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).


  1. Really good article. I couldn't agree more than about talking too much.

    I have two boys on my team, who could be described as having room for improvement (don't we all). One had played for another team and had never really been given the opportunity to play, the other had never really played before. Over the course of about 12 months their biggest improvements have come from concentrating on perhaps 2 simple ideas, for our goalkeeper was a)decision making b)not worrying about a 'mistake' The other boy a) where to stand on the pitch b) play a simple pass.

    They have improved beyond all recognition. Not from me constantly talking but because they have really worked on these ideas. And they have been encouraged because they can see their own improvement.

    By the way I do talk far too much as well. But their learning has come from concentrating on small topics and not worrying too much about every little detail.

    But another interesting point is the other players are really impressed by how much these boys have improved.

  2. Thanks for the comments William. And thanks for the great examples.

    In my opinion, if the coach can see gradual, on going improvement in a player, the coach is doing something right!

  3. Well written Richard. A great coach will help the player to raise their awareness of what is happening by keeping explanations simple, relevant and in the right context for that player.

    Allow the unconscious mind to deal with the complexity and occupy the conscious mind on simple tasks and creating the relevant feedback as to what happened in a matter-of-fact way.

    Coaching evolves as the player evolves at his or her own pace, whilst having fun at the same time.

  4. Very Good article - believe strongly in starting the session with a game.Use the whole, part, whole method - it gives your session and your coaching context. Running some plays at the moment with my senior basketball girls. We have different levels of ability and experience. We also have different levels of commitment with some missing sessions usually for valid reasons. Last night there was tremendous learning through games. Setting up simple plays, asking them questions about the plays, where they should be, what the options are, coaching them through questions to come up with solutions and embed learning. A challenge for them and for me... moving quickly from the telling coach to the questioning coach.

  5. I like the article, some good info and things to think about. My only concern would be if you are only playing a version of the game, touches on the ball per player are minimal, especially for weaker players. Intense technical work that is dynamic and interesting has an impact on the individual's technical level and ball mastery. I think a balance needs to found. I do agree with the rejection of 'stale' and boring technical work with no application of learning. Players switch off after 7 reps or so.
    Keep it coming.

  6. Hi David, the danger of limited ball touches only applies if the coaches plans something like a full game. And I agree this is bad practice. But small-sided games that reflect the main characteristics of the full game should require everyone to participate fully.

    Personally, I think 'technique' that is outside of an actual game setting is of very value, because the players are not able to develop their understanding of application of that technique.

    This does not mean that coaches should not try to improve players skills and techniques. It just means that everything needs to be in context. Do instead of the traditional session plan of SKILLS, SKILLS, SKILLS, GAME (which all evidence suggests develops neither skills nor performance in the game!), the session should be something like ADAPTED GAME, SKILL, ADAPTED GAME, SKILL, ADAPTED GAME. That wasthe players will be able to understand the WHEN, WHERE AND WHY of the sport, as well as the HOW!

  7. Richard. Really valid and thought-provoking observations which should encourage all coaches to reflect on their coaching practice.
    It does prompt an important question for me: how do we measure a learner's development? Some may argue it is neither relevant nor desirable to measure or attempt to measure development, progress or potential but I wonder what you think? While outcome can be measured crudely in terms of winning and losing, this would not be appropriate in a coaching environment which is process-driven.