Learning to learn: The unsexy edge in sport– Tim Goodenough 27 September 2008
I remember Dr Lloyd Chapman talking to me about how much difference learning how to learn can make in teams. This difference was not just restricted to the corporate world, but to the sports world too. At the time I listened, and felt some interest, but no surefire excitement to go out there and dive into this area of personal development.
Several weeks later I heard Paddy Upton (the Indian Mental Coach) and his business partner Dale Williams, sharing with me the same sentiment – what did these guys know that I didn’t?
They were on the cutting edge of the unsexy edge in sport. Unsexy for several reasons; you don’t get the secondary benefit of a better body (gyming, supplements, etc), and the exercises required are not physical, and are not very cool (Dr Sherylle Calder’s Eyethink and Eyeballsa). And finally, learning is often mislabeled as an ‘academic’ pursuit – an area that is currently not as strong in professional sport in South Africa as it could be.
In professional sport the days of lawyers, doctors, accountants and policemen playing side by side are over, financially there is no need to have another job, and no time – the requirements to compete are more onerous and strenuous than ever.
Some athletes found sport as a way to excel in school; whilst they were merely average students, they were super stars outside of the classroom. The resistance to go back to ‘classroom’ activity is understandable. However the reluctance to legally and significantly develop and grow as an individual and athlete is not, this sentiment can be enflamed in a sportsperson or teams if learning is not correctly labeled, and learning is not taught and promoted.
So why does learning give you the edge? Simple. If you are improving at a rate of just 1% more than your opposition, week in and week out for a year, by the end of the year you will have improved by 67% more than your opponent(s). (In the same way compound interest can work for us in our savings account, compound learning can also give you that little bit extra)
You ask any athlete if they want to improve by 67% more than their peers, almost all would say yes. Ask them if they were willing to put in the extra effort, above and beyond for a year, and you have many less takers. This is a slow and steady, tortoise winning the race kind of development. You need to have a great attitude to learning, a curiosity as to what is possible, the eyes to detect the smallest possible improvement – so as to celebrate it, and most importantly the humbleness to be a beginner again.
Enter David Kolb’s experiential learning theory (1984). Kolb maintained that adults need to go through 4 distinct stages to complete a learning experience. With the rise in popularity of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, Kolb’s 4 stages have been labeled by some as simplistic and not absolute, especially when considering how the various intelligences (emotional; kineasethtic, somatic etc) impact on learning.
Others go on to say that the stages do not accurately depict the thinking process and that it is only useful for certain types of learning. In Neuro-Semantics we know that thinking can be self-reflexive, we can think about our thinking and that also can influence the simplicity of Kolb’s model. So with all these criticisms of the model, why did I choose to write an article on how to use it for sports? The reason is straightforward; Kolb’s work is simple to implement and it is easy to get to grips with, and most importantly it works (admittedly at various levels for various athletes.)
This article is about using a particular application of Kolb’s learning theory, (hopefully) in conjunction with the more widely recognized profiling of adult learning styles and related development work that Kolb is famous for.
This adaption of Kolb’s learning cycle is aimed at creating a skills development formula; to transform performance feedback from language into muscle memory. This is the HOW of how to teach athletes to quickly and effectively improve and adapt their performance based on their feedback they receive.
Kolb's Adult Learning Cycle
Kolb’s Adult Learning Cycle, translated for Sport – as applied by Paddy Upton
As Paddy Upton pointed out in his Masters thesis, many coaches play the role of ‘thinker’ and expect their athletes to be the ‘do-er’. In terms of this diagram the ‘thinker’ would reflect/analyze and then plan (the green blocks) and the do-er would train and play (the blue blocks).
If both the coaches and the players stuck strictly to these roles of thinker and doer, it will deny both groups an opportunity to learn effectively from their experiences.
Coaches normally plan the training so they get to test to see how effective their planning is, and they normally decide the strategy of the game which the players go out and execute. The danger here is without high quality and regular feedback coming from the players it would be difficult for the coach to maximize his or her learning. The other challenge is if the players are giving feedback that the training or strategy is not effective, does the coach embrace the feedback and adapt, or refute it and blame the players for poor execution?
Players have an even tougher time. Many coaches don’t encourage the players to reflect/analyze and plan, and then if they do, and their thoughts are not aligned with the coach, their input is discarded. For some players just a single experience of this type of rejection is enough for them not to try again.
In team sports, what makes this process even harder for the individual player is that the majority of feedback from the coach’s reflection and analysis, as well as planning, is geared towards what the team needs, which is not always the same as the requirement of the individual.
Individual mistakes are often highlighted, and the ‘correct course of action’ is highlighted, but not in a manner that adequately completes the learning cycle for the individual. If the feedback is delivered poorly, then the players embarrassment, hurt or anger will interfere with the learning, and if the feedback is not of a high quality, from a trusted source, the individual may not take it on fully, or own it, to support his learning.
An example: An individual will have an error pointed out to him by the coach, and verbally told what he could have done differently. The individual has a concrete experience of the mistake, but not of the correct course of action and they cannot reflectively observe what they could/should have done, they can only reflectively observe their mistake. They are therefore sending their mind/body very little evidence of what it should do, when having to make a similar split second decision, or use of similar co-ordination again.
The challenge of trying to effectively learn from mistakes is compounded by errors that are made in unique game scenarios that cannot be entirely replicated in training (e.g. a live scrum during a rugby match, or a particular match scenario), or when an athlete is trying to fine-tune or learn a new skill (or routine) for the first time (e.g. diving, gymnastics, ice-skating, etc)
There is not enough evidence for the athlete’s mind/body to know what to do with a high degree of accuracy; the language of instruction is not sufficient to inform the body what to consistently do, and when to do it.
Develop a method of learning that includes an experience of all four of Kolb’s learning stages, thus ensuring that learning does indeed take place, both in the mind and the body.
Kolb’s Adult Learning Cycle for skills development – as developed by Tim Goodenough
An error is pointed out to the athlete
The athlete consults to understand and explore other more correct options, and develops options for him/herself, making certain they now ‘own’ their new option(s)
Athlete chooses one option at time (if more than one) and creates a 1st person ‘visualization’ that includes the distinction of when to use that specific option. ‘Visualization’ is a sensory rich movie created as if viewing from the athletes own eyes, and includes their important sensory input such as sights, smells, sounds and most importantly feeling (Kinaesthetics), especially in the areas of their body that are key components to the skill/option. (For example: Distinct vivid pictures combined with feeling of power in thighs and tingle in toes with coiled tension in chest, combined with smell of freshly cut grass and sweat with sound of connection with opponent and players breathing.) The movie should be as short as possible, to include completeness of skill, but not over elaborate to create a scenario that will never be replicated in real life.
Athlete creates a visualization of the same skill as if viewing from a camera angle (3rd person), athlete must experiment with where to place camera, as the angle may have significant meaning. (Camera angle making the athlete look small may affect confidence for instance)
Athlete can experiment by using more than one camera angle, e.g. from grass level looking up combined with ‘helicopter view’ looking directly down.
Here particular focus needs to be placed on form, use of space, body position, posture and timing.
Athlete reviews both visualizations mentally and/or through journalling. Asking the following questions:
What does he/she feel watching them?
What is common to both visualizations
What is different, and does that work? (If answer no, recreate visualizations)
What is the athlete becoming aware of after thoroughly reviewing visualizations?
What new mental distinctions can be created about the skill/option/routine etc?
How will these distinctions impact training and competition?
Skills that are related to the visualization are trained as micro-skills wherever possible. The skill/option itself is recreated as closely as possible in training, and from that experience, gaps, learning’s and new awareness’s are then integrated into the 1st person visualization to start the cycle again.
Completion of cycle review: Athlete answers 3 questions
What didn’t work so well?
What did I learn?
Repeat cycle as per athletes own success formula, which is discovered through experimentation.
How to identify success formula
Contrast the relative improvement of skill or confidence in improvement of skill when repeating it x times (eg 10, 15 times) in y days (e.g 3, 5 days) versus spending z time (10, 15 mins) in y days (e.g 3, 5 days) Once an athlete can determine what input is required for what level of improvement, they can use that information to plan their training and development going forward.
This technique can be used equally effectively for a player who is learning a new skill, returning from injury or currently in poor form. There is some added complexity to working with a player whose poor skill execution/bad option taking is firmly embedded, to help them ‘unlearn’ that skill – however that approach is another article in itself.
McLoughlin, M [editor] (2006)
Sharing the passion Conversations with coaches.
Cape Town, South Africa: Advanced Human Technologie