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.