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Coaching with Rosenshine's: New material in smaller steps

A coach’s guide to Rosenshine: Presenting new material in small steps

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

The way a coach presents information to their athletes is crucial if they want to aid learning and enhance performance. Coaches should aim to present material in a way that encourages long-term retention, not in a way that means athletes will have forgotten information by the end of the week.

So, is there a golden approach that can help coaches do this?

Barak Rosenshine, who was an expert in education psychology, suggested in his Principles of Instruction that introducing new material in small steps can prevent learners from getting overwhelmed by new material.

But is this approach actually helpful? And how could you do this in your training sessions? We’ve researched the benefits for you – here is what we found…

Athletes and cognitive load

Rosenshine’s second Principle of Instruction suggests that breaking new information down into smaller steps can help reduce something called cognitive load.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information our working memory can hold at one time. Because our working memory has a limited capacity, if athletes are presented with more information than they can process, they will become cognitively overloaded.

Cognitive overload can negatively impact athletes in many ways, such as:

  • Lowering their ability to retrieve relevant information
  • Lowering decision-making abilities
  • Causing athletes to focus on irrelevant stimuli
  • Causing difficulty in understanding and remembering

Presenting information in smaller portions helps new materials to be better understood and remembered, as it is easier for the working memory to process. This will reduce the likelihood of athletes experiencing cognitive overload and, as a result, your athletes will show improvements in their ability to recall newly learned material.

Skill breakdown and organisation continuum

Here at InnerDrive, we recognise that breaking down new information and techniques into smaller steps is a lot easier said than done. Much of the time, the ability to break down a skill can be subjected to where it lies on the organisation continuum, where skills are placed depending on how easily they can be broken down.

There are two types of skill classifications on this continuum…

1. Low organisation skills

Skills and techniques on this side of the continuum can be easily broken down into sub-routines to allow for better practice. The different components of the routine are their own separate moves but when linked to the other components, they form the routine.

A good example of this is the hop, the skip, and the jump that form the triple jump. This allows for the different components to be practised on their own before being put together.

2. High organisation skills

Skills and techniques on this side of the continuum cannot be easily broken down into sub-routines. The movements of these skills are sequential and continuous, making it very difficult to separate the different parts of the motion. High organisation skills include running and cycling, which are generally practised as a whole.

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Whole practice vs Part practice

Where the skill is placed on the continuum can impact the method of practice you use when teaching the skill. In sport psychology, there are different ways to present skills to learners. These include…

Whole practice

This is when a skill is a practiced as one complete action such as a golf swing. This type of practice allows the performer to gain the feel of the skill and is generally used for highly organised skills. However, presenting information this way can cause athletes to experience cognitive overload – especially in the beginner stages.

Part practice

In this method of practice, skills are broken down into sub-routines and practised in isolation. This could look like practising just the kicking action with floats when trying to enhance a swimmer’s front crawl.

This method is great for cognitive overload reduction and can prevent your athlete from becoming too fatigued. It’s also very suitable for low organisation skills and gives you better awareness of your athlete’s understanding of specific information. This means it’s easier for you to know when is the right time to fade support for your athlete.

Progressive part practice

This is another method of part practice that encourages the breakdown of skills into sub-routines to enhance learning. Skills are practised individually before being chained or linked together, just like in the triple jump example for earlier, practising the hop, skip and the jump in isolation before chaining the movements back together to form the routine.

Methods like this can be great for increasing your athlete’s motivation as the breakdown of information helps them to get a better grasp of the skill. Introducing information this way makes it less daunting and more manageable for the athlete, making them more motivated to learn as a result.

What happens when information is hard to separate into sub-routines?

As we’ve learnt, several skills in sport are of high organisation, making it more difficult to break into sub-routines. In cases like this, it is hard to follow Rosenshine’s second Principle of Instruction and is easier to just use whole practice with athletes without breaking down the skill.

However, there are methods of practice that can cater to this.

Whole-part-whole practice

This is when the whole skill is demonstrated and practised first so coaches and athletes can recognise the weaker areas of the skill. After this, those weaker areas are practised in isolation before putting the whole skill together again.

This could look like an athlete performing a golf swing and recognising their head isn’t straight during the swing. In this instance, the golfer would be provided with drills to tackle this problem such as putting something on their head during the swing to stop it from moving.

Not only can this method of practice be used for low organisation skills – it’s also great for high organisation skills that are difficult to break down.

Final thoughts

Barak Rosenshine has highlighted the importance of presenting material in small steps when coaching your athletes. Even though it may seem slow at first, it’s important to take the time to help your athletes understand the information you are presenting to them.

Breaking it down into smaller pieces may not only enhance knowledge but confidence too which will have a direct impact on their performance.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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