The above quote from AFL footballer Nathan Buckley reinforces that an individual can learn new information in ways other than verbalised coach instruction. While the use of learning approaches based on an individual’s learning style or sensory/perceptual preference has been prevalent in an educational setting for many years, the field of sports coaching has been less innovative. However, in recent times attempts have been made to assist coaches to firstly identify the learning styles of their athletes, and secondly utilise coaching strategies that match the learning style of the participants.
Different learning styles
There are numerous terms that can be adopted to characterise the unique learning style of an individual. In simple terms, most people possess either a visual, verbal (auditory) or active (‘kinaesthetic’) preference when it comes to learning new information. One such approach being trialled within the Australian Institute of Sport applies four broad categories of learning styles that are described below.
Active learners prefer learning through active participation such as physically running through drills in training. They also typically display a preference for working in groups. Coaches need to be aware that active learners tend to act without thinking at times.
Reflective learners prefer to think about a specific skill/strategy before executing it. In this instance, coaches may allocate time for athletes to review or question specific skills, strategies or tactics. However, coaches need to be aware that athletes who ‘think too much’ can demonstrate a lack of active participation and even ‘paralysis by analysis’.
Sensing learners prefer to follow previously tested methods or guidelines when learning new skills. They enjoy learning technical information about the sport and generally dislike new approaches or surprises.
Intuitive learners enjoy adopting new and innovative approaches when learning skills or techniques; trying a new approach is more appealing than repeating an existing one. They enjoy adapting new strategies to what they see unfolding in competition, and tend to work fast and innovatively. Repetition can lead to early boredom.
Visual learners prefer to receive new information via demonstrations, video feedback, diagrams, pictures from coaching manuals or magazines, or even instructions that paint a visual image of the skill.
Verbal learners prefer to be given spoken or written instructions from a coach about how to perform a skill. Alternatively, an explanation may be given on an audiotape, CD or even from the narrator of a coaching video. Interestingly, while many coaches find giving instructions the easiest method of providing coaching information, it is probably the least preferred learning style of most athletes (remember Nathan Buckley’s opening comment).
Sequential learners generally gather and understand information in logical steps, before piecing everything together. It is important that new information is presented in the order that a skill will be executed.
Global learners like to learn in larger chunks, understanding the overall picture before filling in the details. This may include knowing how a drill fits into an overall plan or strategy, before being taught the specifics of the drill.
An athlete’s preference for one style over another in each of the above categories may be mild, moderate, or strong. Research has demonstrated that despite a person’s intellectual capacity, if new information about a skill is presented to an athlete in their preferred learning style, then reinforced using the remaining preferences, this will enhance learning and increase athlete motivation (Brunner and Hill 1992).
How to identify your learning style
There are numerous learning style questionnaires now available in sport psychology texts and on the internet that are designed to determine an individual’s preferred learning style. While the scientific validity of these questionnaires may vary, they all essentially ask similar questions designed to determine the learning preferences of an individual (for example, see www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/ILSpage.html). Once an athlete’s profile is identified, feedback protocols offer instructions on how this information can be used to improve training quality and overall performance.
For coaches reluctant to use a questionnaire, simply asking athletes what mode they prefer when learning new information can be just as valuable. Likewise, observant coaches who have worked with the same athletes for an extended period of time will have noticed what instructional method seems to ‘click’ for a particular athlete. Irrespective of what method is used, the key point is to raise awareness of the potential value that learning style identification can have.
It is interesting for coaches to also consider their preferred mode of coaching. Coaches tend to verbalise much of the information they deliver to their players. However, quite often many athletes prefer to learn visually or actively. If there is a discrepancy between the coach’s preferred mode of communication and their player’s mode of receiving information, learning will be inefficient.
There is no doubt that catering to each individual’s learning style in a team-sport environment creates additional planning for coaches. They may be required to plan a variety of methods (for example, visual, verbal, active) to present information about the same skill to different athletes (see Table 1). A popular method of achieving this is by creating learning stations. For example, when coaching shooting techniques in basketball, visual learners may watch a video demonstration, verbal learners could receive instruction from the coach, while active learners could start physically practising. An alternative strategy, and perhaps most easily implemented in a team environment, is to apply learning-styles strategies when working with an individual athlete or in small group situations where all players have similar learning styles. Importantly, while initial learning is geared to each individual, it should be reinforced with information targeting the players’ other learning preferences. In summary, by coaching a team as individuals, learning will be more efficient, and the results will speak for themselves.
Table 1 Instructional approaches catering to some of the key learning styles
||Allow the athlete to immediately practise the skill with minimal or no instruction
||Provide verbal feedback describing the ‘feel’ of the movement, such as ‘imagine the feel of the air not being able to get between your torso and your legs in the tuck’
||Mould the athlete’s body into the desired position
||Try to provide a few minutes of ‘thinking time’ after teaching a new skill
||Encourage athletes to immediately pair cue words with new skills
||After teaching each new skill, run a two-minute visualisation where athletes imagine themselves using the skill
||Allow observation of the skill by video, demo, or watching others during ‘live’ action
Further progression of learning would use video of the athlete performing the desired skill
|Have the athlete observe a series of diagrams showing a breakdown of the skill or strategy
||Provide verbal descriptions utilising visual terms such as ‘in the tuck picture that there is no space between your torso and your legs’
||Provide a succinct description of the skill components to the athlete
||Utilise books containing written information about the skill of interest
||Allow the athlete to work in a group so they can hear the questions or feedback of team-mates
Source : http://www.ausport.gov.au/sportscoachmag/psychology2/maximising_skill_learning_through_identification_of_athlete_learning_styles