Incorporating Learning Theory into Training


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By Mark Britner, Coach, Team Indiana

A major objective of any practice is for players to learn how to become better volleyball players. USA National Team coach Karch Kiraly emphasizes this learning aspect by asking his players "how good a learner are you?" Parts of the USA women's practices are even labeled as "schools," e.g., passing school etc. To get the most benefit of a practice, coaches and players must incorporate sound learning theory. Although various authors express the major tenants of learning theory in different ways they all still boil down into a few basic common concepts. Judith Rink, in her book Teaching Physical Education for Learning, 6th ed., identifies 5 major requirements for someone to learn a motor skill: to learn a player must . . .

  1. have the prerequisites to learn what is being taught; i.e., physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of performing the task
  2. have a clear idea of the task, i.e., they must understand what is to be learned
  3. have the proper motivational/attentional disposition to learn; related to what is referred to as "deliberate" practice, i.e., practicing with a purpose
  4. practice; all else being equal, the amount of time spent practicing, directly related to the # of contacts, is the most critical variable in the learning process - i.e., Ericsson's well known has 10,000 hrs. rule
  5. have feedback; includes both knowledge of results, e.g., was the ball served into the court, and knowledge of performance, e.g., was the ball served with proper technique
Colvin1 refers to what he calls "deliberative practice" which involves a "highly structured activity with the intent to improve skill performance". Repeating a specific activity over and over is what people usually mean by practice, yet it often isn't especially effective. Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.

Although Colvin identifies eight elements in deliberative practice here are three key elements that are especially relevant in a practice setting.

  1. Setting specific goals. (i.e., drills should have a specific purpose)
  2. Obtaining immediate feedback.
  3. Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome (i.e., process vs. outcome oriented)

Former national team coach Hugh McCutcheon referred to the importance of "cognitive engagement" and processing of feedback to improve. This is essentially the same concept as Rink's attentional disposition. Obviously, much could be written on this topic. The following chart is a simplified attempt to identify how Rink's concepts apply to the coach and to the player in a practice setting. Hopefully, one can also see how the elements of deliberative practice relate to Rink's concepts. It can well be worth the time to take a few minutes and go over this with your players.

1Geoff Colvin, Why talent is overrated, Fortune magazine, Oct. 19, 2006

Concept What this means to you, the coach What this means to you, the player Prerequisites to learn The techniques, tactics etc. taught must be appropriate for the ability of the player(s); this includes not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Choose drills that are appropriate for the level of the players. A guideline is the degree of success - athletes should have a fairly high degree of success but it should not be too easy. (a figure of 75-80% success rate is often used) A coach can not truly begin to coach you unless you are giving your best effort. Only then will a coach be able to provide meaningful feedback and design drills that will enable you to maximize your learning.To play your best you must be well rested, hydrated, and properly nourished - "Bring your best self to the gym" if you want to get the maximum out of the camp Clear idea of the task Give clear, concise explanations - make consistent use of the cues; Demonstrations must be accurate; allow for viewing from different angles.Check for understanding by asking questions or having players repeat back to you Listen! - Watch! - Ask if you are confused or not clear on what or how something is to be done. Motivational / attentional disposition to learn Keep players attention by being organized and efficient; keep the pace of the practice moving; chose drills that are motivating; do not continue a drill to the point of boredom or where players are losing interest; use "distributed" rather than "mass" drills; incorporate "randomness" into drills; set goals for drills that are challenging but realistic; use competition to increase motivation and attention; maintain a positive atmosphere You must want to learn! You must practice with the intent of improving! Be engaged in what you are doing - concentrate! Concentration: when what you are doing and thinking are the same! Process feedbackBe receptive to coaching and new ideas or ways of doing things: have a "growth" mindset - not a "fixed" mindset: view errors as learning opportunities

Practice All else being equal, the player who practices the most will become the better player; #'s of reps are important so be efficient and organized to maximize the number of contacts each player gets; "let the ball do the talking" - reduce the amount of time you spend talking

Work to keep the pace of the training session high; do your job shagging so a drill doesn't have to stop because there are no balls in the cart, hustle from station to station or when rotating in or out of a drill etc. so that you can achieve as many repetitions as possible. Engage in mental practice and visualization when possible. Watch others perform skills. Feedback Give plenty of it. Reinforce the cues. Encourage players to self-process by asking them questions rather than just telling them what they did right or wrong. Process your result - did the serve go into the net or where you wanted it to go? Make adjustments until you get it right: think of Goldilocks - she didn't just keep eating out of the bowl of porridge that was too cold, she kept trying until she got one that was "just right"

Team Indiana is a junior volleyball club member of the JVA. The JVA and its' members are focused on improving the junior volleyball experience for players, coaches, parents, and all involved. For more information on the JVA visit www.jvaonline.org and contact us today to join!


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