How Your Athletes Learn

How Your Athletes Learn


Have you ever given much thought about how one might teach a new skill to an athlete? Perhaps you thought it would be an easy, straightforward task. But once you start teaching, it became harder than you expected.

Learning takes place in the learner’s world. It becomes a personal experience that is constantly changing. It is complex, multidimensional, and appears to be inextricably connected to the learner’s experiences. Everyone has different learning styles. So, how do you present information so that the athlete trains effectively?

Learning is about change. It is broadly conceptualized as a change in behavior, knowledge, or cognition. The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, which means “to lead out.” The traditional instructional method is a top-down experience where the more knowledgeable or skillful expert shares his/her expertise to a willing athlete. Through repetition, the athlete trains repeatedly until he can replicate it with some success.

Ever watch a child learn to walk? He falls then picks himself up again. He falls again, but each time there is a learning process going on–new skills are learned each time he fails. Timothy Gallwey noted that we learn from experience as a natural process just as kids learn to walk, run, or ride a bicycle.

We remember coaches we have loved and hated, and we imitate those we admire. Instructors and coaches need to recognize that athletes must be given every opportunity to succeed, even through the lessons of failure. Though life issues come into play (time, family, scheduling), it is important for the coach to know what motivates the athlete and plan a strategy accordingly. Because some athletes have barriers that prevent them from being successful, instructors can address four elements of learning: motivation, reinforcement, retention, and transference.

These actions are usually positive, and expectations are appropriate for each objective to help an athlete understand what is expected. The learning process appears like a delicate balance between instructor/coach and athlete. It is a dance where coordination, understanding between partners, and respect must all combine to be successful.

The more support athletes have the more likely they are to perform at high levels and to retain the learned information. Conversely, if they are not given the support or challenged to perform at higher levels, the understanding and retention of material will be lost.

Athletes need to see the relevancy of what they are learning, while instructors and coaches need to help athletes identify their objectives. Athletes make sense of their learning through reflection, challenging old assumptions they had since childhood, and determining whether they still hold. The distinctiveness of the athlete is the wealth of experiences they bring to playing field. 

Dr. Kevin Goddu, Ph.D.

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