches call this teaching with acoustical guidance, “tagging” for short. Some people say instead “operant conditioning with a marker signal” or “clicker training.” Whatever you call it, coaches teach new skills not by verbal instruction but by observing and tagging tiny steps that lead to a desired behavior. Each tag earns a point that the student can cash in for rewards at the end of each lesson. Earning points gives the student additional reinforcement and motivation (for some sage advice on what children find reinforcing and why, see “Designing Effective Reinforcers,” and reprinted at, an article written by several of my students ranging in age from 8-13).  

How will ABA make me a better coach?

  • You will look for positive steps to reinforce and develop. No criticizing, pointing out errors, telling what not to do, and much less verbiage in general. Many people find learning through verbal explanation more difficult than learning by doing. The tag is a welcome guide for behavioral learning, marking progress as it occurs and allowing the student to focus on the task at hand.  Expert trainer Kay Laurence described how distracting verbal instructions could be this way: “It’s like having somebody sing at you while you are trying to do long division in your head.” 

  • When you tag, you select ONE thing at a time to work on. This helps students focus and concentrate. It also makes you concentrate to get the timing of the tag exactly right.

  • When you hold a tagger in your hand, you want to use it. You’re looking for every opportunity to say “That’s right!” You’ll be more positive, and your students will happily experience this shift. Tagging improves the relationship between the student and the coach because the tag reinforces both of them for the shared thrill of getting the behavior and the timing right.
How will ABA help my students progress more quickly?

I coach ice skating. Let’s say I want a student to extend the free leg after a push off. I explain that the tag point is stretching the leg back, and tag the student’s extension. Absent the tagger, I would shout “Yes,” which takes much longer and is not as riveting as a tag, or, worse, I would explain the error of letting the leg drop instead of positively marking the extension for however long the student could hold it. 
Can ABA help anxious or timid students overcome fears?

Yes! Students can earn tags and points for anything involving movement. You can start at the doorway to your building and tag the student’s approach. I tag coming inside, walking toward a bench, sitting down to put on skates, taking off shoes, putting feet in skates, walking through the doorway toward the ice, taking a step on the ice, looking ahead, letting go of the rail and eventually for fancy things like skating backwards and doing spins. Tagging lets me mark lots of good behaviors that even reluctant skaters offer, building their confidence and letting them feel they are accomplishing much. This is especially helpful when coaching groups or siblings with varying abilities together.

Not sure how to get started? Take a look at the short clip of very nervous adult beginners taking their first steps on the ice in an unheated rink, alas, on an exceptionally cold January morning.  Go to, “publications and multimedia” and select “Ice Skating Lesson.” Also, watch the trailer below for “TAGs on Ice,” a short documentary about our program for children with special needs and their families at the Winter Lodge in Palo Alto, CA. 

Then tag something that looks good to you!  

Lynn Loar is the creator of the "TAGs on Ice" DVD and author of the book "Teaching Empathy: Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children and Families Exposed to Violence".
Purchase the TAGs on Ice video as a download (no shipping! no waiting!)

Purchase the book "Teaching Empathy: Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children and Families Exposed to Violence".

Lynn will be offering a workshop for skating coaches entitled: "Welcoming children with special needs into your skating program" on Sept 27 in Palo Alto CA. Click here for more information.

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