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.
Desirable Learning Conditions for Development & Creativity
One of the most important factors with learning is the conditions of learning, or more specifically the learning environment.
I remember watching a sports star talking about being in a learning environment in an interview. My eyes were telling me this seemed off, the exact same issues seemed to be occurring for a few years. I felt he was rehashing a phrase that didn't have a lot of substance.
Not long after, when losing a big game I noticed one of the management team essentially saying "we worked on it, the players didn't carry it out". Alarm bells always ring with this. Blaming the players would not indicate a learning environment, not my understanding of it at least. Another member of management later bemoaned "all the mistakes we made".
In time I would find the Manager didn't do video reviews, didn't feel the need. So, a lack of reflective practice.
This definitely was not a learning environment. You could say it was the opposite. No reflection, a culture of blame, over-emphasis on mistakes, not seeing mistakes as learning tools, and more.
You can tell me its a swan, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...its a fucking duck.
People listen, and even if it's not that obvious or we are not totally tuned in we can feel something is off. We may not totally understand what the Manager or Performance Coach is talking about when saying "learning environment," but when it's clearly not and we are not learning, then anyone is going to cop that, and it does affect motivation.
Deep down you feel short sold. You may even subconsciously merge into "this guy is a bluffer" mentality. No matter how fair that is. Once you are there with a team or in a workplace it's all over. It may not be that incredibly obvious, but it is.
I worked in an Aussie Rules club once, it was just below Elite, semi Pro/Pro kinda level. We made a belter of a start. Pre Season was great, won 5/6 of the opening games and play offs were becoming a possibility for the 1st time in 25 years.
The alickadoos were getting shifty. As the strength coach I was getting these strange, clearly very wealthy, men coming up slapping me on the back (literally) saying how great a job I was doing. As it was a decent level there was media cover, so I would read the odd article or watch tv interviews around our games.
Took no notice of much of it for a while, the usual boring stuff we all get these days. Then we lost a game, something about the Head Coaches' Interview threw me...I couldn't re-watch at the time, but it alerted me. The next loss at Game 7 was a poor loss, but I was looking out for reaction. And it hit me. He changed from "We" to "the boys" depending on whether we won or lost.
We won (Me, the great coach in charge). They lost (The players didn't listen to me, the great coach).
No learning there. No humility there. No Reflection there. No team there.
Although there was learning for me. Watch your language around such things when talking to or about players. If I copped that surely out of a squad of 50 players, others did too. In the following weeks he would lay it on the fitness and medical team - "not fit enough", "should have been allowed to play" and so on. Leadership is not easy, it takes practice. But it also takes humility.
As a very smart sounding Greek man once said "power doesn't corrupt, it reveals".
What has this got to do with Learning?
A lot - A psychologically safe place might be a newish term. Some may even see it as "some new bull shit makey uppy term". That can sometimes be my reaction also to a term like this when I hear it at first. But this one has real value, in work, school, and in sport.
It's been around since the early 2000's when a Occupational Psychologist called Amy Edmonson coined the phrase and described it as this "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes". It is seen as one of the big reasons for the success of Google's workplace atmosphere and development.
Do you feel like that at work or at training? Do you act like this, without the fancy term, as it is as a leader? Because there is so much value in this approach for everyone.
The learners, the people we want to help get better, learn better and will be more creative when they feel they are allowed to explore and mistakes are allowed.
Let's say you meet an athlete or an employee or student that might be a little shy, comes from a more autocratic background, or is low in confidence. Then we can have our psychologically safe place but we also may need another underpinning supportive approach. We may need to frame and outline the plan first. The player might be looking for guidance, but one clever way to bring them from that place to a more creative and autonomous position is to co-create.
Build the plan in tandem with them. It might be very simple things like having 80% of the program or job planned, but just getting their input on a few simple aspects. This will be a starting point to start building trust and afford them the opportunity to build confidence.
Co-creation can start off slow. When I work with coaches and clubs to support them with S&C or game design, I take a co-creation approach. This is slow and cumbersome at the start. Many expect me to give them games or solutions. However, if I give them everything they want to just slot into their training sessions there will be limited learning and I am of limited value.
While there is a struggle at the start, the struggle is always worth it. But I try to co-create. I will use what the coaches already have, the games they use or have stolen from somewhere and tack these to the objectives they want from their sessions and we will create together. This is undoubtedly a better long term approach.
As we discussed last week, learning happens best when layered onto something we already know. So if the coaches have been using a game, they will have observed the reactions to this by their players. I can then layer on constraints, progressions, and regressions to help them broaden their design knowledge.
This is laying the foundation for a psychologically safe place, and when we reach that, creativity and confidence grows.
So that's it for this week, next week we will discuss the Optimal Learning Theory. A really nice piece of work that will in particular help sports coaches allow for deeper learning with their players.
Have a great week.
Good is better than perfect
The value we put on the benefit of the learning will have a massive influence on what exactly we learn and retain. If you buy a guitar, the probability of making an effort to learn some tunes increases. If you see a module in college as really interesting, you will make an effort to learn and it will be easier to retain.
Modern Box Ticking, False "Learning" - When education fails
One of the problems I feel with the typical approach and feel of learning is there is now so much box ticking and so much "learning" and "testing" in the world. It's seen as necessary that we are so sick of "learning" as it's so hard we jack it in as soon as we finish that Masters. It's seen as a means to an end. This is a tragic waste of interest and ability.
Another major issue with learning across many areas is the search for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good.
The Leaving Cert in Ireland has become one of the most bizarre, illogical and damaging pursuits and exams not only in Ireland - but anywhere. Very few countries come anywhere close to the ridiculousness of our Final State exams. You cannot get into multiple 3rd level courses like Medicine now without 6 A1's or even more for some specific subjects.
What this has led to is a systematic approach to getting through it, very little actual learning and a heap of unnecessary stress.
If you want to do well at your leaving cert, forget about learning anything much. In other countries at least, there are openings for people who may be suited to a subject to make a side door or backdoor entry to the field. They just need to show competency in related subjects, and not just state exams.
This box ticking approach hurts Ireland as a country as we get so many "Professionals" who are not that particularly passionate about their job and are in it for money and/or status.
Unfortunately this type of thinking infiltrates our arts & sports pursuits as well, turning many, children in particular, off. Something that's fun is more easily learned, and stuck at.
Desirable Difficulties returned
In the last article we spoke about desirable difficulties and some unusual difficulties. Some that seem like an annoyance at one level can actually be of benefit, a positive interference so to say. For instance, when text on a page is in a font that's blurry or we are not familiar with and we have to look a little harder, we retain the information in the text better. How about that for interference!!
Another clever learning trick that some teachers have been at for years is to jump around the chapters and not deliver the curriculum in the chapter by chapter way. This approach has also been shown to help academic retainment. It won't make your Netflix binging more enjoyable though, so do that in a linear fashion!
In sport we now have coach education which is a linear - learn this technique first and then we will let you play the game - kind of approach. Any bit of depth of thought here, though, makes us realise kids don't pick up sports in a linear fashion. And then there is the interference of other sport and home life.
Each individual is learning in a different way because of all their own environmental differences - like having siblings. Maybe they play Frisbee in the big park they live beside, so overhead catching may come easier from them compared to the kid who lives rurally and has less interactions and practices alone with a lot of striking.
These are all learning interferences so as coaches we need to go in with an open mind and observe before we jump in because we don't know what's needed yet.
Generative learning is another interesting, but in ways familiar to us, form of learning. Essentially, this is us putting some new material with a bunch of old stuff we already know. That linking process helps create signposts for ourselves for the future. Slowly but surely, the more we are around the new information, in the journey so to say, the less we need those signposts.
That might be one reason analogies and cuing can be so helpful in motor skills. Generative learning helps us learn with understanding. If we can associate it to something we already know then it puts us at ease and we will open our brains to taking more on, and in a smoother way.
Another element of generative learning is finding incorrect answers to solutions. Basically trial and error. Sticking to the task and having the determination to find an answer helps greatly. This makes sense to us as we can all agree nothing worth learning comes easy, if it's easy we would already have it, and so would everyone else. But unsuccessful attempts at finding answers leads to a deeper embedding of the right result when we finally get there.
Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes good learning .
While we will go into a bit deeper in later weeks, the practice of reflection is a powerful tool. Reflecting on a new chapter in a book, on a lecture you did at college, on your performance at Hockey training - they all help deeper our appreciation of the recent activity and allow for deeper learning. in some cases. Especially with new stuff. But reflection and generative learning have important connections and work well together.
Somewhat related to our faulty education systems, allied to an actual attempt at "errorless learning" from the 60's. The idea of errorless learning is a very narrow and dangerous approach. One thing it is based on is taking very small bites of a subject, reading/practicing them, and then testing them straight away.
It would be like taking 7 days of driving lessons twice a day, with assessments as you go, doing the State test on Day 8, passing, and then thinking you were ready for the road.
There is this purveying belief that if we allow learners make mistakes, it's the mistakes that they will retain. This has led to people attempting perfect practice in sports. Even writing this, and you need no research for this, it sounds insane. And it is. But it's real and it exists.
If we give supportive feedback, and allow further exploration, the learner will not only finding better solutions, the learning will be deeper.
Again, research around this tells us that asking someone to solve something without any possible solution-giving first, leads to better learning and retention. Much like my well worn approach to coaching children sports now - let the game be the teacher, and we can support from afar then.
Also another important aspect of all this is, is framing. If we can frame for the learners that the difficulty is part of the fun and process, then not only will the learning of that task be deeper - we are supporting a learning for life and embracing difficulties as a human.
A social example we may all understand - Have you ever winced and bit your tongue when a new mother repeatedly goes over and helps a toddler with absolutely everything? In that case she is reducing that child's ability to learn for themselves and take on challenges possibly for LIFE.
Think about that for a second, and the potential impact of helicopter parenting for instance.
So this stuff is real, it's important and it will help us every day.
So that's it for this week, next week's topic will be "Optimal Learning Conditions."
Have a great week.
Difficult is good
Struggle is the mother of learning. And not in the "I'm never drinking again" moment of hangover pain kind of struggle and learning - cos we know that doesn't work. More in the struggle to understand a subject that we are intrinsically motivated to learn - be it for the information itself or as a means to an end. The means to an end one is far, far harder, but still works.
Rather counterintuitively walking away and leaving the struggle after some effort is a good idea. Intuitively I think we get this. A writer needs a walk after an hour of writing. We all understand the 'clear the head' mentality, yet so often we don't do it. Walking away and spacing your information gouging attempts allows you to digest what you have been eating up from the books or internet or classroom.
We see this in coaching for instance when using deliberate practice methods. If we really want to excel or even learn a skill in sport we need to put a lot of focus into it. Deliberate practice has to be focused, intense and has to have difficulty. Then it pays to walk away for a period of time (as in a couple of days) and go back to it, or add a slight variation. We will talk about it down the road, but that need then for retrieval is absolutely critical to the learning process.
In real life I have applied this to reading. After finally deciding to stop buying books and start reading them all I came up with a bit of a system. Up to 4 books on the go at any one time. One in the car, one in the laptop bag, one by the bed, and one at work. But I would stick to one chapter at a time, as in finish a chapter of whichever book, before moving to another.
For most books, but not something like a biography, I will take notes as I go. At the end of the chapter I write down what I can remember of the chapter, then go back to the notes and see how well I remembered. It is slower, and it does stretch the brain at times when I have stopped for 3 days due to work or life and I return half way through a chapter - but it works.
I have adopted similar approaches to coaching, and have seen an accelerated learning of things like principles of play, strategy, new skills. I don't assess the players in the same way, it's far more casual, but I am using those methods.
That is retrieval practice. And the harder the retrieval, the harder you have to think about it, the better the consolidation.
In our rush to satisfy the demands of the ever-so-wonderful Instagram and life healers on Twitter tell us “10 pages a day”, “a book a week” kinda nonsense. Is anybody actually reading all the books? And what’s being retained? Learning science would suggest not as much as we might think.
New learning is shaky. Different theories have slightly different takes on it but basically we need some form of consolidation. In sport skill development we talk about motor learning versus performance and interestingly there are some references worth noting here, too, in relation to exam study:
Studying for exams is similar in that if we cram for exams we can scrape through our assessments based on cramming, but we won't retain much or any of the crammed material. Where as if we steadily studied all along using spaced, interwoven, and retrieval practices (could be small tests) then we will much more readily retain the material.
But we also learn deeper when we attach our learning to other knowledge we have picked up in the past. That is going to give even more rootage to our learning.
Its weird, but forgetting is good, as long as we reach back again for the learning before its too late. But sometimes forgetting is part of learning something new. Like if we try to learn French late in life we may have to try and forget the Irish we learned back as a kid as there may be interference. A more probable example we will all encounter is changing from an iPhone to Android or visa versa. It's so hard, for a while, to work the iPhone because we have become so accustomed to the patterns of usage on the Android.
But if we want to master any field or excel on a subject, getting deeper with associative subjects will help our greater understanding. Like if we learn about human behaviour from the perspective of a neuroscientist, our grandad, a master coach, our school teacher, and from economic psychology - its the crossover of important and consistent information that we will retain, and be able to verify, on the subject of human behaviour. This is broadly the idea of conceptual learning. We get broad concepts of a subject from various angles.
The interweaving of all the different types of information kinda bring us to a deeper place. My experience of this would be, say, matching S&C with previous coaching field sport experience. I was quickly able to see some of the things in the text book didn't match with reality so I was able to interweave my experience with this new information.
Then I started layering skill acquisition and that started tearing off some of the old coaching practices that neither my anecdotal, trial and error coaching experience along with Sports Science had not taught me. Skill Acquisition introduced me to deeper knowledge and reading around pedagogy and learning science. In recent years I've been putting a frame on things (and actually ironically) with more information - simplifying things. That’s interleaving on a long term basis.
There might be some relation here to motor learning and tactical intelligence that occurs in athletes who play multiple sports, some ideally on a casual basis. Some players have even reported believing they figured out tactics playing FIFA for soccer. While years ago this may have been scoffed at, there might be something in that. The interruption of casual basketball, or even competitive basketball could have an influence on someone becoming a better hurler. Or even the struggle of trying to beat your older sister in 1-on-1 soccer in the back garden could help with the technical, motor skill and tactical ability to side step someone playing Gaelic football years later.
It's also brought me to books about wayfinding and how the people of the arctic found their way around, and the origins of Islam and how that emerged - but that's for another day ;)
So from this there might be a pause for us if we are studying a subject or trying a new thing, how can we relate it to what we already know?
What might we have to un-learn?
What other subject could I casually read about in tandem that won't feel too much like work or studying?
If you are a coach starting out, how does my job mirror coaching? How would I behave in the office and what might make me behave differently on the pitch? What have I read about leadership that I use in the corporate world that can help me coach?
That’s it for this week, in next week we will broaden the desirable difficulties chat to priming your mind for learning, using other strategies for creating desirable difficulties that may help coaches, discuss a generative difficulties, the myth of errorless learning, and finally undesirable difficulties.
Have a great week.
So what psycho-babble can we use to help us with that?
Recently Stuart Lancaster spoke about monitoring the psychological or cognitive aspects of the practices we design. Where we speak of every game or drill in training having a psychological aspect. This is a crucial consideration. I go as far as weighing the various games I commonly use. Are they tactically, technically and psychologically challenging. I pretty much know the physical consequences, the research is there, my experience is also there. But for instance heavily psychologically challenging games at the end of a training 2 days after a hammering or 2 days before a big game may not be the wisest way to go.
Mental Skills we can work on, that will support improved performance and skill execution. Self Talk as a subject is facinating, way too deep to get into the extensive science here for a real deep dive but we will do some basics around it that may help the coach or athlete. The research in this area is improving all the time and while some people want definitive mathematical equations giving exact answers, or else they won't trust it, neuroscience and Neurobiology are 2 areas that are accelerating areas around human behavior of which subjects like self talk, imagery and resilience are being given more and more value, especially in the polarised, social media driven world we live in.
But our inner dialogue really is unbelievably powerful and dicates how we see the world. Outside of our control though is that this dialogue was heavily influenced by others for many years. So changing to good positive and effective self talk is not easy, so coaches and players, be patient here. It takes time. If someone has being talking to themselves negatively for 15 years we cannot expect to make a change in one conversation, and telling them to change and they have to change is certainly not going to work.
What is it?
Self talk is omnipresent in everyday life, not just sport. It is basically our internal chat with ourselves.
There are a few different variants of Self Talk , but we are not going to delve too far into that here, i would suggest reading The Handbook of Applied Sports Psychology Chapter 53 if interested in a real deep dive.
In lay mans terms
Self-Talk is what i say to myself and it is how i evaluate myself, my goals and my performances………….
Self-Image which forms my identity, my attitude and opinion of myself then…..
My Performance and how i act and perform based on my present self-image….
……..That stimulates behaviors and performance
So in the last post we talked quite alot about mental preparation, identifying what exactly you want to work on and why?
We spoke to enjoying the game more and the pursuit of improvement being the enjoyment and not hanging everything on medals and cups.
We talked about coaches and players working together on the process of improvement and coaches creating a safe environment mentally for this to happen. A place where mistakes are ok and enjoyed, but where effort and bouncebackability is revered. We gave some examples of where loose language or lack of encouragement froze a player into avoiding improvement (based on feedback this is a common memory for many).
So now we have set some scene and discussed some reasonably common examples, and hopefully you and/or you players have discussed something that can be worked on we will return to the original mission for a second, what we want and can work on for now;
That Mindset has actually been researched extensively and has a name “Growth Mindset”
Have a look at this video for a brilliant explanation from Trevor Ragan (of The Learner Lab Podcast)
Part of the motivation for these blogs has been driven by the Covid19 issues and the amount of time we have and the training on fields and gyms we have lost. But this time allows us to build in other areas often disregarded.
But it is also driven by the desire to show people thats skills for sport and indeed life are such a broad spectrum. IN sport we get extremely bogged down in skills, to a torturous extreme in the UK & Ireland around the various field and court sports and many coaches and most of the public see skills as a dummy solo in football or a step over in soccer or one off moments that thrill a crowd. Those exhibitions of high level technique and solution finding in high pressure stakes are important, they thrill us and they bring the crowds in, they excite young kids to grow to love sports and activity. But they are a tiny part of the overall picture.
There are technical, tactical, movement, mental skills as well. I hope to touch on all of these in some way in this series. They all can be developed. Physical capacity is the low hanging fruit, the basic physical conditioning and strength work we do. It doesn't make it any less important, but its the easiest to work on. Its important for our health, mental and physical and if not conditioned well for the game pretty much everything else becomes irrelevant as we will not be able to stay up.
For a start we will look at the Mental skills we can work on, because in ways they underpin or can be used as a tool - especially in this situation - to improve the other skills. We can build resilience (Sarkar, 2018) to come back from mistakes, but also to continually work on a new skill or development of a learned skill (Moran & O' Shea, 2020) or to develop positive self talk which can lead to increased focus and performance (Roberts & Kristiansen, 2012) . There is information, anecdotes and tasks in this for coaches as well as players and i hope both take something and there is also element coaches and players can work on together.
But Imagine (pun intended) hitting more free throws, making more hooks and blocks, developing your weaker side to such a point that you can kick off both feet with equal confidence? Well actually focused imaging can help, as can many other techniques.
I am not a Sports Psychologist, however i do take a deep interest in the mindset part of the game and reading and talking to those in Sports Psychology, Skill Acquisition, Resilience Research, Coach Education areas of expertise. It is really obvious that the Psycho-Social element of the games are THEE most important factors. Having coached 26 years in multiple sports across 3 continents much of what they are telling me and i am reading through research tallies with my experiences, my education and also notably with the coaches i find influenced me or others around me most. Often these coaches were not necessarily educated in the realm of Coaching science or indeed formally educated at all, but they had it. Some may call it emotional intelligence, others would call it motivational skills. Whatever it was they had it. Its not so much that people who specialise in these areas are better than any type of coach, its that they have dedicated their time and maybe careers to diving deep down into the various areas we are discussing.
Very often i have heard from people in the areas of Mindset, psychology, resilience, is “we are all psychologists”. And this plays to the experiences we have all had where we met coaches or teachers or leaders who just had that ability to get performance from all of us, no matter what the background or skill level. But with modern life Pop Psychology, raising youth anxiety levels mixed with still a nice bit of “ra ra ra, this is the way we did it in our day” we may need to dig a little deeper and expand or breath of coaching and playing a little more to challenge and enjoy the games and activities that little bit more.
We believe sport as having 4 primary goals – 1) Public Health; 2) Educative; 2) Elite Development Goal 4) cultural preservation