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Applying the science of learning with your athletes

How to apply the Science of Learning with your athletes

5 min read
  • Sport psychology
  • The science of learning

We may be sport and performance psychologists, but a lot of our work here at InnerDrive is making resources for education, helping teachers and students understand how learning works.

But we can all learn from these lessons. Why not apply these findings from the education world to sports, and help coaches and athletes understand how to learn more effectively?

This can help athletes to really understand what they are being taught and apply it to their practice so they can perform better. Learning is just as important in sport as it is in the classroom. So, here are some key effects of learning that you really need to know about…

1. The Protégé Effect

This refers to how teaching someone else what you’ve learnt helps transfer this information to your long-term memory. Some research has even found that just expecting to teach someone else has benefits, as it requires learners to engage with the material differently.

Research has found that this beneficial because:

How to use the Protégé Effect in sport

  • Tell players at the beginning of the session that they will teach what they have been learning to one another.
  • Get players to explain different tasks to each other.
  • Remember: coaches should monitor this in order to avoid players spreading misconceptions between themselves.

2. The Production Effect

The Production Effect describes how an athlete is more likely to remember information if they produce something new with it.

Basically, by making something with the material, a learner is actively engaged in strengthening the connections in their brain, as opposed to passively letting it wash over them.

How to use the Production Effect in sport

  • Get athletes to read key information out loud. One research paper found this enhanced learning by 13%.
  • Encourage athletes to sketch out their thoughts and answers to questions.
  • Get your athletes to perform physical drills based on the learned information.
  • Remember: this strategy is all about the manipulation of information, not the aesthetic quality of what is actually produced.

3. The Spacing Effect

Another way to both learn more effectively and check for understanding is the Spacing Effect.

Also known as “distributed practice”, this effect states that regularly revisiting material makes learning more efficient and effective compared to doing it all in one session. It essentially means that a when it comes to learning, little and often is better than a lot all at once. In some studies, using spacing instead of cramming has resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test result.

There is no optimal time to leave between each chunk of learning – it is related to how long you need to remember the information for. For example, if players need to remember information in a few days’ time, it should probably be revisited every few hours.

How to use the Spacing Effect in sport

  • Regularly revisit information, as much as necessary.
  • You can change revisiting formats – if original learning happened in formal meetings for example, you can still revisit informally in conversations with players.
  • Remember: people forget things quicker than they realise. Players may believe they have it consolidated, but may easily forget it later on after the session.

4. Ask psychologically rich questions

Asking lots of questions is one of the most powerful ways for a teacher to enhance learning and encourage them to explore the topic in more depth. It is a way of assessing learners and checking for understanding.

But that doesn’t mean just any question. In learning, we are primarily looking at three forms of questions:

  • Pre-questions are about what that athletes are going to learn. This gets them to start thinking and getting engaged with the material before it is taught.
  • Hinge questions are asked during teaching and allow to check for misunderstandings.
  • Elaborative interrogation, which is essentially “why” questions, can be used at the end of a session to get athletes to think more deeply about what they just learnt.

Using these questions will help to increase curiosity and attention, highlight misconceptions and help learners make connections between new and existing knowledge.

How to use psychologically rich questions in sport

  • At the start of the session, ask your athletes questions about the information you are about to teach them.
  • Check for understanding halfway through the session.
  • Use “why” follow-up questions to help athletes think in more depth about the information.

Using psychologically rich questions in the classroom

5. Get athletes to apply what they’ve learnt

Setting up practices that allow athletes to apply what they’ve learnt in different contexts will help consolidate their learning. This takes the players beyond surface-level understanding by getting them to actually think about how to use a new skill or strategy in real terms. It prompts them to think harder.

How to do this in sport

  • Create real match scenarios on the pitch where the players can practice using what they have learnt.
  • Use hypothetical situations. This ensures players don’t simply repeat information they have been told earlier.
  • Quiz players on the thought process behind the information, to help them apply it to a range of settings.
  • Remember: be aware of misconceptions being spread here as well.

6. Dual Coding

Dual coding is the process of using both words and pictures together in learning material. Using two information formats gives athletes two different ways of retaining that information for when they need it later on.

It is related to avoiding cognitive overload and finding the best ways to present information, check out our coaches guide.

Having two representations of the same information cements it deeper into our long-term memory. One study found that people remembered twice as much information if it was presented with both words and pictures, compared to just with words.

How to use Dual Coding in sport

  • Present visuals of how a drill or movement should be performed, along with words. You can do this on presentation slides, printed handouts, the screen of your devices, drawn on a whiteboard…
  • A timeline can help players better understand what needs to be done and when, as they will develop a stronger understanding of the relationship between the two.
  • Remember: the images and the words have to be closely linked. If they are not, the image is likely to be redundant information and have the opposite effect to what you need.

Final thoughts

If coaches can educate themselves about the way they can help their athletes learn effectively, sessions will have a greater impact on the athletes’ practice, with new skills and drills being learnt quicker and to a much better standard, allowing for the athletes to progress in their sport.


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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