The Butterfly that never learned to fly

In a previous post (Snipers don’t use shotguns, and neither should coaches), we briefly looked at how the brain works when it comes to the learning process. We also introduced two of our closest friends, Sarah and Carla, and described the roles they have in relation to the learning process.

In case you missed it, here’s a recap – our brains primarily have two systems working at all times. System 1 is our subconscious mind and mainly uses our long term memory to solve tasks and automate daily processes. This system is also responsible for picking up new information from the environment around us. It then decides if this information is worth being passed on to System 2 or not. I refer to System 1, our subconscious mind as Sarah.

Carla on the other hand is System 2. She is our conscious mind. She has the ability to think deeply, solve complex problems, analyse situations and much more. Unfortunately, Carla is unable to focus on more than a couple of things at any given time. She is slow and hence by default, we tend to rely on Sarah. When Sarah is unable to solve a problem or has difficulty interpreting information, she passes this on to Carla, who is then able to apply the necessary effort and time to figure things out.

Learning happens primarily through Carla, our conscious and working memory. It is only when learning has been completed and become automated, that it is passed on to Sarah and in our long term memory. Therefore, if we want to teach, we need to address System 2, and not System 1.

One of the most common methods of teaching is communicating. Communication is not just about sending information. It is also about ensuring that the information has been received by the other party.

In coaching, when we give feedback, regardless of whether the information is relevant or not, it needs to be given to the right person in order for it to be acted upon. If we provide feedback to the wrong person, then the feedback may as well not have been provided at all.

Essentially, we want to address Carla and not Sarah. If we talk to Sarah, she will more than likely just mark the feedback as irrelevant and it will never actually get to Carla. Therefore, it is important to communicate with the right person. There are two ways that I use to engage Carla instead of Sarah when coaching.

The first one is by emphasizing and repeating a couple of points over and over again until Sarah recognizes them as relevant and passes that information over to Carla. At the start of the practice, I inform our athletes what the main objective of the session is, then before every drill, I highlight how it helps us achieve our objective. By having one clear objective and emphasising it, our players are more like to be attentive and pick this up. This was the premise of our last conversation. You can look back at it by clicking on the link in the show notes.

The second way that I get Carla’s attention is by using a self-guided discovery process. This is what we’re going to discuss today.

To help me illustrate some points, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane.

One of the things that I found really annoying when I was younger was how my dad could never just give me a straight answer. I could ask a relatively simple question and his response would be something along the lines of, “what do you think?

It genuinely annoyed me – until I got older and I began to understand more. I don’t know if he was being deliberate or not, but I like to think that he was. Rather than give me an answer, he would always challenge me to think about it. He would direct me to the relevant resources, but always let me come up with an answer on my own first. It didn’t matter if my answer was right or wrong, the point was that I had come up with that answer myself.

This led to debates and discussions at the dinner table about grammar, spelling, history, and a bunch of other things. I didn’t want to be wrong, so before dinner, I would pick up a dictionary or a book (remember, these were pre-internet times), and research for as much information as I could about the topic at hand before sitting down to discuss this with the family.

As it turns out, research is now showing that this is a critical part of the learning process. In a 2017 paper titled, “Learning from Errors“, author Janet Metcalfe highlighted that making mistakes whilst learning followed by corrective feedback was more beneficial to learning. One of the examples provided was the stark differences between the education methods of Japan vs the United States of America.

In US classrooms, set processes were explicitly taught first. These processes were then rehearsed and emphasised with praise being provided for the correct answers. Contrast that to the learning that was happening in Japan. Teachers started the class by first getting students to solve problems on their own – a process that led to more mistakes, as the students simply didn’t have the means to come up with solutions. What followed was detailed discussions of the mistakes, why they were made and the logic behind them. In addition, the teacher guided the students to the correct answer with discussions following on why this was the correct process or answer. The time spent looking for solutions before being provided with them is considered a key part of the learning process.

What jumps out to me immediately is that in the example of the US, Sarah (our subconscious mind) was the person that was being spoken to initially whereas, in Japan, Carla (our conscious mind) was engaged almost straight away. Robert Bjork says that engaging with mistakes is difficult, but the difficulty is desirable for learning. That’s because when things are difficult, we need to consciously address them, and Carla is one who is present.

Janet Metcalfe goes on to highlight that making training more challenging by allowing mistakes and then providing feedback, discussion and correction leads to better retention, retrieval and transfer of skills to situations

So, as it turns out – my dad was on to something when he made me go look for information before providing me with answers. He was actually enhancing my learning capabilities. Don’t just take my word for it. Think back to your education, regardless if it’s a secondary school or college. You were sitting in a classroom with twenty to thirty other students and your teacher at the front was rattling off about who knows what. Your mind was on almost anything else except what the teacher was talking about. As you sat there listening, Sarah was in the drivers seat. It wasn’t until the teacher called your name or announced, “This is going to be on the test!” before Sarah called on Carla.

Most learning actually happens outside of classrooms and this is why homework, group projects, class assignments and presentations are so important.

When you sat down at home to do your homework, you were present, consciously thinking about how to solve that problem. That was Carla. When you were planning your small group revision and asked each other questions – that was Carla. When you were asked to present a project or have a group assignment – that was Carla.

Each of these gets Carla’s attention and she has to be involved in analysing and coming up with solutions. As a result, we retain more information. You can probably remember some of the experiences and facts that you came up with about the group projects that you did years ago. This is one reason why the following saying exists “You never forget how to ride a bike“.

How can we use what we’ve just discussed to help us coach better?

In addition to emphasising objectives, I also employ the use of questions to help get Carla’s attention before addressing the group or proving instructions and feedback.

Quick questions such as:

  • “Ben, what is the main objective in this drill?”
  • “Peter, what score are we going to?”
  • “James, how do we reset?”

Asking questions is very uncomfortable. Not only for you as a coach, but also for the players. However, it is important that you do not answer the questions for them or change the question once you’ve asked it. The player needs to come up with a response. When you first start doing this, you could be standing around for a few minutes before someone answers. That’s okay. Especially if it’s something new for your players, it will take time before they adjust to it.

There is a balance needed so that you don’t spend the entire practice standing around, so it’s important to plan these things ahead of time. Dan Cottrell has an easy to read and understand guide on cold calling that will help.

Unfortunately, I have been around too many situations, where an assistant coach or a parent get so uncomfortable with the silence that they feel the need to jump in and provide a solution or answer the question. Avoid that if you can.

After a couple of weeks of doing this, players will be much more focused on stoppages. Additionally, I will do this during practice timeouts. Rather than give all the information to the players, I let them have these conversations themselves. As a coach, you can float around and listen to what is being said. A lot of the times, they will say the same things that you want. However, if it’s them having the conversations, it is Carla consciously figuring things out and creating connections within the brain to automate these decisions

I’ve seen coaches just jump in and give all the information. I’ve heard coaches say that the players don’t know the stuff and we need to help them.

Allowing mistakes and then providing feedback, discussion and correction leads to better retention, retrieval and transfer of skills to situations

If we want leaders and better communicators on our teams, then we have to give our players the opportunities to be able to lead and communicate. There will be some players who will say the wrong things and lead the wrong way. That’s okay. That’s part of the learning process. Personally, what I am watching out for is whether Carla or Sarah is in the driving seat during this process. If Carla is there, then I am okay with more mistakes.

Carla takes a lot of energy and time to process, analyse and solve problems. This is mentally exhausting, however, it is still an essential part of the learning process. With that in mind, I don’t want my entire practice to be filled with teaching moments and drills. There are times and days when I don’t have any teaching drills planned for the practice. This is something that is also worth considering. How exhausting are your practices, mentally and physically?

I want to finish up with one final story that may toe everything together

“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.

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