As I have found, some of the coaches most needing to read the science and ideas in this blog are simply not reading the ideas in their entirety. I have changed the STOP series to more accurately reflect the core ideas. We don’t want to lose those who need to read, learn and hopefully understand perhaps the most from these thoughts.

Thus this blog would have originally been titled “STOP Coaching” and the first sentence would then have followed with “…and start being a better guided discovery expert.”  Explicit learning – traditional coaching where the coach says what to do, is the worst retained by the athletes. Implicit learning, where you figure it ALL out yourself as a player, is the BEST retained.  Guided discovery, where using questions and other ways the coach guides the players to the best solutions or options, is retained almost as well as implicit learning. It is my hope that this blog guides coaches to limit their traditional coaching style of telling, and dramatically increase the time questioning/guiding, even though it takes more time, in the end you save time by having the athletes remember better.

I recently spent a long weekend at the Collegiate Sand Nationals for women. While I grew up playing doubles with not one coach to be found, but only the game and better opponents who happened to usually be adults that aided me in discovering how to stay on the court in the “winners stay on” culture – this event now has “coaches” who sit in the team box and are paid to share their wisdom with the athletes who have chosen this new varsity college sport. Down the beach, on 40 other courts were 10-18 year-old junior beach players who also had dozens of coaches on the sideline. Fortunately for the kids’ learning there is limited “coaching” going on during the games, but still, a place where so many kids grew up learning the game on their own, has now been replaced by being told what to do.  That, coupled with the fact that fewer juniors are competing in adult doubles competition, and the learning slows down even more.  Adult supervision these days is important, but learning mastery and higher speeds by playing adults, not age group competition, even if the juniors lose on the scoreboard, is something to make happen as often as possible in the summer.  Letting these players learn from the experienced, older, faster, wiser adults is important for the kids, as is Learning by Doing.

I was very lucky to have spent two days interviewing over a dozen of our 1964 Olympians last week. They had come to the US Open in Phoenix in honor of their 50th anniversary of the Tokyo Olympic games. Jane Ward, Sharon Peterson, Linda Murphy, Butch May, Rolf Engen, Mike OHara, Ernie and Rudy Suwara and so many others were there to share their story. We will be sharing their stories this summer, but one of the themes that ran throughout was how much they learned to play by playing, beach especially, or by competing against/with adults when they were still teens. I did not know that Rolf Engen played basketball for John Wooden, and after having a sand court built behind his fraternity, the Mike OHara started playing volleyball there too, after a basketball upbringing, in Mike’ junior year, at UCLA.

So for the past few months I have been researching, and sharing, how people learn and the area of cognitive psychology. Really, that is why I am asking coaches to “stop coaching” for the research in this area has been going on for over 125 years but has been particularly robust in the last decade. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman which I blogged about a couple of years ago has insights. As many of you might have missed his TED talk on experience vs. memory (and this is about better remembering in the end)  I would urge you to take 20 minutes to watch this speech or to read the transcript (36 language options, this is the English one). The new Think Like a Freak book by Levitt and Dubner is well worth the buy. But, you can test drive it – in relation to working with a growth mindset - with this podcast. The book that I have reread twice now, however, is the best I feel about learning (and thus REMEMBERING). It is called, Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. I will share some quotes from this important book for coaches, teachers and parents, starting with this from page one of the preface.

A body of insights that constitute a growing science of learning: highly effective, evidence based strategies that are rooted in theory, lore and intuition. But there’s a catch: the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive.

The book came from a collaborative effort (sidebar to that word – have you seen the collaborative lesson plans we have posted to the Grassroots section for elementary (2/3 person teams), junior high (4/6 person teams) and high school (6 person teams) PE teachers and Junior clubs. Check it out and contribute. Among eleven cognitive psychologists who got a large research grant and worked 10 years to “translate” cognitive science to education (science). I hope all reading this can agree that useful learning requires memory and it is best instill in our youth to be a lifelong learner – on and off the court, and that learning can be enhanced and developed as a skill.

The authors make some claims at the start of their book worth sharing. The emphasis (CAPS) is the authors, not mine by the way….

  1. Learning is deeper and more durable when it is EFFORTFUL. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today, gone tomorrow.
  2. We are POOR JUDGES of when we are learning well and when we are not. When the going is harder and slower and doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that fell more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary
  3. MASS PRATICE of a skill or new knowledge is by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the LEAST PRODUCTIVE. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you are trying to burn into memory the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom.
  4. Trying to solve a problem BEFORE BEING TAUGHT THE SOLUTION leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.
  5. The popular notion that you learn better with your PREFERED LEARNING STYLE, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is NOT SUPPORTED BY THE EMPIRICAL RESEARCH.
  • When you are adept at extracting the UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES OR “RULES” that differentiate types of problems, you’re more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations. This skill is better acquired through INTERLEAVED AND VARIED PRACTICE than massed practice.

So much of what the book shares, starting with the above, has actually already been shared in the USAV IMPACT manual since I wrote the first edition (now in its 25th edition…) in 1988. The authors point out research in baseball with collegiate players who already are pretty good batters, with one group getting 15 curve balls, changeups, then fastballs, each in a row, while the other half were simply never knew what pitch was coming – i.e. varied/random training.  Practice looked better for the mass practice group over the 6 weeks of 2 extra batting practices a week. Yet at the close of the six weeks of training, “those who had practiced on the randomly interspersed pitches now displayed markedly better hitting relative to those who had practiced on one type of pitch thrown over and over.”

Two other recent blogs, again perhaps due to the title and not the content, have troubled a few coaches. STOP Doing Drills, and STOP Teaching Technique. I of course am not saying stop doing either when you read the entire article, I am simply asking for EVERY coach to increase the amount of random, varied GAMELIKE as possible training, and guide the discovery in every one of their athletes in the areas of their sport’s IQ – which comes from figuring things out themselves through the random nature of the game and getting tips from their coaches in reading and game flow anticipation.  What most of us do is OVER-teach, especially in competition.

This and other blogs, webinars, Youtube clips, books, clinic time, Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook - those are a coach’s practice time. The player’s team training sessions are the “competition” a coach must win, by helping the players learn as much as possible in these focused, deliberate practice times. Then when the match happens, just like other motor learning professionals in music (both vocal and instrumental), dance, theatre, and so many more – the player’s competition/performance is where the coach/teacher now takes notes for the next training. 

Having just done a High Performance camp last weekend for the Delta Region of USA Volleyball, with 20 other great regional coaches, the session on what was retained in training was even more important as in just two days, their “coach” was gone. It was even more about teaching them to teach themselves/the player who knows why beats the player who knows how. After giving the parents and players insights into motor learning principles, they were met with coaches, myself included, wearing this camp shirt we designed in Sport Development. Point at “What Happened” and you are asking them to tell you about their decision/the situation, to guide them to increase their VB IQ. Point at the moving arms or legs and you want them to tell you/ guide the discussion on what you saw in their movement.  The sleeve says Citius, Altius, Fortius, for training is always about increasing your personal “”ER” – SwiftER, HighER, StrongER, not about the “____EST,” that is someone on a gold medal Olympic team, not my team. Finally, the back says “Are You Learning? (Deliberate Practice Matters)” as we speak about motor learning principles and note that in a 120 min practice for 12 kids on the court, you only average 10 min per training of “attention” from the coach. What gets a player good is the other 110 min in a training session, where the coach is teaching/guiding a teammate and their back is to you. THAT is when you go from good to great.

When I say limit YOUR coaching – it is in no small part due to the effectiveness of learning that comes from player empowered practicing, not the traditional coach led training.  Indeed, it is important to vastly increase the players’ coaching. This recent article from Athlete Assessment sums up so much of the research and enhanced effectiveness of moving from a coach centered, to a player centered training, that it is a must read

The reason it's called youth sports is obvious. Coaches, please stop living through your athletes. Parents, please stop living through your kids. Join an adult volleyball league if you want to play. I live for the day when I walk into a competition, and when players err, I never see their next “motor program” or response being an immediate head twist to look at the coach on the bench or their parents in the stands. We want athletes who err and have no need or worry about having to look at the bench or stands for answers, but who can problem solve on their own. As most of you reading are not likely following me on Twitter (@JohnKesselUSAV if you want to), I am going to share my most popular tweet so far from the nearly 600 I have sent – it has been retweeted over 800 times, which I am told by those in social media, is a heckuva lot – and it was first shared in my USAV article, Learning vs. Teaching.  The article posted over 1,000 likes on the USAV website itself. So, as it relates to what we need to focus on as coaches and parents, I share it AGAIN (when you read the book Make It Stick, you will see why…lol).

So what do great coaches do, if they don’t “coach?” They observe, they check for understanding, they provide FEEDFORWARD (as feedback is seen as criticism and what happened can’t be controlled, only the next performance can), they are specific if they do speak (76 % of John Wooden’s information was and they do all this while aware of what variability means in a player’s training. In IMPACT I called it “coaching on the averages;” in the science of motor learning it is about both “summary feedback” and “bandwidth feedback.” No matter what you call it, you want to give the players time to learn by trial and error and not be harping at them constantly.  Give them a break, and concentrate on one or two cue words on the core things, while being VERY aware of the difference between reading/judgment mistakes and true technical (I don’t know how to perform the skill without a ball even) errors.

I do an IMPACT clinic teachable moment that does share some other ideas, ones that I argue we all already know, from having great teachers in our lives, though sadly they are few in number. Few, as in the average college graduate has had over 30 teachers, and the average response I get to “how many GREAT teachers (not coaches) have you had in your scholastic life from kindergarten on” is just THREE. That is a 1:10 ratio that we need to increase.

I will let the words of the Make it Stick authors have a final say on why I continue to ask others to change their “coaching.”  In the book, these lead into some research by Daniel Kahnemann, Carol Dweck and others.  “The truth is we’re all hardwired to make errors in judgment. Good judgment is a skill one must acquire, becoming an astute observer of one’s own thinking and performance. We start at a disadvantage for several reasons. One is that when we’re when we’re incompetent, we tend to overestimate our competence and see little reason to change. Another is, as humans, we are really misguided by illusions, cognitive biases, and the stories we construct to explain the world around us, and our place within it. To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.” …Be the one in charge…Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills and processes, is a quest. It is not a grade on a test, something bestowed by a coach, or a quality that simply seeps into your being with old age and grey hair….The takeaway from Dweck, Tough and their colleagues working in this field is that more than IQ, it’s discipline, grit and a growth mindset that imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success. “Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient,” Dweck says. The active ingredient is the simple but profound realization that the power to increase your abilities lies largely within your control.

If you have made it this far, my sense is you are a lifelong learner, an attribute of our top Olympic coaches. I will close with this beautiful video of surfing and ask you to consider how many of these amazingly talented athletes, who are responding creatively to what Mother Nature throws at them, have coaches. If they do, how involved are they in the competition? However, if you are tired of thinking, just sit back and watch the beauty of the waves and the people who love to ride them.  

In any case, thank you in advance for any comments, including those which can guide me and others to be a better coach, and for growing the game together.