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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).

Saturday, 1 February 2014

How do fighters learn how to fight? An insiders' critique of traditional teaching methods

(this is an early version of a chapter that is going to appear in a book on the martial arts in the modern world. I will add publication details when I have them)


During World War II in Britain when armaments were becoming scarce and use of manpower was critical, time-and-motion studies were made of gun crews in the artillery to see if the speed of operating could be increased. One of these studies looked at artillery crews. In many ways, the operation was impressive, with each of the soldiers smoothly following the well-choreographed process.  But one thing puzzled the observers: at a certain point, just before the firing of the gun, two of the men stood at attention away from the gun.  Once the gun was fired, they stepped back in to help.

Nobody seemed to know why the soldiers simply stood while the others carried on.  They just knew that it had to be done that way because it had always been done that way.  Then one day, the researchers met an old artillery Colonel.  He immediately knew the reason for the immobile soldiers.  He said that 50 years earlier, horses had been used to haul the big guns, before motor vehicles took over.  The time-and-motion people looked confused: “So how does that explain the two soldiers standing to attention, Sir?”  “Simple: they’re holding the horses!”

This blog entry focuses on the martial arts - the physical recreation that has occupied most of my adult life - and it seems to me that the martial arts have more than their share of horses!  (Much the same applies for many other activities, but I will hold off from mentioning them in the name of authorial discipline)

Even in this era of martial sports, Mixed Martial Arts, and street self-defence, the centre of gravity of combat activities lies firmly in the styles that sell themselves (whether explicitly or implicitly, honestly or dishonestly) as traditional.  Indeed, the appeal of these systems comes largely from the sense that they have survived for a very long time.  This sense is bolstered by the paraphernalia of training clothes based on the daywear of Japanese or Chinese peasants, the insistence that lessons take place in a foreign language, and the maintenance of a code of conduct often alien to most host countries.

The fact that hardly any of the styles taught in the West are as old as they imply is an awkward truth.  For example, three of the most popular styles, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do were all invented during the Twentieth Century (Funakoshi, 1973; Park, Park, & Gerrard, 2009; Ueshiba, 1988).  Much the same can be said of versions of Chinese ‘kung fu’.  Whilst their students might like to think they are successors to a line that can be traced back to the mystical Shaolin Temple, they are much more likely to be a member of a school dating back just a few decades, the result of one of the endless splits and feuds that characterise the history of Asian martial arts (Green & Swinth, 2003).

The medium is the message, and tradition continues to be a dominant feature of most martial arts.  This is not necessarily a problem.  Quite the contrary: traditions are indispensable components of learning and knowing, and we would barely be able to function at all without accepting some sort of authority, custom and tradition.  Tradition can show us what has worked well in the past, and what has kept our predecessors alive.  However, in the words of the great Lemony Snicket (2004), 
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course”.
Difficulties begin to rise when tradition becomes a thing in itself; when it is recognised as 'Tradition'.  Then tradition ceases to be an adaptable and living repository of learning and becomes a source of deadening authority.

This is what has happened in martial arts pedagogy.

Traditional martial arts pedagogy
There is an inherent danger facing anyone criticising practices that they describe as ‘traditional’, or ‘standard’, or 'conventional', and that is that they merely construct a ‘straw man’ to knock down.  A straw man argument occurs when the critic re-interprets a position in such a way that it is so weak or absurd than no sensible person would hold it.  And dishonest strategy is particularly easy to play in the martial arts, which are characterised by a huge degree of variation, contradictions, and tensions.  The martial arts are not a coherent clan, unified by a shared passion; they are a lose group of waring tribes!

Nevertheless, I maintain that not only is there such a thing as traditional martial arts pedagogy, but that its influence is so great it is practised even in styles that explicitly distance themselves from the past, such as Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, kickboxing and modern self-defence systems. (To be clear on this point, I am not suggesting that all instructors in these systems adhere to traditional approaches, but that many of them cannot separate themselves from them. For example, a JKD school I once attended taught the usual mixture of Kali, boxing and Wing Chun, using teaching methods that were indistinguishable from Shotokan Karate!)

This traditional pedagogy happens when most or all of the following criteria are met:

  • a considerable amount of the session time is spent with students practising basic techniques without an opponent;
  • when an opponent is involved, s/he is relatively immobile and compliant;
  • predetermined, choreographed drills and patterns, such as kata, hyeong, or forms form a central feature of training.

That these elements can be sensibly described as the traditional approach to teaching martial arts is supported by numerous textbooks and academic studies (e.g., Cox, 1993; Layton & Bell, 1997; Lorge, 2011; Nakayama, 1977; Ohlenkamp, 2006; Theeboom & Knop, 1998).  It is also supported by practitioners themselves.  In preparation for this article I engaged in a series of conversations with martial artists of different styles from around the world via social media (specifically Twitter and LinkedIn).  If anything, their views of the importance of basic techniques and kata were more fundamentalist than those of the textbooks.  “Basics are everything”, I was told, “they lay the foundation for all that follows”.  “Kata is the time-honoured method for practising these techniques”, and “It must work because it has been around for centuries”.  In the words of one popular karate text, kata and their associated basic techniques represent the “key” to the martial arts, and traditional practice gives the student that key (van Weenen, 2002).  Significantly, though, none of these sources seemed willing or able to offer any coherent explanation about how basics or kata actually translated into improved fighting skills.

At this point, one thing needs to be made clear. As my title suggests, my primary concern is the effectiveness of martial arts pedagogy as a preparation for fighting.  I do not for a moment believe that this is the only, or even main reason why people would wish to undertake such activities.  There is little doubt that regular martial arts training can make positive contributions to participants’ health and well being (Abbott & Lavretsky, 2013; Woodward, 2009). It also seems capable of contributing to much wider personal, creative, and spiritual development (Nicol, 1975; Yuasa, 1993; Zarrilli, 1998).  However, my concern here is with what might arguably be considered the defining characteristic of the martial arts - combat.  In this respect, I claim, traditional pedagogy is ineffective.

817443875_1361372095.jpg (514×360)

Pedagogy - the art, craft and science of education - is a hotly contested topic among theorists (Hansen & Laverty, 2010).  But some themes are not controversial.  For example, it is beyond doubt that pedagogic practice is built upon theories of learning; that some of these theories are mistaken; and that’s decades of research have taught us a great deal about effective and ineffective pedagogy.

We also know that the long-standing view of the brain as a kind of blank slate (or empty container) onto which is written experiences is plain wrong (Pinker, 2003).  Babies enter the world hard wired with countless sources of knowledge and insight gleaned through thousands of years of evolution.  From that moment, the young child voraciously consumes information, seeking to understand, adapt to, and control issues or her environment.  By the time a student enters a martial arts club, therefore, he will she has an extensive biography of experience and knowledge which cannot help but influence any learning that takes place.  This is why the much-prized “beginner’s mind” of Zen Buddhism is an idealised aspiration rather than an everyday reality (Suzuki, 1970).  Consequently, no two people will leave a pedagogic encounter with the same learning, and the learning that does occur is not necessarily that which was intended by the teacher. Learning is essentially an active process, in which the learner struggles to construct meanings that are relevant to them from the situation.  As the great psychologist Jerome Bruner put it, “Stimuli ... do not act upon an indifferent organism” (Bruner & Postman, 1949, p. 206).

This point has an implication that is of enormous importance: teaching and learning have no necessary connection.  Most of my social media informants simply assumed that what was taught was what was learned.  But because an activity aims to teach a certain skill or knowledge does not mean that it will.  No matter how skilled or impassioned the teaching, unless the learner understands it and engages with it, there is no reason to suppose that he or she has learned and that he or she will be able to apply it.  The philosopher Karl Popper (1974) offered a useful way of understanding how this might work in practice. Learning, he suggested, has the character of problem solving, and is most likely to occur when teaching and experience provide solutions to problems that are real and meaningful to the learner.  So, if a martial artist is struggling to defend him/herself from a certain type of attack, and the instructor provides a workable solution, learning is very likely to take place, it will be remembered, and applied in future.  However, if the same instructor merely demonstrates a series of apparently arbitrary techniques that are then imitated by the students, those techniques are much less likely to be retained and applied (Bailey, 2000) (Since my focus is on martial arts pedagogy, I have not even gone into the sometimes bizarre techniques that  make up many kata and forms, and from which some folk make a decent living pretending to have found ways in which they might actually work in the real world!)

So, people learn best when learning situations are real and meaningful.  How does the teacher or instructor make sure that these conditions apply?  This is where another group of findings from research become relevant.  Situated learning emphasizes that learning is most effective when it is specific to the situation in which it is learned.  In other words, learning is most likely to occur when the context of teaching closely reflects the context of learning (Ramsden, 1984).  Swimming on dry land, for example, is a poor preparation for swimming in water because it lacks many of its defining characteristics (such as water).  Likewise, many people claim that schools fail to prepare their students because life in a classroom shares few of the features of the world into which the young people will enter.

Situated learning is actually made up of a number of claims, and each of them highlights the difficulties for traditional martial arts pedagogy (see Table 1).

Sources: Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996; Greeno, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991.

From the perspective of situated learning, then, traditional martial arts pedagogy fares rather badly because it fails to resemble the situations in which its skills will be applied.  Simply put, we learn what we do.  If any martial artist wishes to prepare for the complexity and chaos of a street fight, he or she will be badly served if the training is simple, ordered and decontextualized.

 Courtesy of Clubb Chimera
Photo courtesy of Jamie Clubb, Clubb Chimera

Techniques or Skills?
It was a traditional martial artist who first and most effectively translated the practical implications of this type of research for the martial arts, and for sport in general.  Geof Gleeson was the UK’s National Coach for Judo, and as a young man had lived and studied with the family of Judo's founder, Jigaro Kano.  Gleason made a number of innovations and provocative ideas (mostly resisted and ultimately ignored by the Judo establishment), but the one that is of most relevance to this discussion is his distinction between techniques and skills (Gleeson, 1983; 1989).  Gleeson’s initial target was what judo players call Uchikomi, or repetitive technical training.  It is worth remembering that, unlike most martial arts, practice of techniques in JUdo necessarily involves interaction with another player.  So, from the perspective of learning theory, judo (and other grappling sports) already have a significant advantage over other (punching and kicking) systems.  Nevertheless, Gleeson was critical of the use of Uchikomi for three main reasons:

1. Fixed routines: Uchikomi is often practiced as habitual patterns of movement.  However, Gleeson argued that judo is the practice and application of a skill, and habit and skill are not synonymous.  Gleeson further maintained that there was no necessary connection between the static repetition of a throw as Uchikomi and the dynamic performance of a throw when the players are in motion.

2. How the completion of a skill movement affects the improvement of the skill: the throw is rarely completed in Uchikomi practice. In fact, practice is often carried out with no movement of the players, non-completion of the throw and no realistic resistance from the partner.  Therefore, the player never really knows if he or she is performing the techniques correctly and effectively since there is no genuine feedback.  Gleeson’s conclusion was that not only will Uchikomi not help to improve throwing skill, but will actually impede any skill improvement.

3. Rhythmic pattern differences in static and dynamic movement: Non-movement of the partner and a stereotypical movement in and out of the position by the throw leads to a regular beat rhythm.  This never happens in competition fighting.  The movement patterns associated with fighting in training and competition are complex and contain endless variations of movement by both of the players.  Therefore, the transference of skills between the practice and performance is non-existent.

Gleeson conceded that the practice of Uchikomi may help to increase stamina and strength, but its value as a method of improving throwing skills in fighting situations is extremely limited (Gleeson, 1967).

Geof Gleeson teaching on an early International Budo Federation coaching course (your author is the keen young man in black)

Traditional martial arts pedagogy focuses on the development of technique (as almost all martial arts textbooks also do), and simply assumes that this will transfer into skilled performance against an opponent.  Gleeson’s central insight is that this is an error.  Technique cannot be treated in isolation, for there are many other things which affect and modify all techniques when they are converted into a competitive skill.  Ultimately, skill is much more about context that it is about technique, and it is context that needs to be taught, experienced and understood.  Uchikomi - which is actually a rather more dynamic and interactive form of basic technique training that is common in the majority of martial arts - is limited precisely because it confuses skilled performance with the repetition of mere technique.  Skill “can be defined only in terms of success, of achievement, of a goal” (Guthrie, 1952, p. 136).  So, skills are actions with some outcome in mind (Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2000), rather than mere physical actions.

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus - as far as I am aware, not a martial artist - offered another argument, which seems to support Gleeson’s position.  Dreyfus took issue with the widespread view that road to expertise begins with the development of isolated elements (what Gleeson would call techniques): “meaningless, atomistic elements ... Nothing is intelligible to us unless it first shows up as already integrated into our world, fitting into our coping practices” (Wrathall, 2000, p. 95).  Dreyfus argued that if we were to go straight to the actual phenomena we are studying, and undertook a very detailed observation of the activities that they make up, it would be evident that we are not processing bits of information as we deal (or cope) with them.  In addition, Dreyfus introduces what he calls the 'argument from skills' (Wrathall, 2000) to show how the traditional view of learning by building up discrete bits of technique is problematic.  His argument can be paraphrased and reframed like this: if we are to understand how people learn to perform martial arts, and we follow the assumptions of traditional pedagogy, we will need not only rules for performing the techniques, but also a specification of the rules that allow us to know when specific techniques apply in different contexts.  The different techniques that make up the different skills necessary for successful fighting mean that we are talking about a huge number of rules.  But still further rules would seem to be needed to direct these rules, and so on for an infinite regress.

It is difficult to see how to escape this descend, without abandoning the traditional assumption that skilled performance is the result of acquired, developed and applied techniques.  However, the argument does not apply if performance in fighting is understood in terms of the learning of real and meaningful skills in real and meaningful contexts. In a nutshell: there is only one way to learn how to fight in the martial arts: fighting.  Of course, this need not always be fighting in the sense of “the real thing”.  It is possible (and sensible) to construct a programme of teaching and learning that simulates different aspects of fighting contexts, and encompasses many of the defining characteristics of fighting situations, which would include unpredictability, emotion, and contact.

Fighters learn to fight by fighting.  So, martial arts pedagogy, at least as it relates to preparation for fighting, is much simpler than is usually presented both in textbooks and by instructors.  Basic training and kata, in the way practised around the world have many virtues, but they are fundamentally flawed as preparations for fighting.  They survive not because they work, but because of the power and mythology of tradition in the martial arts.  And because critical thinking are rarely features of programmes.  They also gain sustenance by the fact that they all rarely tested in the crucible of real fighting. It is surely not a coincidence that systems that are regularly tested, whether in the relatively safe arena of full contact sport or in the real world, are much less likely to rely on traditional martial arts pedagogy.  They have learned that tradition is only of value to the extent that it keeps you fighting.

Your author competing in a Muay Thai event, Newcastle, 1989

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