How to Improve Learning in Sports

Improving learning is a very important task for every educator. When it comes to sports teachers and trainer/coaches the main aspects of learning can be described as:

– the best way to learn how to do something is to do it;
– the closer practice activities resemble the full activity the better.

Putting these aspects into practice doesn’t mean students will learn. Teaching or coaching is something different than learning. Working with students we frequently experiment with how it can looks like and practice. Ofcourse we also debate what it means in practice. I still enjoy the discussions and energy we put in together to learn and find some personal answers. It is a search to put learning to the forefront of the sport lessons.

practical indications

The warm up should be a part of the learning. Too many lessons begin with meaningless activities that do not resemble the movements that will follow. Effective warm ups need to be specifically related to the main activity.

My own observations suggest that many sessions begin with activities that doesn’t reflect sports specific elements. For example, hockey warm ups that do not involve a stick and a ball will not properly prepare the body, and will not engage the mind. It is a waste of valuable time for practice, play and therefore learning.

Effective learning builds on previous learning. There is research evidence showing that learning is most effective when it builds on previous learning and understanding. The warm up can be an ideal opportunity to remind learners of lessons learned in previous lessons by practising adapted versions of previous activities. The same activities allows you to observe and assess the learners. So you can identify their needs, and provide a learning environment that is more suitable.

start with a game

Start with the game. By far the most common error made in lesson planning is to begin with extended technique or skill practices. The assumption is that these practices will be applied later in the full game. But more likely is that learners are simply going through movements without a strong sense of their purpose.

One way of understanding learning is as problem-solving. Giving a learner a technique without first letting them develop an extremely strong and compelling understanding of its purpose, is like giving a solution to a problem they don’t have. The solution is simple: start with a game. That is what the teacher or trainer/coach should do.

If you want a basketballer to learn to keep an eye on the basket while shooting at the basket, do not start with a drill. Start with a game, and introduce techniques and drills if (and only if) a problem arises. In that way learning happens because you have offered a solution to a real problem.

Starting with the game, or an adapted version of the game, creates meaning, purpose and context. It helps the learner understand the point of the activity, and m the reason why he is learning these techniques. This understanding improves performance, and will certainly improve motivation.

effective practice

Effective practice activities should be relatively short, intense, and highly focused. They should be immediately followed by an application in a meaningful game. According to some books for teachers, skill learning should take up to 3/4 of the lesson time. The only outcome of this approach, as far as I experienced, is that learners switch off, and end up simply going through the motions. It’s all about the quality, not the quantity.

failure is necessary

From the perspective of learning, mistakes drive learning.  If we never make mistakes we would not develop, we would simply reinforce what we already do. It is only when things do not go according to plan that we are forced to rethink, and to devise new ways of acting.

Learners need to become comfortable with their mistakes. Learners need to learn to enjoy the new opportunities for learning and development that they promise. And teachers or trainer/coaches need to step back to give learners the time and space to experiment and to create their own solutions. Learning is problem solving. So, mistakes are the motor of learning as they generate new problems.

shut up!

The most important aspect in any lesson is playing the game. The next most important factor is short, focused practices. In both cases, learners need to make the knowledge, skills, and understandings their own. This means that the teacher needs to leave them alone. Provide time to try things out, to make lots of mistakes, and to practice and play. As a general rule: if you are talking more than the learners, you are cutting the learning opportunities.

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