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