The Butterfly that never learned to fly

“There was once a young man, who loved observing nature. He would hide in gardens and the woods, watching and admiring the beauty of it. One day, he found a cocoon of a butterfly. He observed and watched it over a couple of days curious to see what would happen. Eventually after a couple of days, a small opening appeared in the cocoon. Over the next few hours, the butterfly struggled as it tried to force its body through that small opening. Then it stopped, no progress was being made and the butterfly looked like it was stuck.

The young man decided to help the butterfly. He took out his pocket knife and carefully snipped off the small parts of the cocoon, which allowed the butterfly to come out easily. The young man was surprised when he saw this butterfly. It wasn’t like other butterflies the man had seen. This one has a swollen body and shriveled wings.

The young man decided not to judge, instead opting to observe. He sat there waiting for the wings to grow into the beauty that he knew butterflies were capable off. However, that didn’t happen. After a while, the butterfly just crawled away with a swollen body and tiny wings, unable to fly. It would spend the rest of its life crawling.”

The moral of this story is that this young man wanted to help, and had good intentions. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand the process the butterfly needed to go through to emerge in its full beauty and potential. This is the same as coaching at times. We have good intentions and want to help our athletes. However, the struggle that they go through is what is needed to allow them to acquire the skills they need, to develop into what they will become. When we take away the opportunity for them to learn and grow, we do them a disservice. We end up limiting their potential.

If what you’re saying is relevant and important, but you’re saying it in a language that the receiver cannot understand – is there a point in saying it? Is it more important to you that you’ve said something or that they understand?

When it comes to coaching, we need to recognise what language (non-verbal) our players are speaking rather than just saying things for the sake of saying things.

As we coach, we are actively trying to affect change in our players behaviours. This means that we need to understand how the brain works.

We primarily have two systems operating in our brains at all times.

  • 1️⃣ System 1 is fast and highly automated. It performs most actions subconsciously based on long-term memories.
  • 2️⃣ System 2 is slow and analytical. It performs most actions consciously based on the working memory.

The learning process primarily takes place through System 2. We have to be conscious to learn. The issue is that since System 1 is the default, most times people aren’t ready to learn.

Effective communication can help shift the brain from System 1 into System 2.

Most times when communication happens, one person is talking as the second waits their turn to start speaking. In this sense, they aren’t actively listening. Hence, they are more likely not attentive and will miss important points.

This is the same in coaching, especially youth sports When you are communicating to a group of players and are speaking for too long, they aren’t too attentive and may even end up wondering:

  • when the drill is going to start
  • why is there a dog in the building
  • who took their cookie
  • what’s for dinner

That means that most, if not all of what you are saying is not even being processed here as System 1 is marking it off as irrelevant.

Is it more important that you say the relevant things or is it important that the players understand what you’re trying to say to them?

If you want the players to be attentive, hear and process what you’re saying, then you need to stop speaking to System 1 and start addressing System 2 (the conscious mind). How do we do that?

We dove into that in “Snipers don’t use shotguns, and neither should coaches

In addition to not using shotguns in practice, asking questions is another way of getting players to be attentive and activate their System 2. Dan Cottrell has an interesting, simple and easy to use guide on how to Cold Call, which wakes up System 2

By getting players to figure things out by themselves, even if they get it wrong at first, you are promoting the use of their conscious minds as they struggle to find solutions. @MackaymjMichael and @AlexJSarama refer to this as wobbling

Wobbling is good as it strengthens the neural networks in the minds and promotes the retrieval process. Learning is all about retention, retrieval and transfer. When we interrupt this process, players struggle to retrieve, which limits transfer to games.

If you ask a player what move they should use when the defense is playing them in a certain way, they will probably have the answer – that’s retention. The problems that we mainly have in coaching is that what we do in practice doesn’t transfer to games.

The issue is that we don’t let them wobble enough in practice and are quick to correct them when they make a mistake instead of allowing the wobbling to continue.

In a research article, Janet Metcalfe highlighted that making mistakes first before engaging in discussion and corrective feedback was more beneficial to learning when compared to explicit instruction.

if the goal is optimal performance in high pressure situations, it is worthwhile to allow and encourage errors in the learning environment

One theory that attempts to explain why mistakes are important in the strengthening of the retrieval process is that these mistakes serve as signposts for future attempts at retrieval hence the saying “neurons that fire together, wire together

Some coaches don’t ask questions because they think the players don’t know better. Even if they’re right, the research actually says this is a critical part of the learning process. By providing them with the right answer, you are disrupting that process.

Asking questions in practice tends to be uncomfortable for both players and coaches. Just like any other skill, it needs to be developed. Be patient and introduce it slowly – your players will surprise you.

Having used this strategy for a while, my players now often come up with the very things that I want to say or correct them on. However, because it is them saying it, their System 2 is turned on, so they’re figuring out solutions. In addition to figuring out solutions, they are more likely to retain and be able to retrieve this information at a later time.

An added benefit is that this practice will allow opportunities for your players to become better communicators and leaders. Don’t worry if they make mistakes – they will lead poorly or communicate in an awful manner. This is okay as they’re learning a new skill.

Making mistakes first followed by receiving corrective feedback and engaging in discussions is more beneficial to the learning process than traditional explicit one-way teaching methods.

You can find the link to the full article here and a link to the podcast here.

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