Follow by Email

Tuesday, 4 November 2014


There is little doubt that the culture of sports coaching has changed over recent years.  Stakeholders at all levels - parents, teachers, coaches, administrators - are recognising the vital importance of positive early experiences as a foundation for lifelong participation in physical activities, and also just because children’s sports should be fun!  And while it would be naive to assume that such changes have reached all coaches (they certainly have not), more and more organisations are calling for new ways to present sports, especially to young people.

The increasing call for positive approaches to youth sports have been inspired by an acknowledgement that too many young people become turned off sports by the behavior and demands of adults who should know better.  Parents screaming from the sidelines; coaches rubbishing children’s efforts; peewee competitions treated like professional athletics

The absurdity of this situation is vividly highlighted by a series of short films from Hockey Canada, in which children are seen talking to their parents the way that some parents talk during sports.

One of the more interesting, and concerning, consequences of writing my Smart Moves column for Psychology Today magazine column has been the messages I have received from people around the world whose experiences of sports and other physical activities were far from positive:

“I hated PE.  Really hated it!”

“My first coach was a bully.  It was all about control.  Power and control.  And we were little kids!”

“Why would anyone want to play a game where adults are screaming at you, or calling you names?  Sports are supposed to be fun.  My first sports experiences were not much fun!"

At a time when rates of childhood inactivity are rising to the extent that they are causing wide-scale alarm for the harm to health, both now and later in life, the urgency of rethinking youth sport could hardly be greater.  Early experiences are important as they set the tone for everything that follows.  Positive early experiences encourage further participation; negative experiences turn off kids.

The ways in which physical activity is presented are significant with all populations, but there are particularly compelling reasons to focus on first experiences as they start a pattern for all that follows. If the earliest experiences of activity are uninspiring, boys and girls will not want to continue, and evidence suggests that inactive children are likely to become inactive adolescents, and inactive adults.

Research from the US suggests that sports participation drops by 30 percent for each year of age, after ten years of age.  According to a report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, over 70% of children drop out of organized sports by age 13.

Numerous studies report that many children are put off participating in sports by an over-emphasis on winning, and this effect is especially strong with girls. Children are too-often presented with a narrow and uninspiring range of opportunities, and while many children love team games and athletic events, others find these traditional forms of activity physical activity either irrelevant or boring.

Probably the most important of all factors is fun. There is no doubt that the main reason children play and carry on playing sports and games is that they are enjoyable. Yet well-meaning parents, teachers and coaches spoil sports by making them too serious too soon. As we have seen, sometimes inappropriate forms of competition are the problem. Other times, it seems, children are unable to play the games they would choose.

Research suggests that children under seven or eight years of age are primarily motivated by pleasure, play and the sheer joy of movement. They do not want to serious games. Instead, they want to run and jump and chase and hide because they feel good. By coincidence, these sorts of actions are good for the developing bodies and minds, but that is not why children do them. For young children, play is enough. As they get older, children enter their ‘skill hungry years’. This is the time when they have a drive to learn new skills. They continue to seek out the pleasure of movement, but they also need to have a greater sense of mastery.

Other factors have been found to be important, too. Variety is the spice of life. This is true for physical activities, too. Some suggest early specialization in a sport is necessary for later success, but evidence shows that children who experience a range of activities are more likely to carry on playing, and they are also more likely to find the activity that becomes a lifelong passion. Even people who grow up to become champions tend to have sampled a range of activities as children, and only focused on one much later in life. So positive early experiences are as necessary for future sporting stars as the rest of us!

Problems arise when we forget the three fundamental rules of child development:

·      Children not are mini-adults;

·      Children are not mini-adults;

·      Children are not mini-adults.

Positive early experiences lay a foundation for a lifetime. It is easy to put children off physical activities; it is much more difficult to turn adults on to them. If we wish to make physical activities normal features of childhood, we need to ensure that the foundations are strong.

For more on this topic, see:

Sunday, 3 August 2014


Hollywood has a poor reputation when it comes to scientific accuracy.  Perhaps the classic example is the Rachel Welch's One Million Years B.C., which was premised on the claim that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and battled each other for survival.  In fact, the last dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago, and the species of whom which Ms Welch is a particular fine example did not appear until round 200,000 years ago.

This film is not unusual: most films that touch on science seem to get it wrong in some major respects.  James Cameron is a notorious stickler for details, yet he felt compelled to change the starlight backdrop to Titanic for that film’s re-release when Neil Degrasse Tyson pointed out that the stars were in the wrong place in the original!  And almost every space film ever made, from Star Wars to the new Star Wars has failed to deal with the annoying fact that - what with space being a vacuum - there would be no noise.

The recent movie Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, joins this list of offenders by rekindling the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brains.  Johansson’s eponymous character undergoes a transformation when a bag of drugs she was forced to transport inside of her stomach leaks, and rather than causing an agonising, inevitable death, this event somehow gives her access to all of her brain’s potential.  With this gift Lucy is ability to learn languages in an instant, beat up gangsters, and throw around cars with the power of her mind.

The premise of the film is summarised by Morgan Freeman, who plays the world’s leading neuroscientist: “It is estimated most human beings use only 10 percent of the brain’s capacity.  Imagine if we could access 100 percent.”

The idea that we use only a fraction of our cognitive capacity has become something of a Hollywood cliche.  From Flight of the Navigator (1986), via John Travolta’s Scientology advertisement Phenomenon (1996), Inception (2010), and Limitless (2011), movies have asked ‘what if we really are using just a fraction of our true potential?’  Even The Simpsons succumbed, when Bart is prescribed a fictional hyperactivity drug that allows him to use the “full” potential of his brain:

“Most people use 10 percent of their brains. I am now one of them!”

Wouldn’t it be nice?
Many speculative ideas about the brain and learning seem to be motivated by a powerful drive, that I call the ‘wouldn’t it be nice drive?’, inspired by the Beach Boys paean to wishful thinking:

Wishful thinking has become one of the dominant themes in modern educational practice, and lies behind the waves of bullshit and pseudoscience that currently bombard schools. 
Wouldn’t it be nice if my son was not academically weak?  Oh look, it turns out that he isn’t!  He is a kinaesthetic learner, and the school system simply ignores his gifts!

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some magical way to accelerate my daughter’s performance in mathematics?  Quick, get the chequebook: neuro-psycho-physio-gym can join up disconnected parts of her brain without her breaking a sweat!

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could become happier, healthier and wealthier, without investing any time or energy into making it happen?  Woo-wee!  There are lots of ways of doing this, and the only reason they aren’t better known is because scientists and governments are keeping them from us!

I suspect that ideas like those promoted in films like Lucy give fuel to this sort of wishful thinking by combining an allusion to 'sciency' brain talk with the intuitive power of a simple idea that is frequently repeated.  And people do believe it.  A 2012 survey of British and Dutch teachers found that 48% and 46%, respectively, accept the claim.  According to a 2013 study of Americans by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, 65% of Americans believe it too.

The claim has now spread around the world, including into schools and workplaces.  I have heard doctors, teachers and academics cite it as if it were proven fact.  You probably have too.

The bad news
Unfortunately, it is not true.  We do not use 10% of our brains: most of us have access to 100%, and without the boost from a life-threatening injection of drugs.

The human brain has evolved over hundreds and thousands of years, at great cost.  The average brain weighs just 3% of the body's weight but uses 20% of the body's energy.  The idea that this process of development would result in an expensive organ that left 90% of its capacity unused is absurd.  And unused cells in the brain that are unused would turn to atrophy, anyway.  Not surprisingly, brain scans show the entire brain is active all of the time, even whilst resting or sleeping.  In fact, even the most basic functions of the brain - like those controlling breathing and balance - take up more than 10%, and these are needed just to keep us alive.

But don’t take my word for it …

So what?
The 10% Myth is unusual among contemporary brain myths as it does not seem to have originated from a misunderstanding of real science.  It seems that it was simply made up.  No one really knows where it began, although a popular culprit is American psychologist and philosopher William James, who once mentioned in passing that we “are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources".  This comment was repeated in the preface to Dale Carnegie’s 15-million-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Does it matter that it is not true?

Many people find the idea inspiring in some way.  Perhaps we should continue to use the idea, but as a metaphor rather than a factual claim.  We do know that performance in almost every domain can be significantly improved through lots and lots of high quality practice, so maybe the 10% Myth can become a memorable ‘meme’ for emphasising the difference between our potential and our current performance.  Perhaps.

But the simple fact is that most people who repeat the 10% Myth are not using it in this way.  They are making a claim about the brain that is not true, and is not even plausible.  And since gullibility and scientific illiteracy tend to like company, this myth is often accompanied by a host of other nonsense.  So, Lucy does not just become brighter and stronger.  She develops telekinesis!  Advocates in the wonderful world of social media use the 10% Myth as the jumping-off point for an endless stream of equally unsubstantiated claims, from NLP and learning styles to spoon-bending and spiritual healing!

We do not use 10% of our brains.  Not even people who believe the claim do.  Perhaps it is about time we put this particular myth to rest?  Believing bullshit is a dangerous habit to acquire.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Michael Gove has been sacked as Education Secretary - is the only way up?

"We been broken down
the lowest turn
and been on the bottom line
sure ain't no fun
but if we should be evicted from our homes
we'll just move somewere else
and still carry on
Hold on, Hold on, Hold on

"The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me"
('The Only Way is Up', Yazz & The Plastic Population)

There is a principle is statistics called 'regression to the mean', which refers to the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement.  In other words, it means that events tend to even out, so an unusual measure is likely to be followed by a more 'normal' result.

Regression to the mean explains why football managers often seem to experience a brief period of success when they begin a new post (because they usually get their job after a particularly disasterous time for their predecessor - even standard levels of performance will appear to be an improvement after abject failure).  It also explains why alternative medicine sometimes seems to work (people tend to seek unusual treatments when their symptoms are severe, and any slight improvement is attributed the magical sugar tablet, rather than simply that random fluctuations would mean that the severity would have probably declined anyway).

Regression to the mean also explains the widespread euphoria that followed the sacking of Michael Gove as English Secretary of State for Education. Such was the contempt felt for Mr Gove by large numbers of teachers and parents, that it was simply assumed that his replacement, Nicky Morgan could not fail to be improvement.  That Ms Morgan is a political and religious conservative who opposed equal marriage (she says she's in parliament not only for her constituents, but "to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord") was more than out-weighed by her assertion that an important part of her job was to work with teachers, rather than against them:

'I will obviously be nice to teachers, because working with teachers and heads and governors and everyone else in the system is critical in getting the best outcome for our children. Education can be life-transforming.'

That the government minister responsible for education has to state something so blindingly obvious out-loud is an indication of how warped and distorted this role has become.  Whether or not Mr Gove, who showed his contempt for teachers with his every utterance and ill-thought-out policy, is the worst Secretary of State ever is a matter of debate.  He certainly has some stiff opposition for that title from the various bullies, incompetents and loons who have held the position over the preceding decades.

In this context, Nicky Morgan could become a wildly popular Education boss merely by staying in her office and watching daytime TV.  Perhaps she could appear from time to time at conferences to tell teachers and parents, like 'Young' Mr Grace of 'Are you Being Served', 'You've all done very well', before being carried back to her LaZboy recliner and the latest episode of 'Doctors'.

But lest we forget, Nicky Morgan was appointed by the same man who thought it was a good idea to hand over our children's futures to Michael Gove.  She is an ambitious Cameronite, and immediately felt compelled to jump on all of the standard Tory educational bandwagons, including Academies, faith-based schooling, and Grammar Schools. 

As I have argued before, the case for Grammar Schools is weak, and its impact could be summarised simply as 'benefit for a few at the expense of the rest'.  Much the same conclusion, I suspect, could be said of academies and faith-based schooling, although I would not include children among the beneficiaries of the latter.

My concern, though, is not that the new Secretary of State for Education holds these views.  It is that she is at the very beginning of her role, and has already decided her position on some of the most contested issue in education without, it seems, recourse to evidence or even discussion with those in the teaching profession.

Does that remind you of someone?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

New Psychology Today Post: Healthy Body and a Sound Mind? Does Physical Fitness Improve Cognition?

The Roman poet Juvenile popularised the motto “a sound mind in a healthy body”).  But is this really the case?  What is the relationship between physical health and mental power, and why does it matter for schools?

I've just published the latest contribution to my Psychology Today column: Healthy Body and a Sound Mind?  Does Physical Fitness Improve Cognition? 

Please check it out, leave a comment and share!


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Make the Familiar Strange: one action that can transform your coaching

I have recently achieved an amazing thing, and I feel very proud of myself.  In fact, as I walked away from the encounter with a broad grin on my face, I found myself doing that least English of all things: I punched the air!

So what have I done?  I've opened a bank account.

I accept that you might not too impressed, unless you are a close friend or family member who generally assume that even the most basic life skills are beyond me.  But there is another element to the story: I achieved this feat in another country, and in another language.  Germany and German, respectively.

Although I speak enough German to make my way around the place with only occasional humiliation and ridicule, I have found myself paralysed with anxiety at the thought of doing something that would ordinarily be an everyday task for most people.  I feared that my 'how-much-are-the-Lederhosen' language skills would not stretch to conversations about current accounts, variable interest rates and regulations about money laundering. 

Anxiety of this sort has been a recurring experience since I moved to Berlin a couple of months ago, and every time I walk into a shop planning to buy some bread only to leave with 10 metres of garden hose and a box of Tampons, I find myself jolted into an awareness that I am a novice with regard to an endless list of activities.

My banking adventure brings to mind a comment from the Russian writer, Viktor Shklovsky:

“Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived. To do this it presents its material in unexpected, even outlandish ways: the shock of the new.”

That pretty much captures my outlook since moving to Germany: the familiar has become strange (and this is not including the genuinely strange aspects of German life!).

Zen Buddhists talk about 'Beginner's Mind' (Shoshin, 初心), which is characterised by an openness to new challenges and the absence of prejudgement.  For the beginner, even the most rudimentary task is thrilling or scary and new.  For a bewildered foreigner, Beginner's Mind is not so much a spiritual goal as a lived experience.

The Beginner's Mind is the learner's mind, and it is very difficult to artificially generate, because it is so difficult to shut up the continual audio-commentary produced by previous experience.  It is an usual teacher or coach who, when attending a course on a subject they know well, doesn't find the mind forcing the information provided through the filter of their own presuppositions and prejudgements: I agree, therefore it is right; I disagree, so it is wrong; this is similar to how I teach; I wouldn't do it that way!

This sort of dialogue seems to be the default way the human mind makes sense of the world, by seeing how new experiences fit in the pre-existing patterns that allow it to operate. But there are clearly consequences.  The Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

If we genuinely wish to experience the Beginner's Mind, we need to learn how to suspend judgement and just experience things fresh and shiny new.

This creates something of a problem for the expert or experienced teacher or coach, those purpose and function are premised on the absence of beginner-ness.  The novice approaches the expert precisely because the expert is more familiar with the activity than they are.  But even the most traditional and didactic teacher or coach needs to react and adapt to some extent to the idiosyncratic needs and responses of the students in front of them.  So the expert's strength can also easily become their weakness, as the challenges facing the novice become progressively more alien.  The coach who think they understand the experiences of their most inexperienced students is almost certainly wrong!

How can a coach of twenty years possibly understand the fears and challenges of someone taking their very first lesson?  Or deal with a lack of comprehension of the most basic ideas?  And if they can't do this, how can they communicate in a way that truly connects with the novice?

After years of trying and failing, I have concluded that it is probably impossible to do this through a feat of imagination.  I cannot forgot what I have learned though years of practice, and I cannot shed the sense of familiarity and expertise that accompanies it.

So I am left with just one alternative: to become a beginner again.  As far as I can tell, the only way a coach can understand the Beginner's Mind is to become a beginner again.  Learning something that is new-alien, unfamiliar-disorientating, and exciting-nerve-wracking offers an unparalleled first-hand appreciation of the challenges that the students' experience everyday, and of which most coaches are more-or-less unaware.

Most coaches and teachers would accept, I think, the need to attend courses related to their sport or subject.  Continued professional development is self-evidently necessary in order to keep in touch with new ideas and extend skill-sets.  But I do not think any of this is as important as learning something completely new.

Stepping outside of the comfort zone means stepping into an area that is unfamiliar and uncertain, and in which possibilities are still endless.  Beginner's Mind cannot be imagined; it can only be lived.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

New Column with Psychology Today

I am delighted to report that I have recently started a: with the hugely popular psychology today magazine!

The focus of the column is the relationship between sport, physical activity and learning.

I will continue to publish entries to Talking Education and Sport.  And in the meantime, please do check out my new venture!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Cricket versus Barbarism

Having just returned from watching the German Cup Final, with all of the diving, playing for fouls, and general gamesmanship that are often just accepted as part of the modern game, I find myself drifting towards one of my perennial ruminations about the place of "sport" in professional sport.  

Then I found an short earlier post about another game.  And it seemed pertinent, somehow.


I'd like to start with a quiz. Who said this
“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket ..; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”
I will reveal the answer at the end of this entry.

The stimulus for my mention of cricket is an interesting article in the magazine All About Cricket. The author, Safi Thind, reports on the emergence of a number of initiatives that have used cricket as a vehicle to combat problems like misbehaviour at school and youth delinquency.

For example,

"StreetChance "aims to increase aspiration, promote mutual respect, and enhance relationships with others, including schools, police and the wider community by providing structured coaching and competitive opportunities for young people."

Another charity - Cricket for Change - gives some clues about the selection of cricket as the means to these ends:

"We see cricket, because of its history throughout the world, as being uniquely able to transcend the major urban racial groups, black, white and Asian and because it's a non-contact game, is also uniquely able to help young people with a disability share in the benefits of competitive team sport.

We believe that cricket can be used to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals and communities and for the last 30 years we have used our unique cricket programmes to help young people, in particular, make positive choices about their lives and to help them feel good about themselves."

Cricket, above all other sports that emerged from Victorian Britain (which is, let's face it, almost all sports) has the reputation for developing decent behaviour.

This was the view of the philosopher David Stove. Cricket, he wrote, “requires gentlemanliness, and teaches it”. And such gentlemanliness is expressed both in the nature of the game (and its often extreme delays of gratification) and its spirit. In other words, cricket teaches decent behaviour by providing an environment in which such behaviour is practiced.

Of course, it is not difficult to undermine a simple equation between cricket and civility: bodyline, ball-tampering, match fixing, and so on. But that the vast majority of cricket matches manage to maintain an over-riding air of good manners and good spirits - even at the very highest levels - does suggest that these schemes are on to something.

And the source of the claim that cricket civilises people that I quoted at the start of this entry? It was that great humanitarian Robert Mugabe.


And if Mugabe cannot persuade you of the virtues of cricket, take a look at the story of a truly remarkable Cricket club: the Compton Cricket club in California, USA ...

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Five Books (not about Coaching) that can Transform your Coaching

STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to:

It seems to me that coaching, and teaching in general, are basically thinking activities. Thought is required in planning, throughout delivery of sessions, and during the reflective phase that necessarily follows it (at least, it is a necessary element  

All of the good and great coaches and teachers I have known have had ceaselessly enquiring minds. And most of them have repeatedly stepped away from the cosy certainties offered by their areas of specialism, and have looked elsewhere in the pursuit of new insights and new ways of thinking.

I certainly do not regard myself as a great coach or teacher, but I have benefited enormously, both professionally and personally, from the books I list here have inspired me, others have infuriated or disorientated me. But all of them have left their mark on my thinking about thinking about sport. 

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceDon't be put off by the title: it is not really about motorcycles, or about Zen.  This is an engaging, thought-provoking book, probably best described as 'philosophical fiction'. The discussion about the nature and development of Quality, in particular, should be of great interest and relevance to coaches and teachers.

"We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Sometimes mistaken for a story about a seagull. OK, it is a story about a seagull. But is also a parable about skill, perfection, and the meaning of a life worth living.  And it is very short.

"Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science
Sports coaching is awash with bullshit.  Gimmicks, fads, and magical nonsense rob us all of time, money, and professional integrity.  Read this funny and shocking book, and see the light!

"Repeat after me: pharma being shit does not mean magic beans cure cancer."

Gary Marcus, Guitar ZeroA cognitive scientist tries to learn to play the guitar. This is probably the best book, to date, that tries to bridge the gap between what is known about how people learn complicated skills and what this can mean in practice.  However, just as important is the author's account of the joys and frustrations of learning and then mastering a new skill.  A great book.

"To dismiss talent is to ignore all evidence from biology.”

Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
A psychiatrist chronicles is experiences as an inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. Frankl's story is remarkable, and it is beautifully told. The lessons he learned and shares from this nightmare are, for many people, life changing. His discussion of the importance of meaning in one's life has enormous implications for education and sport.

"Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'."

STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to:

Saturday, 19 April 2014


STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to:

From an early age, we are conditioned to want to be right. We learn to need to be right.

Parents applaud their children when they do something well, or answer a question correctly. At school, we are rewarded and celebrated for passing tests, and can suffer in any number of ways for failing them.

The lesson is continually reinforced as we grow older. Promotions, reputations, careers are built on our capacity for right thinking. Or, at least, the appearance of right thinking. To be right is to succeed.

This is fine. It is entirely understandable. But this all-encompassing valuing of being correct comes with a risk. It can make us feel being wrong is always a bad thing, and so etching to be avoided always.

Right equates to success, wrong means failure. Newspapers are filled with stories of mistakes made by experts and public figures, often followed by the demand that they be punished or sacked or in some way called to account for their errors. 

If something goes wrong we seem compelled to look for blame, even if it is difficult to figure out where the fault really lies.

Whatever the wisdom or justice of this mindset in public life, it carries with it an implicit assumption that there is in some way a break from the norm of rightness.  Being wrong is understood as an aberration or a glitch.

And this is obviously not true.

We are all wrong. A lot.  We are wrong about small, inconsequential things, and we are wrong about big, important matters.  We might not want to accept them, we might even try to hide them (from ourselves as well as others). A moment's reflection will remind us that our lives are full of mistakes.

This is the terrain of behavioural economics and the psychology of decision-making. Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow' is possibly the best known of a series of recent books that have highlighted that our evolved human mind is not, as we might like to believe, a rational computer.  It is more accurately conceived as a veneer of reason on top of a collection of bias, hunches, and prejudices.  So, to borrow Kahneman's terms, we assume that we live our lives laid mainly by slow, rational thinking.  However, reason actually plays a relatively minor role in much of our day-to-day decision-making. Instead, we rely on fast, intuitive thinking, which is often below the level of consciousness. In other words, we believe (and want to believe) that we reason, when we usually just react. Reason occasionally steps in, in times of difficulty, but by then we may have long since acted.

This presents something of a problem for us, and especially those of us who would like to live lives in which reason and evidence have a say, because our minds have evolved over millions of years for survival and reproduction. And they evolved in environments very different than the ones in which the vast majority of us now live.

So, we tend to be extremely good at tasks that require quite quick judgements and actions, but not so good in those situations where reflection is needed. For example, evidence from research over the last 20 years also shows that the biases, hunches and prejudices that come pre-installed in the human mind can lead to a wide range of quirks:

Confirmation Bias - the tendency to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and to reject evidence that contradicts them.
The Gambler's Fallacy - the sense that the odds of something with a fixed probability increasing or decreasing depends on what has recently happened.
Probability Neglect - our inability to properly grasp a proper sense of risk, which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.
Attribution Asymmetry - the tendency to attribute success to internal characteristics (such as talent and innate abilities) and to attribute failures to external factors (like simple bad luck). 
Repetition Bias - the willingness to believe what one has been told most often and by the greatest number of different sources.
Cognitive Inertia - the unwillingness to change thought patterns in light of new circumstances.

And there are numerous other biases and intuitions that 'feel' right, even if they are leading us astray.

So, we better think again about our attitude to being wrong, because to err really is human. It is scientifically, measurably human.

The philosopher Karl Popper argued that learning could be best characterised as a process of trial and error-elimination.  It begins with guesses that are, to all intents and purposes blind to their outcomes.  We cannot discover if they are right or wrong, or if they work do not work, until we test them with experience or criticism.   So, for Popper, error is an integral feature of learning.  If we shy away from the possibility of being mistaken, we dramatically limit our guesses, and consequently block learning.

With this in mind, I recommend an excellent TED Talk by the journalist Kathryn Schulz.  She takes a different focus than I have here, but the take-home message is the same: we had better start embracing wrong, because - for much more of our lives than we might wish to admit - wrong is what we usually are!


STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!
For more information, and the register, please go to:

Monday, 17 March 2014

St Patrick's Guide to Learning

Since it is St Patrick's Day, I thought I would offer an irish-themed blog.  And since, mixed in with my mongrel ancestry is a large element of Irishness, I feel able to start with an Irish joke.

A tourist in Ireland is lost and asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’.

In my last blog entry, I suggested that creativity is a habit. It is learned by doing it.  Exactly the same could be said of skill: skilful performance is acquired, developed, and improved by performing skilfully.  And, as the great coach educator Geof Gleeson used to say, a successful skill has a successful outcome.  Learners who can appear technically outstanding, but you cannot actually put those techniques into practice are not skilful in any meaningful sense of that word.

This might seem so obvious as to hardly bare mentioning.  But I think it is worth stressing because of the fact that will be obvious to anyone who has spent any time observing teaching or coaching sessions, as many seem to be concerned with the development of different qualities than the coach or teacher claims to be the aim.

Let me give you a few examples: two from sport, and one (very topical example) from school education

A sports coach who claims to want his players to be creative, but who fills each session with predictable, dull drills and practices will create players who are predictable and dull.

A martial arts instructor who wants her fighters to develop explosiveness and sharp timing, but who mainly asks students to punch air and repeat pretty punches and kicks in the air will produce dancers not fighters.

To paraphrase the Irish joke, if you want students to be creative or explosive, I wouldn't start with this!

And perhaps the most stark illustration of a disconnection between intention and preparation is the enforcement on teachers of young children to teach reading through the use of synthetic phonics.   As you may be aware, this is the approach that is insisted upon by The English government; the only approach that should be used, according to some agencies.  It teaches the phonemes (sounds) associated with the graphemes (letters), and the sounds are taught in isolation then blended together.  In fact, synthetic phonics can form one among a number of effective strategies for teaching reading. But the evidence base behind the government assertion that it is the most effective and should be taught alone is simply non-existent.

But this is not help people read. Understanding the constituent sales of words is a very useful strategy in case of complex words, but effective reading takes place at a number of levels, from the phoneme, to the graphemes, to the sentence, paragraph, and story.  Evangelists insist that children should be withheld real books until they understand the elements of words. And this is simply nonsensical.  It is also not supported by the research evidence.

What is the consequence of an approach like synthetic phonics? My worry is that it will produce a generation of learners who have detailed understanding of the elements of reading and writing, but will have nothing of interest to read or write about.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!
Risteárd Mac an Breitheamh

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Anarchism and Creativity: first break the rules

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Vienna, in Austria.  It was a great opportunity for me to experience living in a new city, and to acquire at least a basic ability to speak German.  Since that time, I have stayed in many other foreign cities, and in each case I have been struck by a small differences and idiosyncrasies. Ways of behaving that I had always thought to be "normal"or even "natural" quickly turned out to be simply local traditions.

In some cases, I have abandoned my good old British ways in favour of the foreign alternative (for example, I now believe that food should have flavour and texture, that it is perfectly acceptable for a man to dance, and that coffee should taste of coffee). I have also come to the conclusion that there are many aspects of Britishness that deserve keeping, and even promoting (queueing, the BBC, driving on the left hand side of the road - a subject to which I will return in another blog entry).

Anyway, back in Vienna, I once found myself in the wee small hours waiting to cross a road, alongside about 20 other people. We were returning from a festival, and were the only humans to be seen.  Despite the evident fact that the road was entirely empty, my fellow pedestrians stood on the pavement, waiting for a signal to cross.  I felt a little impatient, and motion to go forwards, only to be greeted by a murmur of 'ssssssss'.  So, social pressures kicked in, and I waited with everybody else, although this obedience to the diktat of a traffic-light made no sense to me at all.

I was reminded of this event whilst reading 'Two Cheers for Anarchism' by the political scientist James C. Scott.  In fact, Scott found himself in an almost identical situation to me, but this time in Neubrandenburg, Germany (and, unlike me, he managed to extract an important lesson from the experience).  He visited this small town once every week while working on a nearby farm, traveling there and back by rail. And every week, while waiting for his train back, he would spend some time watching people at the nearby intersection.

Scott observed that the timing of the traffic lights in the evenings - presumably not adjusted to reflect the reduced car traffic and increased number of pedestrians - meant that they would regularly be 50 or 60 people waiting to cross the intersection.  Again and again, these groups would wait patiently at the corner for the light to change in their favour, whether or not their was any traffic in sight.  Sometimes this meant waiting for four or five minutes or more.

Observing this repeated scenario, Scott thought the behaviour ridiculous and irrational.  And considering the country in which this was taking place (and, of course, precisely the same applies to my experience in Vienna), such unquestioning obedience seemed highly dangerous.

"You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready."

He advocates "anarchist calisthenics": "Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready."

Personally, I find this argument completely convincing, and not just for those who live in countries with a legacy of tyranny.

The freedoms most of us take for granted have been hard-won, and can easily be lost again.  Obedience to every law, instruction and directive, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is not just dumb, it is irresponsible.  And to paraphrase the great libertine Quentin Crisp, if the time does ever come when you need to stand up and fight, obedience will have become your style.

It seems to me that the same logic can be applied to creativity.

The great dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that, "Creativity is an act of defiance".  It is about changing and breaking the rules. It is about abandoning the established way of things, and stepping bravely towards the new.

I doubt that there is any teacher or coach who would say that they were not interested in promoting creativity among their learners.  In the case of sport, creativity would seem to be absolutely essential, as the novelty and innovation are distinctively powerful weapons in a competitive environment.  An elite rugby union coach once said to me: "I assume technical expertise and extreme fitness of all players at the top level. What I'm really looking for are creative players. They are the ones who do things differently. They are the ones who give the team an edge."

In practice, it seems to me, the frequently expressed desire to develop creative players and learners is rarely matched by a pedagogy aimed at such an outcome.  As I have observed elsewhere in this blog, a certain style of the lesson continues to dominate, and it is as antithetical to creativity as it is to learning, in general:

- An emphasis on correct technique
- Highly structured, repetitive drills and practices
- An assumption that "the basics" have to be mastered before they can be employed in real settings
- A view of learning in which knowledge is passed from the expert teacher to be ignorant learner

We have absolutely no reason for believing that any of this is true or valid.

Drills and repetitive practices enforce conformity.  Lessons that place the teacher or coach as the fount of all knowledge lead to passivity. An emphasis on correctness results in obedience.  And none of this is likely to result in the development of creative learners.

Creativity is a habit. It is learned and developed through practice and experience.

There are lots of ways in which this habit can be encouraged and nurtured. And I will consider some of them in future articles. For now, though, I will suggest just one idea, and it is inspired by Scott's suggestion:

CREATIVE CALISTHENICS: Encourage learners to break a rule or principal or norm every lesson!

I am not, of course, encouraging the abandonment of the rule of law. I'm not suggesting that teachers of young children allowed them to run into the streets, Or steal. I'm simply suggesting that, as a matter of course, they are encouraged to think for themselves. More than this, they are required to think for themselves.  Every lesson. And that they recognise that most of the things they are taught in sport are really just rules of thumb or generalisations.  They can be broken with no harm done, and if they are broken strategically, they can offer an immediate competitive advantage over an opponent.

In case you think I have lost my mind, let me give you a couple of concrete suggestions:

A basic strategic principle of all invasion games (football, rugby, hockey, basketball) is to attack wide, and defend narrow.  This makes perfect sense in most cases, as it stretches and weakens the opposition defence and aims to strengthen your own.  BUT the competitive advantage of this ploy is undermined by the fact that everybody is trying to do the same thing!  So a judicious and occasional reversal might, at least, unnerve The opposition: attack narrow and defend wide.
A very basic rule of many fighting sports is to maintain a strong guard (for example, in boxing, Thai boxing, and mixed martial arts, fighters routinely hold both hands high in front of their head and upper body).  Again, this makes perfect sense, as the arms protect many of the major targets that an opponent is trying to hit.  BUT a long lineage of fighters from Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee to Floyd Mayweather and the Gracie clan of Brazilian Ju Jitsu have found that deliberately lowering one's guard (called "drawing") can be a highly effective way of forcing the opponent to act in a predictable and consequently stupid way.

It could be argued that both of these strategies could be trained in an authoritarian and traditional way, and that is true. But their real value comes when they are initiated as a response to an active, changing, and unpredictable opponent. And that cannot be drilled or rehearsed; it requires a creative response. And, I have argued, a creative response requires a teaching or coaching environment in which breaking the rules is not just tolerated but positively encouraged.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Six strategies for improving learning in sport

My last blog entry offered a perspective on learning using, as a case study, fighting sports. But the basic principles apply to any skill learning situation.

In a nutshell, my argument was:

1) The best way to learn how to do something is to do it. 

2) The closer practice activities resemble the full activity the better. 

3) Just because you teach something does not mean that students will learn it. 

The most frequently asked questions by commentators on the article was "so what does this mean in practice?"  I'm planning to return to this question a number of times over the coming months. But now, I offer just six practical ways in which learning can be pushed to the forefront of sports lessons.

1) The warm up should be a part of the learning, not a preparation for it.
Too many sessions begin with meaningless calisthenics that do not resemble the movements that will follow. Effective warm ups need to prepare both mind and body, and consequently need to contain the same characteristics.  In other words, they need to be specifically related to the main activity.

My own observations suggest that many sessions begin with activities that could be transplanted into any number of different sports. 

For example, hockey warm ups that do not involve a stick and a ball will not properly prepare the body, and will not engage the mind.  They will simply waste valuable time for practice and play.

Similarly, tennis/badminton/squash exercises that do not involve hitting a ball with a racquet do not work well because they do not exercise the relevant muscles, and do not focus the mind on tennis/badminton/squash. 

Of course, I am not suggesting that players should dive into a full game at the start of a lesson. That could be very unwise!  But it is perfectly possible to devise simplified, appropriate activities that gradually warm the body and wake the mind.

2) Effective learning builds on previous learning
There is considerable evidence showing that learning is most effective when it builds on previous learning and understanding.  However, it is too easy to begin each lesson from scratch, ignoring what has come before.

This can be another valuable function of a good warm up: it can be an ideal opportunity to remind learners of lessons learned in previous sessions by practising adapted versions of previous activities.

The same activities allow you to observe and assess the learners, to identify their different needs, and provide teaching/coaching that is more suitable.

3) Start with the game
By far the most common error made in lesson planning is to begin with extended technique or skill practices. The assumption is that these practices will be applied later in the full game. However, as I argued in my previous blog entry, there is no reason to believe this actually happens.  Instead, there is a danger that learners are simply going through movements without a strong sense of their purpose.

One way of understanding learning, I have argued, is as problem-solving. Giving a learner a skill or a technique without first letting them develop an extremely strong and compelling understanding of its purpose is like giving somebody a solution to a problem they do not have!

So what should the teacher/coach doing?  The solution is simple: start with the game.

If you want a footballer to learn to keep the head down when shooting at goal, do not start with a drill. Start with a game, and introduce techniques and drills if (and only if) a problem arises.  That way learning happens because you have offered a solution to a real problem.

Exactly the same logic applies to developing a golf swing.  My own research with golf coaches showed that approximately 50% introduce a novice to the game on the driving range.  In some cases, the beginner stays there for weeks, and only ventures onto the actual course once the coach has judged that the basic swing has been learned.  But this approach is problematic because the practice is meaningless. The swing only has a function in the context of a golf course.

Starting with the game, or an adapted version of the game, creates meaning, purpose and context. It helps the learner understand the point of the activity, and (vitally) the reason why he or she is learning these techniques.  This understanding should improve performance, and will certainly improve motivation.

4) Focus
The quality, not the quantity of practice is the determining factor of skill early.  According to some books for teachers, skill learning should take up to 3/4 of lesson time. As far as I can see, the only outcome of this approach is that learners switch off, and end up simply going through the motions. Effective practice activities should be relatively short, intense, and highly focused.  They should also be immediately followed by an application in a meaningful game.

5) To err is human and good
The great basketball coach John Wooden once said, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."  He was a wise man, as all learning necessarily involves errors and attempts to overcome them.

It is understandable that we would rather perform a skill well than badly, but from the perspective of learning, mistakes drive learning.  If we never make mistakes we would not develop, we would simply reinforce what we already do. It is only when things do not go according to plan that we are forced to rethink, and to devise new ways of acting.

Learners need to become comfortable with their mistakes, and to enjoy the new opportunities for learning and development that they promise. And coaches/teachers need to step back to give learners the time and space to experiment and to create their own solutions.

Learning is problem solving. So, mistakes are the motor of learning as they generate new problems.

6) Shut up!
Most coaches/teachers talk too much! I certainly do!!

The most important element in any lesson must be playing the game. The next most important factor is short, focused practices.  In both cases, learners need to make the knowledge, skills, and understandings their own. This means that the teacher/coach needs to leave them alone and problems, to try things out, to make lots of mistakes, and to practice and play.

As a general rule: if you are talking more than the learners, you are doing it wrong!

I'd love to hear any comments on these ideas. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Or via Twitter (@DrDickB).