How does your athlete like to learn?

One aspect of the coaching process which is often neglected by coaches is the importance different learning styles can have on skill acquisition and learning. Due to the significance placed upon the subject of learning, vast amounts of research has been conducted, exploring a wide array of topics associated with learning styles. As with most complex topics there is no perfect ‘black and white’ answer to the issue, with researchers yet to determine a general consensus on; (1) the most effective models to use, (2) the impact favouring one style over others may have and even (3) definition of terms. So you might rightly be thinking at this point, if leading experts can’t decide on the right method, what hope do I have? Thankfully, although many aspects of learning are yet to be determined, research has been very successful in many areas and can provide significant information and suggestions, which we as coaches can use to our advantage to develop our coaching practice.

Coaching science is still a relatively ‘young’ discipline in terms of academic research and therefore the majority of information on this subject is drawn from education. The similarities between teaching and coaching are evident; the methods in which they both impart their content, determine the significance of the impact of their message. Education research has identified the need for teachers to recognise and engage with a variety of different learning styles. Coaches traditionally tend to rely heavily on the use of verbal instructions to communicate with their players, without consideration of the athlete’s preferred learning style or the demand / complexity of the task.

When considering learning styles most coaches automatically think of two well-known styles – visual and audio (verbal). However, there are four main styles which coaches need to be aware of; Visual, Auditory, Read/Write and Kinaesthetic (tactile), commonly referred to as the VARK model.

  • Visual: athletes understand and retain information more effectively if it is communicated in the form of diagrams, videos, or demonstrations, allowing the learner to visualise what they are required to do.
  • Auditory: athletes favour verbal instructions, outlining required actions. An auditory athletes learning is also heavily influenced by speaking as well as listening.
  • Read/Write: athletes enjoy the opportunity to read over specific information before then writing out (regurgitating) all of the information which they can recall. This method is predominately used in traditional schools.
  • Kinaesthetic: athletes prefers to learn from performing a specific action rather than listening or watching numerous demonstrations. They favour realisation through participation in the activity instead of thinking before initiating.

In order to effectively communicate with all types of athletes, coaches should endeavour to utilise an amalgamation of learning styles when coaching. For example, a common practice within the coaching community is to combine demonstrations with verbal instructions, to help ensure sufficient information is provided to allow the athlete to produce the required movement. After receiving both visual and auditory styles, the athletes would then partake in the action, utilising the kinaesthetic style of learning. Unfortunately coaching is not that simple, similarly, individual athletes require different learning styles, individual situations, sessions and activities require different approaches.

Consider demonstrations, research indicates that they are the most commonly used method of transmitting information to athletes by coaches. Learning from demonstrations is suitable in the acquisition of new skills, however it can prove to be ineffective in other situations: refining already learned skills or introducing complex skills. It is even considered harmful on occasion, in situations where one specific technique is not necessarily required to achieve an outcome. Debates within the research community remain, with regards to reaching a consensus on the optimum form of demonstration, along with a concern surrounding the timing of the demonstration; before, during or after the athlete participates in the action. Regardless of the timing, it is commonly acknowledged that demonstrations are beneficial in aiding the learning process, with some researchers proposing that demonstrations are a crucial element of best practice.

Similar arguments can be made in relation to auditory approach in terms of instruction and feedback. For example, consider the type of feedback implemented. It has been suggested that explicit feedback should not be directly given by the coach and rather, implicit feedback should be applied as it generates an abstract knowledge of the skill. Worryingly, research has highlighted that coaches are generally unaware of the different types of feedback and the importance they can have within player development. When coaching youth players in the development stages, employing the most effective form of feedback is vital to enhance development. Implicit feedback prevents players from being handed information and forces them to realise their own capabilities and to identify their individual learning needs. Feedback received should be restricted, as coaches who supply excessive amounts of demonstration and verbal instruction, inhibit the player’s ability to engage with the problem solving process. Whilst instructions which are prescriptive are suggested to decrease both skill retention levels and the ability to transfer skill from training into a competitive match.

The one form of learning which is often neglected by coaches is read / write method. In this instance it is important to remember that the VARK model originates from education and that it must be adapted to comply with different needs and demands of coaching. There a various ways in which a coach could attempt to transfer this theory from education to coaching such as setting specific sports homework, whereby the athlete must go and read up on a skill or movement. Conversely, an alternative and perhaps more sport specific adaption could be to have the athlete read and write about their own performance. Video analysis has become a popular and significant trend within sport over the last decade, with more and more opportunity to record and analyse performances being widely available. By supplying an athlete with a video recording of their own performance, it would allow them to write about their specific strengths and weaknesses. Providing an opportunity to analyse and identify different aspects of their performance would also incorporating an aspect of problem solving which is often lacking in traditional coaching methods. Similarly, the athlete could analyse and make notes on a model performance before then comparing it to their own. Once written out the athlete would then be able to read over their notes, allowing them to complete the read / write method of learning.

In order develop and become a more effective coach it is essential that you note only acknowledge and understand the main types of learning styles but most importantly engage with them during coaching sessions. As demonstrated, many of the style integrate continually within normal day to day coaching. However, once an understanding of the styles is obtained, you will be able to plan and deliver sessions more effectively, ensuring that you incorporate all four types and therefor provide your athletes with the best possible opportunity to learn.

Cameron Campbell

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