Learning, memory, and some practical implications for coaches & athletes
So in this and the next few articles we are going to concentrate on picking up some really important points from research based on what works, what doesn't, and what might be just pure nonsense or old wives tales. Some of the stuff will be somewhat repeated from previous articles, but in the interest of learning - this is one of the exact things that helps retention: getting the information in different formats over periods of time, scaffolding ideas and thoughts (and good research) on top of each other.
The one promise I make is that this research is from the top table of research. Meta analysis or better and theories or ideas that have been well tested and even challenged to debunking but survived. This is the best of ideas where scientists challenge theories and try to disprove to no avail, or indeed they iterate to a point of an even better theory.
An analysis of memory
Kent State researchers found in 2013 some of the following points around memory, long-term in particular.
Very effective for long term memory were 2 main approaches:
The most effective - Retrieval practice and distributed practice
For coaches, retrieval practice exists as a possibility across the spectrum. Leaving breaks between specific skill or tactical/strategy practice does enhance motor learning. This could be little reflections between games - if they have a real specific purpose. It could be reflection a week later on the same practice before attempting it again.
We know if we give short to medium breaks between practices, players will often come back even better than they left - without any practice. This may be something to do with a motor learning process, subconscious reflection, sleep, playing other sports, or a combo of them all. To be honest it varies wildly from culture to culture and person to person so we can't be exactly sure. We do know it happens, though, and it gives us another indication of the limitations of blocked practice. Good reflection will support this process as well.
For distributed practice, I think this lies in an interesting area for coaches and athletes. Small doses consistently seem better again. Now we do understand the constraints of most coaches' time with players (99% are volunteers). However I have often used, where possible, a "weakness" day. This might be a Monday after a Saturday game. Players could meet in small groups where particular common developments could happen but in really short sessions.
10 minutes warm up
10 mins on a specific skill area
10 mins on some strength work on an area of weakness
Out the gap, 30-40 mins max
It works as a nice bridge between the game and main session on a Tuesday and then Thursday can be a shorter more specific team session with a focus on the next game.
Even within sessions , even with themed sessions which I encourage, we don't have to flog certain practices. Basically avoid cramming.
You theme could be defending and defensive transition in Gaelic Football
Warm Up with some specific drills around your principles of defending, lets say "delay, deny, dispossess"
10 mins max on a low opposed defensive transition
Play a normal game for 10 mins where the reflective elements and principles are discussed and emphasised based on your teams principles.
play another broken down version for repetition without repetition practice where the defense gets overloaded
Play a full game with jokers where both sides are constantly overloaded.
The theme is the same, but those subtle changes can really change the learning experience for the players
Another way of challenging our metabolic & psychological systems is to mix physical conditioning in an opposing way to doing your more sports specific stuff. For instance if we have a session with a lot of small sided games, changes of direction, 1v1 up to 6v6v on smallish areas then I will add in tempo (so lower intensity) work for 100/150/200m runs maybe at the end or between practices. Think of it very simply as "stretching out the muscles". But I believe these approaches also have learning benefits. It demarks the practices, avoids overload and in turn will require some retrieval as well.
As an example, you are working on short kickouts and playing some short and small games. You may have a strategy you are working on. Do your warm up, add some tempos, ask questions as to the principles of your strategy on Kick-Outs. See where that verbal understanding is. Run your practices. Do more tempos, reflect again. You could even do immediate reflection for a minute asking a couple of players leading questions. Then do the runs, and ask again and maybe concentrate on a few other players. The possibilities and approaches are endless, coaches will find what works best for them and their team as they go, but hopefully some of those help.
Also effective - Elaborate interrogation and interleaved practice
Elaborative interrogation is when we burrow down into things we either believe in or want to know deeply - why? This is also a practice coaches, parents and teachers can use. This is essentially an old Japanese approach of the 5 Why's. Ask yourself 5 times why as you challenge something you are about to do or practice or a decision to be made. Maybe we don't go too far on this all the time with every question or discussion, but we can definitely ask ourselves why as leaders, we can empower the players or people we work with also to question our practices. The answers when coupled with previous learnings or lets say a general knowledge of their sport, adds to deeper understanding.
Interleaved practice is basically mixing up practice by changing the types of problems we face. For instance I worked with a kid in lockdown who wanted to improve their weak side - in 4 sports. This was ideal really. They were weak off their left in kicking and shooting hoops as well as striking in hurling. So some isolated practice that would develop coordination in these areas would help. But I also employed an interleaved approach. Basically he set himself up with the football, hurley and ball, soccer ball, other foam and varied weighted balls and the basketball (has a hoop). And then practiced off a wall or to his dad or sister on kicking with his left for 5 balls, moved onto basketball layups off his "wrong" side for 5 reps, picked up the hurley, hit 10 off the left, changed balls for Gaelic and soccer passes and so on. Now even if the kid only played one sport, we can interleave practice like this regardless. We could maybe add in other movement skills that have a coordinative effect like contralateral step ups or break-dancers or lizard crawls. We could create some really good circuits in this way. It's been shown to be a better learning process and its also arguably motivation to complete might be raised as it's not boring, win-win. SO this could help inform coaches also when designing practice, with the particularly hard skills - don't over do them and surround them with other activities.
And not so useful - re-reading and highlighting
More relevant to academic learning maybe but still worth knowing for us all.
Taking notes, re-reading and highlighting have limited value, unless there is some layering up on previous knowledge. And of course one of the problems with highlighting or underlining stuff is that we tend to do that with stuff that resonates with us and possibly are missing some other areas. This also has something to do with scaffolding. The relevance here to coaching may again be in regards to strategic approaches. Looking at our well drawn out Tactical Periodization presentations may help with framing a message, but in a sporting context it does not mean learning. In sport the only barometer for real understanding is doing. Now of course we need to be able to recognise progress even when nowhere near complete and supplement it with various methods of learning support, but ultimately realising pitch performance is king.
So just off one paper, there is a lot of help I think for everyone. Hopefully you got the practical ideas I was trying to get across.
See you next week
The illusion of what we "know" - Is skepticism another layer of deep learning?
We are in a constant state of judgement of the environment we are in and the tasks posed to us.
Thinking about thinking is metacognition. This supports decent decision making.
We need to be aware of our own delusional, and indeed I have been reminded of this numerous times in recent times with the avalanche of fake news and general bullshit being put into our world, that skepticism is the most important skill we have to develop moving forward.
We have to be skeptical of ourselves also, and be willing to "un-learn some of what we took as fact in the past. Un-learning might be as progressive a tool as learning new information and open us up to many other possibilities.
For instance, recently I took an interest in the Irish tax system around corporate tax. Not because I find that interesting per se, but more that it seemed to be a really important factor in Ireland's Multinational scene. Other EU countries bang on about it a lot, as if we were breaking the rules or morally corrupt.
Now, I am not for a second suggesting Ireland is a haven of moral stability. However there was a lot of drama around Joe Biden and his declaration of trying to adjust the global tax system. The pessimists were out quickly. And respected journalists were out sharing articles about Google and their tax dodging, facilitated by Ireland. Turns out to be largely bullshit. You can read more here.
The point is, I was too accepting of mainstream media. I tend to believe more lefty European types that were "more of my ilk". When it was well explained it was clear this was just a European leaders' narrative to have something over Ireland. And while Ireland is not squeaky clean here, it actually seems to come down to pure jealousy that we managed to capture the Yanks for a lot of this business, largely no doubt because we speak English.
When we don't judge something well, the thing is, we often don't realise it. That's why experience and reflection are critical and that we reflect on the experience. We can't just keep having the same experience repeatedly - and not for a second am I suggesting that's easy. Also we have to remember to be fair and good to ourselves and realise change is slow, learning is non-linear, and we are only what we are at any one point in time.
This is something as a Coach Educator/mentor I have been confronted with quite regularly and has forced reflection and change in my approach. While delivering new content, often without explicitly saying it, infers that the old approach was not optimum. This regularly gets fairly excessive backlash. But as I am at pains to say to coaches or athletes struggling with that - we only know what we know until we know more. None of us started with all the knowledge, and none of us will ever have all the knowledge.
At the same time, we have to be willing to backtrack and maybe jump off the train we are on, too.
A brilliant saying I picked up recently lays this out well: "If we get on the wrong bus, every stop is still the wrong stop."
We need to get off at whatever stop we are at and pick up a bus back to our original destination and start again.
It's often something I discuss with people around imagining a sport or an approach to coaching. How about if we were starting now? Would we do it exactly the same?
Absolutely not is the answer, 100% of the time. 100%.
So it seems kinda madness that we would just stay on the same bus. But it's hard work to get off the bus and go back. That is the issue.
In a very real sense I propose to coaches and team I work with - let's play the game and see what works, and what doesn't work so well.
We have spent a world of time, years and years creating models or representations in our head about so many different things.
We are wired to fool ourselves in many ways. For example, that we are more competent at something than we may really be. That's why observing others, who we recognise as skilled, is a great help to us to adjust our thinking and acknowledge that we always have more to learn.
That doesn't tally with the modern neoliberal world where we are told to act confident at all times. But we can be confident by being truthful. There is great confidence in knowing, yes I do have some competence, but I will continue to seek more, make mistakes and accept that non-linearity of life. This can serve us in sport, coaching, and life in general.
Cognitive Biases & Motivated Reasoning
We have a penchant as humans for picking up information and tailoring it to our already preconceived ideas to make it suit our narrative. For many things that's inconsequential really, but on important decisions we do sometimes have to think abstractly, step back, and take a broad look: "Am I on the wrong bus again?"
We broadly think in 2 systems, at least according to Daniel Kahneman who wrote the exceptional book Thinking , Fast & Slow. System 1 is our quick instinctive thinking, really hard to put the brakes on. System 2 is a slower system that helps us think in a more controlled manner.
If we use System 2 after system 1 for reflection we can really improve a lot at whatever we are working at, no matter how big or small, mundane or exciting. But we won't learn much (and this could be why we repeat mistakes ad nausea) unless we give ourselves that space.
From a sports coaching perspective one thing that has interested me, is that the most skillful and smart people seem to have the best System 1 "breaks". That ability to just stop doing what they were about to do.
People that come to mind for me are Messi, Colm Cooper, Alan Brogan, DJ Carey in sport. Their ability to stop or just change what they were doing was the key skill they possessed. Neuroscience bares that out somewhat and research has shown that we have 1-3000 milliseconds to stop something.
This has interesting ideas for coaching and skill acquisition and again talks to the need for reflection. Maybe honest reflection and support is something that can not only improve skills, but also help us make better decisions in general.
If we use system 2 more, we will ourselves to question our actions. Next time, will we be more able to step on the brakes? I can't be sure if that's the case, but it's a concept worth considering.
As people, we are in a constant state of search for stability. We can only deal with small fluctuations of instability. This is actually one of the reasons Military Dictators survive. The people they recruit are very cleverly picked out from certain demographics.
So that search for stability - including fear or avoidance of the unknown - is deeply driven within us, and some cultures have it more embedded than others. These are reasons why we hold on to old biases, even when new and really well verified information is presented to us. We want a steady story to shape our lives and anything that messes with that is viewed with serious suspicion.
All of this inhibits our learning. We are not helped by the structure of life since the invention of schools where we are told from a very young age that everything is wrapped up in a very nice curriculum and we should believe everything within it.
The same goes for sport, the GAA in Ireland being a very specific example. Most of us will have anecdotes or heard them of people being shunned by people within a club because they went and played for another team. I have seen and experience that happen to people who were living as far away as a 3 hour drive. There is no empathy or logic to that whatsoever, but it stems from this deep down fear of "this feels unstable, why has he moved clubs" and really what it is is an expression of "is this GAA thing kinda mad? Are we a bit unhinged to be so parochial about this?". And this then leads to a projection outwards because we can't answer those questions ourselves.
Of course the answer is in the middle, there is a lot of positives about the community based element to local sports, and you can in tandem with that think its very off for someone to be shunned because they decided to play a sport in another club, we can hold both these beliefs at the same time.
And of course all this lack of clear reflection and practical framing blocks our pathway to learning. And in my opinion when we actually learn to take those guards down it actually opens up not only more learning opportunities but an even deeper appreciation for our pursuits. Learning to be skeptical of what we are thinking, at least on the big subjects in life helps us become more critical thinkers. And surely being a critical thinker is going to support us be better athletes, coaches, teachers and leaders?
Have a great week, chat next week.
The Power of Reflection
Today's blog is on reflection, something more and more important in our busy world.
Hard recall helps embed experiences and learning. What we remember immediately after an event and what we recall at varied times, and after we can adjust. We can bend things negatively or positively depending on our disposition.
Taking notes on performance in training and sport is a very powerful habit. We may have read some self help books or extracts or heard people talk about making notes every night and kinda dismiss it as over the top, a bit obsessive, or very straight. But when you practice formal and informal reflection you slowly start to see the power of it.
Reflection can help us sleep better with the very simple habit of writing down 1-3 things we achieved that day and the first 3 actions we will take the next day. Even as simple as, get up, have breakfast, bring kids to school, arrive at my desk and have a good day. That kind of imagery has been shown to be very effective both for reducing anxiety and improving quality and quantity of sleep.
Reflection helps us learn. Of course we need to be honest with ourselves at times or get external critique and support.
Why are we learning?
We learn to be more competent or, to take one of social sciences mental models, we desire a "Circle of Competence". We know from previous articles and from models or theories like the Optimal Learning Theory and Self-Determination theory that a feeling of autonomy and competence underpins a lot of a human's desire or intrinsic motivation to do anything.
As coaches and leaders we are trying to support this growth. Of course an awful lot of it is dependent on the individual and their history of motivation. But to complete a "Circle of Competence" the learner needs these 3 things: curiosity and a desire to learn, monitoring, and feedback.
Reflection, though, is almost like a monitoring and feedback loop all of its own.
I would add to those 3 elements of competency that the individual needs an element of desire and discipline to try things, stick with them, and also be prepared to fail. We can't have competency without failure.
Reflection in skill development
Reflection also has been shown to help with skill development in physical activities and sports.
As coaches or teachers, the questions we ask can have a massive effect on the people we are working with. Even between games on a pitch or classes at school. Asking positive, leading questions that force the person to retrieve what just happened and think about it will help increase the knowledge of the subject or the success of their actions in a game.
For instance, as a coach we can tag it to the principles of play of the sport or the principles of our team. We may have designed a great game or practice to physically improve it, but we are slowing the learning process. Therefore, maybe success, by not adding a reflection element to it.
Positive realism is the best approach I feel here. We can't ignore defeat or consistent failures but we don't need to dwell on them either. Moving forward with positive reinforcement will allow us to work on the weaknesses as well.
Specific and positive affirmations rather than general praise is another important element of this reflection being really worthwhile. Instead of "great save made there keeper", we could reinforce fundamental principles by saying "I really liked your movement across the goal and concentration on the ball before the shot, and your feet moved really well to be in the right position to make the save."
This is going to support the keeper to learn that the positive result he got came from a process he went through. He is much more likely to repeat this again as the quality movement and concentration is associated with success. This could be called 'co-reflection'; the players' feedback here and description themselves would be great also.
With major performance events like competitive games I use a simple positive approach called the 3:1 approach - 3 things you did well and 1 thing you would like to work on. That 1 thing may be a constant, and that's fine as long as you have a plan to actually deal with it, and an approach to improvement.
A lack of action in an area constantly emerging would likely lead to some form of blockage to actually improving. This is where a growth mindset from the coach/parent and player is critical. Particularly at adult level I still hear too much of "ah he's 24, you'll never change him now." Or if they don't have a particular skill: "ah, if you don't sort that before they're 12 they'll never get it - Bullshit.
What it invariably is, is that the coach is not motivated enough to try. This might be as the players’ ability is already "adequate" or they don't see a player worth working on. Or they don't know how.
This is why I believe coach education should have a lot more learning science, psycho-social modules, and skill acquisition. This is opposed to the heavy technical element it now delivers in most sports, growing too heavily tactical as people go through the levels.
The positive lean on reflection for sports performance has the embedded aspect of driving motivation and supporting an athlete to be confident in their strengths while keeping an eye on weaknesses. Traditionally coaching has focused on constantly trying to pick at weaknesses and this approach often leads to a drop in confidence in the athletes.
As coaches ourselves
We can be a little more critical if we want, in private and with management. If we understand the frameworks we work within, we can have a bit more balance on positive:negative ratio. Because it's up to us to see things down the road and be like a snooker player playing a few shots ahead.
The best and most consistent leaders were "suspicious of success".
Can we get better?
Defeat is easy to analyse
Loss emotionally drives reflection. However, success releases endorphins that can sometimes mask deeper issues. This can be the case in business, relationships and sport.
Why do seemingly good relationships fall apart quickly sometimes? Why do winning teams get undone by a freak result? Why do businesses have a run of success but then can not adjust to a sudden technology, social, or economic change?
Usually a lack of reflection through success.
One could look at reflection like part of a cool down, or as suggested above, part of the bedtime routine.
Reflection with Imagery
While the cognitive revolution from thousands of years ago meant we got off the trees, we now go and overthink everything. One of the benefits of this that does differentiate from other primates is that we can imagine.
Neurobiology seems to indicate that we are essentially the only animal who can make things up, but we can also imagine possible scenarios, even if they never happened to us, before by imagining possibilities. That means we can imagine how a game may play out based on all the games we played in the past.
Adding this kind of imagery to positive but clinical reflection are a powerful duo. If we can reflect as athletes with a positive tint and be critically fair to ourselves (and players if we are the coach reflecting on technical performance), we can allow for levels of imagery which could raise expectations and support skill acquisition or team and individual development down the road.
So that's it for this week, see you next week.
The Optimal Learning Theory
Many people can get turned off by research, and theories and all the language that comes with it. I understand this, and I can agree with the assertion that it can be inaccessible, but underneath it is a wealth of knowledge.
Now I don't expect people to wade through paper after the paper, that's what I am here for. However a few pieces of seminal research can be so helpful and powerful for us.
The thing about it is, research often reflects what we already do. But what it also does, in my experience, is kills some beliefs that might be holding us back, creates some new ideas and takes the edges off some of our approaches to leadership, learning, or coaching.
While there is some bullshit research out there (sports science is full of it), for the most part most researchers are hell bent on learning more and improving things for their area of study. Many though do not know how to communicate that well, and while academics may not like me saying this, there is a lot of snobbery and arrogance within the academic world, between themselves as much as to the outer world.
However some of the research, and indeed fueled by popular biographies and journalistic stories, sell us survivorship bias. We hear the story of the great champion that makes it and it kinda reverse engineers from there. But that's not really how it is in the real world for most people. For most of us, it's not about those who make it anyway - it's about the 99.9988% (actual number of kids who play in English Soccer academies that won't "make it") who want to enjoy a sport and stay active, or support at school, or to keep in a job.
When you are trying to improve something like coaching, well, you have to be able to connect with your audience. Now academics come back with the argument that "this is the language that best describes it". And while that might be technically true - you are losing the reader. So what's the point?
What I have recently seen is academics saying we need intermediaries to reach "regular people".
And here we are... this is our attempt at it.
That's a little ranty I know, but at the end of the day we are researching for the sake of research or for the development of....
That said, there is plenty of good stuff that's pretty accessible.
Our game is coaching, but there are a few theories and fields of study that are worth putting ourselves out for. In fairness they are pretty well presented and not overly jargon-y either.
One is called the Optimal Learning Theory. A theory, with a lot of years of research, that supports an environment for optimal learning; Specifically Motor Learning. Motor Learning underpins skill development which of course is going to be of interest to coaches and athletes in particular.
The researchers, Gabriele Wulf & Rebecca Lewthwaite, landed on 3 critical factors that underpin an optimal setting for Motor Learning - an external focus of attention, autonomy, and enhanced expectations.
What I personally love about this theory is it helped me reach almost in a triangle of effectiveness. It was research that significantly changed something I was doing that wasn't best practice. It adjusted something I was kind of doing but doubled down on thereafter to great success. This confirmed something to me I had been doing for years that I felt I was a bit of an outlier on.
External Focus of Attention
External focus of attention comes from one half of the "Attentional Focus" domain. The other one being an internal focus of attention.
As it says on the tin, this is about where we focus our attention while performing a Motor task.
An internal focus is when we focus using our body - "push your knees out as you descend in a squat" - grip your hurley tight when hitting the ball". It can also be when coaching acceleration an example might be to "push the ground away from you".
A very specific cue I would use in Gaelic games coaching is "tackle the ball" in Gaelic football or "ball to ground" in hurling. This change of focus has had a significant effect on defending and with teams I worked with. By using these terms we set the focus on the result and its external. This seems to have players self organise in a way to just concentrate on the ball. And the results are significant with the amount of frees given away decreasing anywhere we employed it.
Previously I had been obsessing over near handed tackles and had a more technical model, whereas this was a more holistic and skill adaptation model. What's weird about this is I was using an external focus of attention on shooting and especially free taking. Where I would myself and coach players to focus on something beyond the posts and every time we went to a new field or venue to find some focus beyond the posts - this was external focus of attention only I didn't know it.
A classic case of where knowledge can support both new learning and creativity.
Autonomy is something that comes up time and again as central to underpin motivation. That motivation then can enhance the ability or want to learn new things but also to commit, to engage and to practice.
In team sports there is a little misconception that this is only with youths or adults and you can involve them in team strategy. But autonomy is not complicated nor does it have an age bracket. With children in a sporting context it can be as simple as"do ye want to play dodge ball or bib tag today? (the answer is to play both by the way)
In a gym setting I work autonomy into my programming and training, but it's nested inside my principles of training and movement. While we will squat-push-hinge-pull every week, what type of squat for instance might become a choice of the athlete or client - a front squat or a back squat or a split squat.
As you get to know an athlete, student or employee more the level of autonomy can grow. We can ask them when they want feedback (people vary wildly with this), do they want a demo first or to have a cut off it themselves, we can ask them to make a template or even design training sessions as a group or small group, get their input into when they want to push on and see what more they can do and multiple other areas.
It's up to the coach or leader to figure out where they want their hand held and where they will lead something themselves.
Autonomy has been something I was somewhat giving to players and clients over the years. You begin to learn how useful it is and how it enhances a shared experience. There will be times where it is somewhat rejected, people will say "just tell me what to do and i'll do it". So do that. Sometimes that evolves, but of course there is a form of autonomy involved in that too, but sometimes it can be used and the occasional athlete will try to manipulate for their own benefit or to disrupt. This is just part of the game.
Enhancing expectations is again a powerful tool in building a team or group atmosphere, broadening the breath of learning and getting buy-in to a common purpose.
At a very practical level enhancing the expectations of a child and their ability to learn a skill. Explaining to them even in simple terms "in 6 weeks you won't even remember missing the pick up and you will be doing it all the time". This will give the child a vision of where they can go and that someone has the confidence in them to do it.
We need to be conscious of the history and experience of some of the people we coach and where previous support systems have been. It's quite possible, because we always hear this nonsense in sport, "you can't teach that". What many athletes hear is "I can't learn that, as I was not born with it". Now we can't "teach" skill or creativity, but we can create the atmosphere and build the environment to do so. This is particularly strong at adult level but I believe this comes down to lazy coaching and a lack of motivation to try and support development. While learning as an adult is slowed compared to as a child, it doesn't mean it cannot happen. So enhancing expectations really is closely linked to growth and fixed mindsets - a growth mindset can be developed or enhanced by a coach or leader who helps raise expectations.
Here is a quote from a famous paper on the subject
“In general, people who believe that (motor) abilities are relatively fixed (so-called entity theorists), tend to be more concerned with proving their ability, and they perceive errors or negative feedback as a threat to the self, because they reveal a limited capacity or lack of ability. In contrast, people who assume that abilities are changeable or malleable (so-called incremental theorists) tend to focus more on learning and improving their performance on a given task. They are less threatened by feedback indicating errors or poor performance, and they confront difficulties by increasing their effort.”
This could also be closely linked and lap over co-creation and autonomy. If we chat with an athlete on the side of a pitch we can;
- we get fit
- we build a strategy for our team
They are reasonable structures and relatively easy wins for any team. They will create mini-successes along the way, and should see an increase in performances. Then it's possible you can start aiming bigger. So enhanced expectations does not mean silly pie in the sky expectations.
Giving players, employees and students positive feedback as they make their way along the process is a critical underpinning of raising expectations as well. Also telling them they will perform well and if not immediately very soon is another very helpful part of the process.
That's it for this week, I hope you got a lot out of that.
Here is a seminal paper on the subject for those of you interested. Next week we will move on to other areas of learning that can support our coaching, teaching and leadership.