One of my professors during grad school was fond of telling me that coaching was all about learning. In the science field, it was about understanding motor learning and how our brain’s process and develop the skills that sport requires.

His point was that that connection determined how we do what we do in sport, and that it was often neglected. Just like in school where we tend to rely on the tried and true, yet horribly inefficient, method of repetition in learning, we do the same in coaching. And most never really question how, why or even if that method works best. So we continue with lectures, rote memorization, and the annual purge of information that occurs around exam time, with much of the information never to be recalled again.

In coaching, it’s similar in that almost all of our ‘learning’ techniques are instructional. We explain what to do to the individual, and then expect them to do it. If we’re ambitious we might show or demonstrate. Often, little thought is given to whether or not this translates into behavior or mechanical changes, beyond what we see.

And while this isn’t going to turn into a lecture on what learning is, I’d like to use this video to demonstrate a few basic principles and ideas to consider:

In the above video (which I suggest you watch!), an interesting phenomenon occurs. The individual takes a very much ingrained activity, riding a bike, changes one simple characteristic of that activity (the steering is now opposite) and he loses his entire ability to do the activity. Simply by changing one constraint, then entire movement becomes impossible.

It’s not like he just forgets how to ride a bike well, it’s a complete forgetting of how to do it at all. People can’t stay upright on the bike for even a couple meters. It’s somewhat mind blowing.

As the video progresses, a few more oddities come to light.

  1. It takes him months to learn how to ride the backwards bike, when his young son learns it in a matter of weeks. This is a nice clear demonstration of how age/degree of ingrainment matters
  2. More interestingly, once he finally learns how to ride the backwards bike, when he goes back to riding a regular bike, he’s horrible at it and can’t do it. He’s ‘lost’ that skill or more correctly, he’s transferred the pattern that once resulted in riding a regular bike to that of riding a backwards bike.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most intriguing, is that when he is relearning how to ride a regular bike, there isn’t a gradual progression of learning how to do it. Instead, a flip is switched and all of the sudden he goes from useless to good at riding again, almost in an instant, as if his brain rewired instantly.

So what does this all mean?

Well, first off it gives a really cool and practical demonstration of how motor learning works. We see the difficulty in altering an ingrained activity. We also see how complex skills like riding a bike rely on a pattern of the entire piece working together. We also catch a glimpse of how quickly we can go from horrible to “got it” when reestablishing that connection to something we once knew how to do.

In terms of practical applications, it makes one ask a few questions to coaches:

  1. How deeply ingrained is the movement pattern you are messing with and are their unintended consequences for altering it?
  2. How do we know when we’re on the brink of “getting it” and don’t stop before we reach that breakthrough.

These are questions that aren’t often thought about when coaching. We often use the same cues, the same drills, and the same methods of teaching, without considering how to address the problem. We don’t acknowledge the non-linearity of learning that often involves many plateaus and setbacks before a phase-shift happens to the next learning level. How often do we hear coaches scream at players to do A, B, or C, and then scream at them again when they fail to do A, B, or C. Maybe the problem is the method of teaching, not the kid…While the subject of motor learning is long and complex, the simple act of unlearning and re-learning how to ride a bike provides a wonderful demonstration (and some clues) on how we go about mastering a skill.

While the subject of motor learning is long and complex, the simple act of unlearning and re-learning how to ride a bike provides a wonderful demonstration (and some clues) on how we go about mastering a skill.

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