“He’s not a great learner”

Mark Upton
Jul 11, 2016

I couldn’t help but interject (probably too hastily upon reflection) when the coach of a youth national team made this comment to me recently. The critical discussion I wanted to stimulate for him was around how we view and make judgements on what learning is and isn’t in a sport context. For the player in question to have made a national squad suggests he is a better learner than a very large majority of the population. I thought of Ben Stokes as well…

“I can concentrate for four or five hours in the middle — but I can’t listen to a team-talk for more than 15 minutes”

What has this player, and Ben Stokes, learnt to do? Be able to coordinate their actions with the dynamics of the performance environment in their sport (underpinned by intertwined processes/loops of perceptions & cognitions). Likely this learning will have been shaped by many varying experiences along implicit<>explicit and structured<>unstructured continuums.

The coaches comment was largely based on how this player “performs” in video review sessions and discussions, and reveals (unsurfaced) beliefs around learning that are quite common — that is learning maps directly and exclusively to instructional and formal settings, and disregards how representative these settings need to be. These beliefs are shaped early on through the education system — school is the place, and only place, we learn (and often looks nothing like the context in which we will perform/work in the future). This is captured in a story from Jan Visser (2001)…

“While interviewing people about their lifetime learning experience, I have come across a man, highly educated and highly accomplished by most people’s standards, well advanced in the pursuit of his multiple goals, who told me he had never learned anything. I was surprised. Unlike most people he had chosen to lead the life he had wanted for himself rather than any of the pre-packaged options society had had available for him. Making all his various moves in a life of being a child psychologist, an entrepreneur, a musicologist, a musician, a musical instrument maker, a writer and a bookseller who also offers homemade scones and tea in his bookshop, living in a variety of countries, immersed in different languages and cultures, how could he not recognize that learning had been key to everything he had done? The answer, of course, is that, as for so many other people, “learning” for him was what he was supposed to have done in school.”

This was 15 years ago – has much changed since then?

I feel we have to be careful with taking a narrow view of learners and learning, or colloquially “coachable players”. There is a need to appreciate the totality of the learning landscape. Another quote from Visser to finish on…

it is important to look at the role of instruction – and the pedagogical and andragogical processes involved in it – as a constituent part of a wider learning landscape, a landscape that also includes other elements that are essential for people’s learning. The term “landscape” is used here metaphorically to stress the importance of looking for completeness and integrity, harmony and beauty, in appreciating how different spaces in which people learn hang together and are weaved into a comprehensive whole. A broadening of view is thus urgently required. Such a broadened view should focus on learning and look, in that context, at instruction and other modalities to promote and facilitate learning in relation to both broad and specific human and social development goals that form an interconnected, ecologically harmonious, whole.

I have a story about instruction & developing young players decision making that I hope to share soon in another post.