We really wanted to start an informational series just for coaches, both current or future. Several of our coaching staff have Bachelors and Masters degrees in the Education field and we feel that great coaches are able to use modern teaching techniques while also demanding their athlete's / student's best effort. Gone are the days of "well, this is how I was taught," and we gladly welcome the new era of "this is the best modern teaching method backed up by decades of research."
Today's strategy deals with "chunking" information into a digestable size for the youth brain / attention span. I'll give you an example of chunking gone wrong that I witnessed a few years ago. Many of the kids had come in for an extra practice on a weekend as they were training for an important wrestling tournament that was right around the corner. The coach for that practice was extremely knowledgeable. Maybe too knowledgeable. He began explaining the first move of practice, he went into extreme detail, and covered every single situation and scenario, and how he uses the move and what happens when the opponent does a, b, and c...I think you can guess what happened.
At the beginning the kids were extremely excited to be learning new material. Who doesn't like covering new moves and strategies that they'll get to use soon? But I looked down at my watch at the 5-minute mark and some of those cheery smiles began to fade. Then, at the 10-minute mark, kids started fidgeting and staring off into the distance. Then, at the 15-minute mark, kids were pinching each other and making faces...and I have to admit...even I had zoned out. Then, at the 20-minute mark the whole group got in trouble and had to run sprints...which was even a bigger waste of time because 30-minutes into practice and nobody had even started drilling yet. And this was a perennial powerhouse team, one that consistently wins the State tournament.
So...what went wrong? The amount of time covering direct instruction. Athletes need to be active. They process information best by absorbing it cognitively and then physically mastering the motions in order to process what they've learned. So, in order to chunk the information (according to The New Art and Science of Teaching by Robert J. Marzano -- great book, go read it if you get the chance), it needs to be broken down into smaller segments. Otherwise, you are unleashing a fire hose of content at their brains that they won't absorb, which will cause frustration with the coaches and wrestlers, and nobody will enjoy the practice.
From our own personal research and testing over the last three years, we've found that with our wrestlers, usually between the ages of 8 - 14 years old, that the 5-minute mark is the sweet spot. If you go over 5 minutes you will start to lose their attention and the momentum of practice will begin to spiral. Now...that is not to say that you can't cover the same amount of information that the "guru" did in the story from earlier...but it's more beneficial to cover the information over several sessions than one giant session that they tune out of. Here's how we do it using the "5-minute principle" that has gained the most success for us:
1.) Introduce the move - history of the move, what popular wrestler uses it most at the moment, what defining matches has it won for wrestlers (hopefully you have a coach that spends all day on YouTube watching wrestling...like me)
2.) Show the move using numerical steps (Step 1, Step 2, Step 3...). Using steps is waaaaay more beneficial to the learning process than just showing the entire move and saying "good luck."
3.) End the first learning session and go drill the move for 5-minutes (again...5-minutes is our sweet spot...they'll get just as bored drilling the same thing as listening to the same thing). This is actually our slow paced drilling time, and the kids are encouraged to ask questions the first few go-arounds.
4.) Bring them back in for a "Clean Up Phase"...cover any information missed the 1st time, and clean up any technique problems from their drilling (there will ALWAYS be problems after the first session...IT'S THE FIRST TIME THEY'VE DONE IT). Oftentimes they're asked questions to gauge their progress and understanding and are encouraged to work together (called "collaborative processing") to grasp the concepts.
5.) Go back out and drill it again, cleanly, building up speed this time, but still encouraged to ask questions.
6.) Bring them back in for instruction, clean up any final technical flaws, have a few partners demonstrate to the whole group that they understand everything, and then tell them that the last round of drilling needs to be match speed, yet still clean.
7.) Blow the whistle and watch magic.
Using this formula and the 5-minute rule, their youth brains are actually "tricked" into thinking that it's a new activity every single time they switch, so they're actually more attentive to the information, even though it's still covering 15 minutes of total direct instructional information, and 15 minutes of total drilling.
It may seem scary at first, trying to cram so much information into such a small window, especially using definitive steps. But Marzano's book states, "if presenting new procedural knowledge, the chunks comprise steps in a process that go together" (30). It has to be done. It's how they learn. It's how they're trained to learn at school. They're built to absorb steps. So...if you're pacing your information, placed within the "5-minute rule" you need to be teaching the steps somewhere between the 3 - 4 minute mark. That way there's plenty of time for them to verbally repeat the steps, ask questions, and then they're ready to try the technique.
How do we train for the 5-minute rule? We set a stopwatch. The coach can glance as they're going along, or another coach can give reminders or hold up fingers. Just like wrestlers learning new technique, we don't expect coaches to get it perfect right away. Like any other skill, it takes practice. It's a drill for us in efficiency. It's also a way for coaches to improve and get better.
We are always asking our wrestlers to improve and get better. We do the same thing with our coaches.
Go try it.