PrinFrAp: Probably the Best Teaching Model in the World

Special credit must go to Aled Oddy for his assistance in developing this model.

PrinFrAp? What is that?! No, it’s not a new hipster Dutch brewery, PrinFrAp is possibly the best model with a terrible name you’ve ever heard of. It is an abbreviation (I think) of three points of a model that describes the teaching of individual skills: Principle; Framework; and Application.

[Note: I was going to change the name but prematurely mentioned it on a podcast and it’s become like a pet dog you rescued that you can’t easily change now, so it’s stuck. That said, the name does grow on you…]

The PrinFrAp Teaching Model

Okay, so this is a slightly strange article, bear with me. The Model came to me suddenly one evening after chatting coaching with a good friend and fellow Performance Coach Aware Trainee, Claire Youdale. The more I pondered it afterwards, the more it seemed to make sense.

It breaks down like this: when coaching someone, either to complete a new skill or to refine an existing one, we need several things:

  1. We need a principle. This isn’t so much a rule to follow but it kinda is. A principle drills deeper than a rule, something more fundamental that remains true in any setting. Note how the principle sits at the centre of any technique
  2. To explore, we also need a framework. A framework is a series of exercises and drills that we can repeat as and when we need to, either to practice a skill or as a refresher when it has become rusty in practice. The framework develops the principle in question
  3. There needs to be an application. Crucially, this is the part we cannot give them. What we can do, as coaches, is create environments for people to apply the principle in as many varied ways as possible. We can think of this as putting our principle into context and in climbing, this is typically going climbing and notice how the edges of the application fade out to demonstrate the infinitely varied nature of practice

I’d been clashing with various top-level coaches before this point, with many saying things like “there are no rules!” and “You rightly mention principles, which are very few, but strong and important and should be distinguished from methods” (see here for context on that one). I couldn’t quite reconcile why we didn’t agree. It is my hope that this new model helps to solve the issue.

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these three parts of the Model.

Principle

The hidden bit that people often don’t know; especially when coaching children.

As mentioned above, these are not rules to follow! There’s a big yet subtle difference. Principles differ in that they are there to guide us, to help us and our athletes to make movement techniques easier. In any given moment or episode of coaching, we can select which principles we choose to explore.

Crucially, we do not necessarily need to follow a principle as closely as if we viewed it as a rule. However, in my experience, when a movement pattern or technique fails to comply with one of my movement principles – such as not being able to get our body in line with a force – it makes the movement harder to complete.

The best principles are the ones that hold true more often. Weak principles often fail and thus, should be explored further and deeper to find a better one. Or in other words, the circle at the centre of the diagram should be as small as possible.

Framework

The Framework is how we explore the Principle. It is how we put it into practice, preferably in as varied a fashion as possible, utilising the concept of noise to isolate only the principle we wish to explore in that episode of coaching.

There’s lots of different frameworks we can employ. With one colleague, Aled Oddy, we discussed the idea of scaffolding and he’s had great success with this approach with teaching trad gear placements (although note that this has kinda stemmed from healthcare, who use this approach a lot and requires more investigation to see how much crossover there is).

To give some ideas of different frameworks you could employ:

  • Models. One example is my HOT Holds model, utilised to demonstrate effective direction of pull on holds
  • Drills. Drills are well established in climbing instruction, such as climbing with silent feet. These are indeed a framework that can be used to target a specific principle (in this case, precision in footwork)
  • Constraints. Often, as coaches, we can utilise what is known as a ‘constraints based approach’ whereby we will put certain constraints on the athlete to highlight a point. For example, climb this climb but you must have your hips parallel to the wall. Constraints based coaching can help to highlight the importance of a particular principle by preventing it’s use temporarily
  • Games. Another big favourite in climbing instruction and potentially a brilliant framework to teach climbing movements and principles; but only if done purposefully. We could adapt our silent feet drill, for example, by having someone else blindfolded trying to hear other climbers traversing
  • Apparatus. More popular with physical training, it is possible to utilise other, non-typical apparatus to work on a particular principle. A popular one that I use to work on heel- and toe-hooks is an arete, an elastic band tied around a fixed point or even a chair. I use this as a way of being able to practice without the added noise of being on the wall at the time
  • Explanation. It sounds odd but it is possible that simple, direct explanation can be a good framework. Going back to HOT Holds, I have props such as a laminated clock face sheet and a climbing hold or a see through accetate sheet with a clock face on it. With both of these, I can flat out tell people the framework I want them to understand

This is not an exhaustive list and there are doubtless other frameworks we can employ, not to mention combining them together (constraints can be a major part of a game, for example, such as ‘floor is lava’).

The Missing Link with Successful Frameworks

All of the PrinFrAp Model thus far is really reframing existing practice. It’s not as if I’m suggesting that games in climbing instruction are a new idea. But THIS is where the big take home message comes, and it’s a big one. So big I’m going to ensure you cannot miss it:

FRAMEWORKS ARE ONLY TRULY SUCCESSFUL IF YOU ARE AIMING FOR A SPECIFIC PRINCIPLE

Paddlesports refers to this as ‘Games with Aims’ and various other sports will have a similar maxim. And of course, you can simply explore frameworks for their own sake but it’s missing a trick and can be utilised MUCH MORE SUCCESSFULLY.

The exception is when the purpose is different to any learning. If the purpose of running a game is ‘Group Management’ or keeping the group contained and occupied then that is very different and I’ll not argue. However it may still be the case that small adjustments can be made to utilise the PrinFrAp Model.

In my experience, many people do not consider which principles they wish to hit and simply select games and drills for their own sake, thus leading to a misunderstanding of important part. Good footwork is not necessarily silent but is always purposeful and precise. Therefore, the Silent Feet Drill is not a principle, it is a framework and should be viewed as such.

Application

One of the things that prompted this whole model was from Udo Neumann’s original Instagram post. In it, he stated:

open-skill activities like climbing don’t have a so called perfect model of how a move should be done

Neumann, (2024) retrieved from here

I couldn’t agree more. It’s often said that climbing has an infinite variety of movements and movement patterns. Not only that but there are multiple methods of completing any given move, none of which are inherently better or worse than the others. (Click the link to the Udo post to see “Three different perfect solutions (for the respective climber, in this moment, on this climb) from a Dockmasters comp”).

Indeed, the majority of coaching – in my experience and level – tends to be more tactical than technical. I can teach a principle in ten minutes but then have to spend a vast amount of time getting my client to apply this in as many different settings as possible. This is where we see concepts such as varied practice and adaptive expertise.

Crucially, if our Priciple is sound, it will stand up to scrutiny during application in mutliple settings. Occasionally, our principle may need to be broken but in these cases, it may well be the case that the fact our principle doesn’t work means we have found our crux or simply that we know that the move that doesn’t follow is going to be inherently hard. See HOT Holds below for a better example.

The key thing to remember for us as coaches here is that we do not have any say in the application! This may seem strange but the application MUST come from the climber. Our task at this stage is to create the environments (as many as possible) for the climber to apply the principles we’ve given them.

The Revised Diagram

Above, we had a simplified diagram to demonstrate PrinFrAp. Here, we have a more advanced version, where I’ve included the examples of different frameworks in there too.

You’ll also notice that across the bottom is a scale I’ve labelled “Methods of Delivery”. This concept hasn’t been truly explored but is included to demonstrate the differing nature of each framework: those on the left being more cognitive; the ones on the right being more hidden for the learner.

Real World Examples

There are plenty of examples of how we already use this model in practice; after all, a good model describes existing practice! Here are a few select examples to give the PrinFrAp Model some context:

Belaying (V-to-knee, 1, 2, 3)

For complete beginners, it is necessary to be very directive over how to belay safely such that the climber is not accidentally dropped. One common model in the UK for top roping is to tell the climber “V-to-knee, 1, 2, 3“. This describes the standard stages of belaying:

  • creating a V shape in the rope to release friction;
  • dropping the hand down towards the knee to lock off the dead rope;
  • stage 1 to grasp the dead rope with two hands;
  • stage 2 to move the controlling hand back up next to the belay;
  • stage 3 to bring a hand back on to the live rope

Especially with children, such concise direct instruction can be great. The danger is that the V-to-knee method can easily become the principle. In fact, it is not. V-to-knee is the framework that we refer back to as and when we need a reminder or a refresher.

Instead, the principle should be: don’t let go of the dead rope and lock it off whenever you can

Principle: don’t let go of the dead rope and lock it off whenever you can
Framework: V-to-knee
Application: take in when there is slack and reset

Silent Feet

When I began running coach education courses, I felt that this was becoming a big myth that I was going to dispel, one coach at a time. I was pleased (albeit surprised and slightly disappointed) to find this wasn’t necessarily the case.

Having quiet feet when we climb is indeed a good attribute to have. However it is not the end goal. Training your feet to be quiet while climbing is a good framework that leads to the principle of precision in placing our feet on holds.

There are many examples of when our footwork is not going to be quiet; such as competition style bouldering. So it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. But it’s a great drill to work, as long as we come back to the principle later.

Principle: precision in where we place our feet on holds
Framework: Quiet feet while climbing
Application: different for every single move, requiring other techniques such as weight transfer

HOT Holds

One of my own models for effective use of handholds/footholds, Hold Optimisation Theory (or HOT Holds) has proven to be incredibly effective with clients. Almost without realising it, when creating the model, I follow the idea of PrinFrAp.

I’m not going to discuss this at length; there is more information on this particular concept here. Needless to say, the HOT Holds concept is all related to direction of force applied on each hold. That’s our principle.

However we still need a framework to fall back on. This is where we imagine a clock face over the hold and ask ourselves “which number do we need to apply force towards?”. Generally speaking, this is either 90 degrees to the surface of the hold or with two opposing forces cancelling each other out (such as a pinch). Once we have the direction, we get our elbow and ideally, our body behind said number.

Principle: direction of pull, lean into the holds
Framework: Superimposed clock face over the hold, what number do we apply force towards?
Application: different for every single hold, often with multipe options that must be combined with the other holds to create POT Positions

Driving a Car

Let’s turn to a non-climbing example to finish. Driving a car is a very complex and complicated thing to get your head around and yet it is something that the majority of us master at some stage in our lives. Yet what would the principles of driving be?

I pondered this recently (don’t ask why, I have no idea) and managed to get it down to three simple points. Comply with these three principles and you’ll be fine on the road, both now and later on. Then in order to help us comply with these three principles, we have things such as the Highway Code (in the UK).

The Application is how we do this in practice as we drive around the roads. This, as with everything else, varies infinitely and requires in-action decision making to make it work.

Principle: 1) make car move 2) don’t hit anything 3) don’t impede anyone
Framework: The Highway Code, usually demonstrated through formal or informal driving lessons with signage on the roads to remind us of the important parts
Application: actual real-world driving

The Inverted Model

When initially designing this model, I couldn’t decide what came first. Quickly, it became obvious that the principle sat at the core of everything and the concentric circle model came into existence. So why the hesitation?

Part of the confusion was from the locus of the model. In coach education, or indeed with coaching on occasion, we may begin with the framework and dig down to find the principle in question. This is what I’m referring to as The Inverted PrinFrAp Model.

It can be very strong in terms of it’s learning. The Inverted Model utilises teaching styles such as Guided Discovery, Convergent and Divergent styles from the Spectrum of Teaching Styles whereby the principle is not initially apparent.

Having begun swimming coaching, I utilised the inverted model very well with a group of master’s swimmers. Having not completed any formal swim coaching training yet, but with extensive experience coaching climbing and being a master’s swimmer, I wasn’t aware of the principles I wanted to advocate. So we started with the frameworks and say what the patterns were.

For the first several weeks, I made sets using a constraints based approach to explore different parts of freestyle stroke: scapula engagement; trunk rotation; head position; and so on. We played with the framework and I listened to their feedback. Each swimmer presented different ideas but underpinning them were basic principles that I could then use in the future. Many of them depended on the context of the application.

The swim coaching example is a good demonstration of the Inverted PrinFrAp Model.

Summary

The PrinFrAp Model contains three parts: Principle; Framework; Application. Each part sits inside a series of concentric circles, with the Principle sitting at the centre, building into Frameworks before an infinite variety of Application.

Strong Principles occur more often and are simple and easy. It is often necessary to dig quite deep to find a good principle but once you’ve found a good one, it can be incredibly useful.

Frameworks are used as methods of exploring principles and can come in many forms. The key is to have the principle in mind when selecting your frameworks for that episode of learning.

Finally, the application is our context: in this case, climbing. This is where the variety comes in and said variety should be as broad as possible. This can often be a good test of the efficacy of our principles. However, if a movement doesn’t follow our principle, it does not necessarily mean our principle was wrong, it may be that we can use this to identify particularly difficult movements.

Sometimes in coaching, we can invert the model, beginning with a framework in order to get to the principle lying underneath. This can be very effective but quite difficult and complex, often taking time but can create very strong learning.

References

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the references used for this article. This is not intended to be academically accurate but provides some further reading (plus a little joke to Carlsberg for the opening paragraphs…)

Edwards (2021) Replication Training. Available from: https://prowesscoaching.co.uk/articles/for-the-coach/replication-training/

Mackenzie (2001) Skill, Technique and Ability. Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/skills.htm

Mosston and Ashworth (2008) Spectrum of Teaching Styles. Available from: https://spectrumofteachingstyles.org/

Neumann (2024) Available from: https://www.instagram.com/p/C2xJhOnoTrm/?hl=en

Stamp (2006) Probably the best corporate slogan… Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5036084.stm