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How athletes learn


Practice makes Perfect! 

Learning is a relatively permanent improvement in performance arising practice.

There are 3 stages of learning

– mental stage
– practice stage
– automatic stage It is very important to understand these 3 stages of learning because each requires different instructional strategy.

Mental stage

When a technique is first being learnt the objective for the participant is to understand what is required to perform the skill correctly. To achieve this requires a lot of mental plans for the correct technique and strategy.

The best way for the athlete to understand the sequence required for the skill is through demonstration and explanation.

Care must be taken not to overload the athletes learning circuits by too much teaching at this stage as the human brain cannot handle too much information at one time.

The goal at this stage is to help the athlete form a good plan for what they need to do.

Practice stage

The emphasis in this stage is on quality practice to refine the skill. Much more time needs to be spent in the mental stage.
The mental energy required during this stage is less and the mental activity will move from a focus on learning the sequence of movements to refining each phase of the sequence. As the basic fundamentals are learnt not only do errors decrease but performance becomes more consistent, a good sign that learning is happening.

Feedback is very important at this stage but as the more the athlete practices the abler they become to detect their own errors.

At this stage, it is not just the quantity of the practice but the quality that counts, and increases the rate of learning. Good judgement and planning need to be made at this stage in regards to how often, what drills will be used and when to move on. These judgements should be made taking feedback from your participants into account.

Automatic stage

As your athletes continue to practice the skill becomes more and more automated.

Consequently more mental capacity is freed up which can be used to focus on more critical elements of the skill and/or technique to achieve a better performance.

At this stage, the athlete’s performance is very reliable and if they make an error they frequently know what to do to correct it.

Sebastien Locteau Msc Sport Medicine
Athens 2004 Olympic Coach
Sport Consultant