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What sport coaches need to know about learning styles

What sport coaches need to know about learning styles

4 min read
  • Sport psychology
  • The science of learning

You have probably heard of the idea that people learn better either with visual information, through hearing information, or through doing practical activities.

This refers to the idea that people have a preferred “learning style”. Over the past decades, this has been very popular among educators, with nearly 80% of teachers using or planning to use learning styles.

So, are learning styles something that sport coaches should look into?

Why are learning styles so popular?

As a coach, you will likely recognise that athletes have different ways of picking up new ideas or skills. It has been argued that if a coach can understand these learning preferences and adjust how they deliver to each individual athlete they will be much more effective and efficient in developing athletes’ skills and knowledge.

Coaches have therefore been urged to discover each individuals preferred style and adapt their method of communication accordingly. Many coaching courses and workshops have encouraged coaches to use learning styles, and research has shown that the theory sticks with them particularly well and is continually used.

Research has shown that 89% of coaches in the UK and Ireland have come across the ideas or practice of learning styles, and 62% believed that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.

This many people can’t be wrong, right? Well, let’s take a look at the research behind learning styles – or lack thereof…

Should you be using learning styles, or are they a myth?

vast amount of evidence has found little to no support for the learning styles theory, and reviews of literature clearly show that learning styles are a myth. It is suggested that the implementation of learning styles in sport coaching can even have a negative impact and has become a concern.

There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles into practice. Therefore, using learning styles in coaching is not advised – it may not help learning and could even be restrictive and harmful.

How? Well, it can encourage athletes to internalise their labelled “learning style” and limit themselves to only activities that align with it. Coaches may also guide athletes away from their non-preferred styles, which is unhelpful in a number of situations.

What does all this mean for coaches?

Given that learning style-matched coaching has little evidence base and could even be harmful, coaches might be better off relying on more trustworthy techniques and ideas.

Some of these include:

Athlete-centred coaching

Researchers have found that there is no useful pattern or common way of learning within groups, highlighting that the choice of learning style is dependent on the situation.

Therefore, educators in sport should ensure that the learner remains at the centre of the process. The task itself should guide learning activities and methods of communication.

Clear communication

The quality of communication and the meaning of the information are much more important than the mode of delivery. Therefore, the focus should be on clear communication and creating great learning environments.

Effective communication will involve allowing the athlete to achieve their desired goals, correcting skills and explaining concepts, and boosting their motivation.

Dual Coding

Dual coding involves combining words with visual information. Evidence supports that this boosts memory retention and recall because it gives a learner two ways to engage with the information.

So, using visual aids combined with written information can be helpful to anyone, not just “visual learners”. Help your athletes integrate information and learn better by providing two different ways of remembering it later on.

Cognitive Load Theory

Moving away from learning styles, Cognitive Load Theory highlights how working memory has a limited capacity, and for learning to take place, information has to be transferred to long-term memory.

This can be incorporated into coaching with methods such as scaffolding, which is where you gradually remove support as the learner begins to progress. Read more Cognitive Load Theory tips for coaches here…

Educating yourself

Coaches should aim to continually educate themselves and look for evidence-informed methods to facilitate learning. Engaging with the research is important and you should aim to collate your own evidence to help question and adapt your beliefs.

We at InnerDrive understand how daunting this can seem. This is why we write these blogs – so, make sure to sign up to our sport psychology newsletter today to get new tips and resources every week.

Final thoughts

Despite the evidence piling up against learning styles, fascinating new research finds that many people, in sport and beyond, still believe in their power.

We want to make coaches more aware that learning styles are not useful, and can even jeopardise great learning opportunities for their athletes, when there are so many other ways to make learning more effective. Try and change your coaching from learning styles to incorporate the ideas mentioned above.

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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