menew learning for elite level sport
read, earphone icon or listen Working lately with elite sports on the increasingly important role of learning in compeitive sport, I thought a simple primer would be helpful for everyone. This is it; I've cut corners, obviously, to keep it readable and accessible. For me it is unthinkable that any serious sports nation would now prepare for 2016 or beyond without a major learning strand, properly funded, to support all their Olympic elite sports. Links are all in blue. (by the way, coaching, like cinematography and other professions, has many folk who are better visually, or aurally, than textually. I'm aware that this is a very texty page and so have added an audio version above - one more significant area to consider in getting learning right)

Elite sport faces a quadruple whammy which changes things a lot in the run up to Rio in 2016:

Then finally, in a world where everyone in sport gets a lot better at understanding everything that they think they need to know about material science, about sports psychology, bio-mechanics, nutrition, strategy, etc., the ones who make it to the podium will be the ones who in addition to that can evolve strategies to cope with unexpected occurences... who can quickly cope with what they didn't expect to need to know, or to face.

"we expected the unexpected, but we never expected this..." - US sailor at the 2008 Olympics.

If elite sportspersons are to succeed in Rio and beyond they will need strategies to be able to cope with the huge amount of extra information, will need to harness the new understandings from cognitive science, will need to think their sports learning is at least as good, preferably better, that their school learning was, and will expect that technology will be at the heart of these new approaches to learning. And crucially, we will need a model of learning that prepares everyone to be able harness all that enhanced understanding very rapidly indeed, during competition, and to relish rather than fear surprises.

In tomorrow's competitive sport Learning really matters.

So, as a preliminary task, let's unpack some of that - to do it well and in detail needs a lot more time - but anyway...

firstly, there is increasingly a lot more to learn...

much information

As folk like Ray Kurzweil say often enough, the growth in knowledge is not linear, it is nearer to exponential. We are going to know a LOT more and much quicker than you might expect. And the information goes from being highly specialist, to being really much more accesible. An example would be decoding the human genome. It took 30 years, but after 20 years only 1% was completed. However, after 6 more the task was finished, dramatic progress. But today it can be done in one day, for $1,000, which really is remarkable...

and of course this applies to:

In all these areas the number of published research papers are increasing showing very steep growth rates (see for example the growth in academic papers on eye tracking). This presents two problems: keeping up to date with the latest knowledge and keeping a broad watching brief to spot emerging and unexpectedly relevant material from elsewhere.

This change is so great, that it simply means that what we did before will not cope and we need new approaches.

secondly, we also know a lot more about cognitive processes

a brain

I don't know anyone who makes this more accessible than Mark Treadwell - if you want to pursue this bit, get in contact with him, read his pages (and see links below) or his blog.

The reasons why we now know so much more abou cognitive processes are complex: better imaging scanning equipment like functional MRI kit (fMRI), more and better alzheimer's research... but the simple answer is that micro-processor technologies have played an enormous part in helping our understanding of what happens in the brain and as with most else that computers touch the growth has been exponential here too (see above).

For example we now know (but only since the 1990s) that the older you get (well, until maybe your mid 70's) the wiser you can become. And you do not steadily lose brain cells (as a parent might have once told you) - you just focus on the pattern and conceptual stuff instead of the remembering stuff, which might make you seem to be more forgetful sometimes, but is really just a result of your brain increasing its efficiency and concentrating on the tricky stuff.

An example would be the way when you first learn to drive you really have to concentrate on steering, but after a few years you can drive seemingly on "auto-pilot", still looking for problems (brake lights ahead, a wild animal on the roadside) but not thinking about steering at all and when you get home you might put your car keys down and lose them! Although "knowing stuff" is important (you still need to be able to steer), building our own conceptual frameworks of understanding is even more important. That is what allows us to rapidly reflect on possible scenarios when we see that roadside fox, and to prepare oursleves for unexected possibilities. Youth and fitness perform very well of the key tasks, but age and wisdom help us to be selective about which tasks actually need doing.

If you want to go a little further with this, see these useful three links to work by by Mark Treadwell one | two | three. In sport terms you may become slower physically but more adept cognitively - and it's a trade off as you age. Have you noticed how, as sport gets more complex, athletes get older?...

A key competitive question is:

"are there some tasks and exercises that elite coaches might invoke which will help their athletes become more adept at the complex cognitive processing and conceptual framework tasks?".

Whilst an allied question might be:

"can we learn the "auto-pilot" stuff more effectively too, freeing time for the more complex problem solving work".

The answer to both these questions is "yes". An athlete who is smarter earlier, and can cope with the unexpected earlier would be a more formidable competitor.

This new understanding of cognitive processes is so significant, that it also means what we did before is no longer adequate, and we need new approaches.

thirdly, school students develop a real sense of entitlement that their learning might be better - and a dissatisfaction when it isn't


Not all schools are the same. In the UK we have a huge variety of instutitons: university technical colleges, academies, free schools, studio schools, fee paying schools, local authority schools... around 18 different forms. And within each category the approaches to teaching and learning vary - some still ape the old factory schools with their "kill and drill" curriculum and their "cells and bells" orgainisation. But for very many new approaches mean a far more engaging, and more effective, was of making learning happen.

At the heart of this lies a real change in the role of "learner voice". Asking students about their learning doesn't just make for better learning (they always have ideas of how to improve) - it is the act of thinking about ways that learning could be better that generate a meta-level reflection on learning. That meta-level reflection itself is a bit of a secret weapon in creating engagement, unsurprisingly.

See for example this Teachers TV video about Making Learning Better in an East London School. Or these students making a video of excellent teaching by filming their teachers when they see outstanding teaching taking place.

The net result of this is a clear sense of expectation, indeed of entitlement, that learning might be better and it might be better because someone though to ask how it could be better. As an example watch this video of school students at Lampton School who, having won a competition that allowed them to redesign their own learning space, have a clear and ambitious view of their expectations for future learning. And just look at the numbers of children who watched Teachers TV - children watching programmes about how to teach better! This current generation of children is not an uncritical audience. By the way, as mentioned above, not all schools are off down this path )yet), but you if your atheletes have come through an old factory school they will still be delighted if you approach their learning in these new ways.

Alongside this "learner voice" approach - sometimes this is described as co-construction - there is a revolution in learning environment design - everything from furniture to walls (see for example, or these girls speaking about the Ingenium classrooms of tomorrow that I and others built back in 2004.

These new models of teaching are so significant (in China today they say "we should teach less so that we might learn more...") that if we want our atheletes to be more engaged and better learners, asking their input into designing better learning is a requirement. We can't build better learning for our athletes, but we can build better learning with our athletes, as I say often in other contexts too. What we can't do is carry on with a dated Dick Turpin "stand and deliver" style of coaching with a seminar style layout, hardback upright chairs and Powerpoint slides...

and fourthly, we need to harness the power of new communication technologies to support new learning

The point doesn't need to be laboured: new technologies are transforming our economies, our lives, our schools and universities, our businesses, our world. So of course they have the potential to transform coaching too and we have seen plenty of that already - indeed with video analysis, modelling, a huge growth in data collection and visualisation, rapid computational anlaytics and more, there is good progress.

But the problems posed above by the explosion of knowledge, by the additional understanding we have of cognitive processes, by the changed entitlements and expectations of our young sports learners will not be solved without harnessing the community of shared purpose of our elite athletes - and technology in particular has been impressive at building new forms of membership, of collegiality and of belonging, from Mumsnet to Twitter and the Arab Spring.

When, back at the millennium, a team of us put 21,000 UK headteachers on-line so that they could cope with something very similar to the challenges now facing sport, school leadership was transformed and quickly. At the heart of that project was a huge on-line community of practice - with very real privacy surrounding it.

But even leadership changes rapidly in this world: when a decade later schools started to adopt mobile phones, twitter, facebook and more the 2011 / 2012 research project was set up to crowdsource, and then share, effective and tested practice from innovative teachers, rather than their leaders. We were hugely successful - the website contains all the policy advice, letters home and more, - all crowd sourced, all already tested and effective. The advice was rapidly adopted as a sensible starting point in a number of countries.

In both these examples the problem was also the salvation, by providing a bottom up solution. In both cases it was a new approach, rather than a souped up version of what was done before, that produced a step change in practice... While some schools are still wondering if Facebook and Twitter might be of help, the next generation are already swapping their images in pinterest or whatever is über current.

The power here is the opportunity to harness really broad bases of participation in sport through a community of common practice deep within, and also between, sports. The impact of this on everything from coaching to governance should not be ignored.

So turning finally to coping with the unexpected...

It is important to understand that this century will be full of more, bigger and increasingly impactful surprises. Technology allows us to cut margins, to do things we couldn't do before, which - especially when things go wrong - will produce unexpected results. Obvious examples would be the banks using computers to build ever more complex models of borrowing and derivatives, with tighter and tighter margins until the whole house of cards came tumbling down, or our ability to drill oil at depth not keeping pace with our ability to cap those deep oil wells, when things go wrong (as in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010).

A recent Olympic example might be the sudden capability that China demonstrated of being able to clean up smog laden skies - with the resultant onshore thermal breezes producing high winds in a sailing venue previously known for its windlessness at that time of year ("it's not like this here normally mate")

For this page it is enough to take the older models of learning - with school, or college students sitting at an exam and hoping "there are no surprises on the exam paper", while their teachers hope that "they have covered everything" and to contrast them with our certainty that the world will be full of surprises and it it simply not possible to have covered everything. We need new approaches to learning as a result, of course.

In sport the ability to understand the unexpected, to cope with it rapidly and to restrategise, indeed to relish the challenge of the opportunities provided by the unexpected, will be increasingly important - that is the century we are in.

Obviously each of these five areas need expanding further with practical, detailed examples of precisely what to do - how to layout space, how to engage the elite athlete's voice and so on, but that needs a bit of time and a lot of detail, and anyway, if Learning becomes a key differentiator at the next Olympics and beyond then just parking it all on an open access website might not be ideal (!). For now, there are plenty of links in blue above to follow for more depth

Any by way of a litle light relief - my favourite gold medal win in terms of an athlete being prepared for the unexpected is Australia's Steven Bradbury winning gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics speed skating - you can see it, and hear from Steven - here, his tactic depended on the unexpected actually happening (and it had worked well in the heats...!)!

I do hope this provides some useful detail as a starting point for all of you

Stephen Heppell

new learning for elite level sport

this page ©, authored, and last updated, by Prof Stephen Heppell
latest changes made on Thursday, April 26, 2012 11:02 AM