How Much Can Athletes Teach Themselves

By John Kessel | April 08, 2016, 11:09 a.m. (ET)

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This blog may upset many controlling coaches.  I understand and accept that, and simply hope that all coaches take the time to listen/learn from the information being provided. This is not criticism, I am just providing some information that I think of great importance.   Thank you in advance for opening your minds to this research and information. 

John Cotton Dana says it best, in the adopted motto for the Facebook page Volleyball Coaches and Trainers; “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

Please consider watching Dr. Steve Bain’s free USA Volleyball Webinar from earlier this year, The Game Trains the Brain.  When I shared other new information recently with Dr. Bain he responded with, “We know that the brain is a complex self-organizing dynamical system.  It is profound that we are finally beginning to connect methods of teaching to match the way the brain learns.” 

My daughter majors in neuroscience, which has me learning even more about how learning actually takes place.  One of the scientists that has impacted my coaching greatly is Sugata Mitra.  His Curriculum of Curiosity says, “Be Good At What You’re Best At.” His 2008 TED talk called “Can Kids Teach Themselves,” impacted me early and is really at the title of this blog. His core talks, some 30 of them, are compiled HERE; He does another on if schools can exist in the cloud, which ties closely I think into the evolution of virtual reality training as it is unfolding in sport and life.

Coach Mac Barron shared that TED does 1 hour podcasts. This one, on Unstoppable Learning it a MUST listen. There are four parts, seen in the picture to the right, and all weave into what coaches and parents need to understand and apply. For those who like to read, the How Much Can Children Teach Themselves transcript is HERE.

Like you no doubt, I grew up learning to ride a bike without any guidance from parents or siblings, other than the brilliant feedback of “Don’t fall down!” and “Are you OK?”  Kids annually die learning to ride a bike, but I have not been able to find one case of volleyball, youth level or older, causing death. Sure there are heart attacks while playing and even watching, but that is not volleyball’s fault. This form of very valuable intrinsic learning shows the retention level of what you learn on your own; despite years off the bike, you can easily ride one. This is also how the USA teams became the best beach teams in the world for decades – no coaching, just playing and mentoring.

It is not my intent to get rid of coaches. It is my intent to help us all understand that by controlling things, drilling them, telling them what to do (extrinsic learning is the worst retained), using spike machines or blocking paddles and the whole gamut of non-reality based “training devices” we are simply slowing down the players learning.  We are, in the words of a great motor learning scientist, the late Dr. Richard Schmidt, “Practicing for practice and not for performance.”

Our role is to put up the net, get out the balls and provided a SAFE environment wherein to learn; physically and emotionally.  Coaches who scream and yell at players are failing to teach.  For the most part they are about themselves and not about the player’s development.  Coaches who physically punish for failure or loss are doing the same; not providing the optimum learning environment to promote synaptogenesis, and seek more angiogenesis. These last two long words are a test to see if you listened to Dr Bain’s webinar by now, as you would know the importance of the differences between the two. The learning comes when coaches and parents step back, and only when needed, guide the discovery of what they know, while letting the learner discover “the answers” on their own or with their peers. If a player can show you, without a ball, the key parts of each technique in your sport, then they KNOW the technique. Doing it at the right place and time, THAT comes from the reality of each sport, and in general is as random as all get out.  We are here to guide the process, and make it as effective as we can through how we teach. Manolis Votsis got it right with this quote.

Karch has made the move from player to coach with great success, because he is still learning and working hard to be the best coach he can be.  Mike Dodd, who won the silver in the gold medal match against Karch, has also made the same transition from player to coach on the beach side and has worked hard, along with his wife Patty, to move from “old school” to “new school” as summed up well in this new 35 min long Coach Your Brains Out podcast.

As a parent of two collegiate level playing volleyball children, I know how hard it is to watch your child learn by mistakes, and understand the (near) agony of seeing your own kid fail. The thing is, it is all part of learning best. Mistakes are stepping stones simply on this path towards being the best player they can be. A growth mindset, as first popularized by Dr. Carol Dweck, is important for not just players, but for coaches and parents alike. 

Our national team staff calls this training ugly. There is an understanding at all levels and ages of play, our game is chaotic and random, even as great players strive to be just a little bit better every day.  The process of looking technically good is woven into getting better, little by little. Some might even say this does not happen at the same time. The process of learning to play a sport is not something you work on until you have learned to play, it is simply woven together. You learn to play volleyball by doing volleyball, over a net. There really is no other way.  As we score games as part of this process, an outcome event, it is really important to understand this quote – “We never lose, we either win, or we learn.”  This learning through failure was well known to Thomas Edison, who showed how he saw his light bulb failures as learning, when he said "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." This is the same way the kids in India taught themselves on the computer – self organizing and determining through the learning/failure process. 

I would add that learning often does not look good, if you reference back to the game training the brain, such that you have a choice of learning or looking good. Trevor Regan visited our national team center in his own personal quest of learning and came away so impacted on the focus of learning happening on the courts and the interaction between the players and coaches that he started a WEBSITE: has a wealth of material on this topic, including some ideas seen in the chart above, and solid info on motor learning science. In the end, we simply need to understand as Churchill did long ago….