Learning by Challenges

Thursday, October 20, 2011

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

Coaching and teaching are very much one and the same. That is why educational theory and research hold very good lessons for coaches, particularly coaches of young children and adolescents.

Carol Dweck is an American woman who is currently a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She is a leader in the field of motivation, personality and developmental psychology and her research contributions have been widely recognised.

What I have gleaned from her is the following overall philosophical approach to working with students and by extension young children and adolescents:

1. Praise effort over results.

Research indicates that when students are praised for effort they gain a stronger sense of themselves as a learner, develop a more healthy desire for challenges and the skills effective to cope with setbacks. How often do you as coach use praise for effort?

2. Teachers and coaches must provide feedback and strategies for overcoming setbacks and failures.

How often do you discuss failure with your players and provide strategies to improve next time?

3. We need to teach children to relish challenges, so they test themselves.

How often do you speak to the players about the benefits of being in a competitive game and that they will improve if extended by better players and teams?

4. Stress the importance to them of learning and avail them of more learning opportunities.

How often do you ask players what they learned about themselves and the team from each game they play, even from a practice session?

5. We, and they, need to see that every performance is current and not connected to their future potential.

How often do you stress to them that how they play today as a team and individual does not reflect how they will play next week or next season? Or they will get better if they keep trying and practicing and learning. Their ability isnít set in stone.

I believe coaches who are charged with coaching young children need to focus on themselves as a teacher and the young athlete as a learner.

Dweck is very much against creating a view where intelligence or winning equals success and therefore failure indicates a lack of intelligence or a loser. In sport winning canít be the only measure of success, otherwise you create a reality where losing a contest or game is seen as failure and nothing can be gained by it.

The problem that can eventuate from this line of thought is a child will only want to learn or compete if they will be successful. Thereby avoiding learning if they donít believe they will be successful or avoiding playing sport if they donít think they can win.

We need to continually stress that learning is the most important thing and that learning involves:

  1. Hard work  and effort
  2. Reading or practicing
  3. Confronting challenges
  4. Asking for help

Dweck also believes the crucial part of all learning is what mindset students bring to the challenge. Because it will be crucial in what results they can obtain. This is no different to sport.

The most difficult aspect of learning and sport is how you cope with failure. What is your attitude towards it? Most of us deal fairly well with success. It generally encourages us to go again, to get even better. We see something tangible for all our effort.

The attitude to success and failure are a big part of the culture of the school or sporting organisation we are in. How people respond, reward, punish, discuss, etc will tell us a lot about that schoolís or sporting clubís culture.

Some of the following observations need to be made about how success and failure are handled.

With success look at:

  1. How people react to success?
  2. How they respond to the loser?
  3. How have they planned for the success?
  4. Is it a sustainable success?
  5. How do they handle it?
  6. How much does it mean to them?
  7. How do they share it?

With failure look at:

  1. Whether they see it as a chance to learn and improve?
  2. How discouraged and disheartened by it are they?
  3. Is it discussed or forgotten?
  4. Is blame assigned?
  5. Is it seen as acceptable or unacceptable?
  6. Is there punishment?
  7. How is improvement generated?

I am not saying Dweck or anyone has the right answers, but at least they provide the impetus to think about things such as personality, development and motivation in respect to learning.

I will leave you with a quote from Dweck;

ďMotivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve but also the love of learning, the love of the challenge, and the ability to thrive on obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students.Ē

Lino Taglieri, 20-10-11 20:39:
Great article, hopefully all coaches of youth & junior teams out there read this before next season commences, to help plan their sessions accordingly.
Terry McInnes+-+MVFC+Junior+Head+Coach+South+Australia, 10-11-11 12:30:
Great article that has been well laid out. Young people thrive on the challenge of learning and excel when given positive feedback bothways and are being continually praised on their efforts without worrying about the win or lose.Developing juniors and youths takes time, paitence and a vision of the long term objectives and goals when transferring knowledge across to Junior. One of my most important roles as a coach has been to provide an enviroment where junior players and their parents want to attend training and extra special skills sessions because they know they are going to be having fun instead of just being critised and yelled at. Development is not always fun in fact sometimes it can be down right hard but we manage to have a lot of fun along the way which the juniors excel on and love. Peter thanks so much for the many articles that your partners and yourself have prepared over the time as they not only make great reading but have provided myself with many ideas that I have been able to apply to help develop the junior blacks that I am involved with.Keep up the great work.

Terry McInnes Head Junior Coach U10/12s Blacks at the Morphett Vale Football Club South Australia

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