Coach Taught or Player Learned?

Jan. 23, 2015, 10:14 a.m. (ET)

John Kessel's Grow the Game Together blog
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The fact that things in sport are no longer athletic battles, but learning competitions is shown with the release of Faster, Higher Stronger –. I hope you find time to learn, by reading what Wired magazine editor Mark McClusky has diligently compiled on how athletes learn now. It is one of the more important books on sport science in the last decade for sure, and just became available in November 2014. 

Add in how Karch has elevated the USA gym to higher level of learning and you are starting to see the changes needed in learning a motor skill. You can listen here if you missed his great webinar. 

With the hundreds of thousands of golf pros, why is it that Bubba Watson, whose dad simply put a whiffle ball down and said, “hit it as hard as you can," able to make shots nobody else can and win not just one, but TWO Masters green jackets recently, all while never having a golf pro/lesson?  I love the statement by many top Brazilian Olympic volleyball players who all said, “my first coach was the game…”  In that spirit, to help all programs starting new youth programs, there is a new webinar and a new poster that helps you get a court to have some 20-30 kids, on sand, grass, or indoor and let them lose by playing, letting the game teach the game, with minimal guidance from adults/coaches.   

Recently in another area of complex motor learning, I read this intriguing article.

Did you know that Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Prince, three of the all-time greats, all claim to be self-taught guitarists. Even John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were largely self-taught musicians. Give pause to what Cicero said over 2000 years ago (75 B.C. to be exact),"The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who wish to learn."                 

As a young coach, I told my players what to do, known as explicit learning and now know that in doing such I was making my teaching job far harder and longer, for the retention and problem solving in anyone is the worst when they are told what to do or the answers. It is not just about learning, it is about retention and re-remembering, so you should spend time at the start of practice asking your players what they did/learned at the last practice or two.

I liked the question in the post:

How is it possible that someone can attain such a level of expertise without any teacher providing the necessary instructions and guidance?   

One of the connected research articles used had in the abstract the following:Results also indicated that the group who write music had significantly higher levels of musical self-esteem, willingness to play, motivational intensity, desire to learn, and perceived competence. Findings from this study suggest that pianists and guitarists both are intrinsically motivated, but for different reasons. The underlying motivational needs that are met by the instrument’s “culture” appear to focus on competence for pianists and on autonomy and relatedness for guitarists.”

In the end, it really is the act of learning that is what is to be enjoyed, not the knowledge gained per se. As a coach, my role is simple to find be a relationship counselor between each athlete and their love of the game. I must know well what each player thinks I can do better to help them learn and teach them how they can learn faster. Every year, I take time to teach my parents and their children, what we know about motor learning science to date and how that will impact our gym as an “exploratorium,” as Bill Neville calls his two courts.  As I noted above, Karch, John Speraw, and the USA staff have learned how to help each unique USA team member become better learners. The current World League gold for men and first ever World Championship gold for women speaks to their success at learning faster, deeper, and more creatively. 

So in looking back, this is what I have come to learn about learning….

1. Athletes learn when they are SELF-motivated; intrinsic learning and guided discovery are vastly superior for retention/learning.

2. The reward of athletes is achieving the goal, so take advantage of that in your teaching process.

3. Deliberate practice, aka focused on what THEY are interested in, maximizes the learning process.

4. Coopetition, cooperation and competition, makes for the best learning by athletes. We learn best, and the most, when we collaborate with others.

5. That which you teach, you learn. The more athletes have to explain something to others, the better they get it. 

A lifelong learner/coaching friend, Luka Slabe, the current Slovenian Men’s national team coach, recently shared this two year old article on how musicians learn, which fits perfectly into the ideas of what I know about motor learning. He found it in the “Violinist Blog” and it well worth the read and ponder. 

In closing, I offer another talented learner who had no coach, just a skill in art which magnifies his ideas on a far larger scale that only few might work in, Jorge Rodriquez. This set from his identity series is powerful I feel and might help us all understand how to better simply focus on doing things in reality, dealing with the randomness which any event presents each of us while this scale takes things to yet another level. Citius, Altius, Fortius in yet another way