Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some recent coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing their watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. This isn’t done by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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