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Make it Stick: The Science of successful learning

Most of us practice in a way that makes us better at practicing rather than making us better at performing.

Getting better feels good. That's part of the reason it is addictive. The problem is that we often feel good when we are getting better at playing well at practice rather than playing well during games.

The biggest trap in player development is a thinking fallacy called the illusion of learning. The illusion of learning occurs when someone thinks they’ve learned something when they haven’t.

This happens all the time when practicing sport. We spend 20 minutes working on a specific skill and by the end of that time, we are better at that skill. However, when we have to perform that skill in a game we don’t do it well and we wonder why.

Using a baseball example, we spend 20 minutes working on specific cuts and relays. We teach the infielders where they are supposed to go when the ball is hit in certain places throughout the outfield. Then we hit balls to different places in the outfield and the players practice going where they are supposed to go and throwing the ball where they are supposed to throw it.

Maybe we even throw baserunners out there and make the defenders do it in a timely fashion. After a half an hour of practicing this, we will be better at it than we were a half hour earlier.

The question is, are we going to be better at it when we are faced with that situation during a game? The answer is no. At least not yet.

If we practice this for a half hour every week, we’ll certainly be better than if we didn’t practice it as much. But will our players be able to do this in game situations?

No. Not unless we force their nervous systems and brains to work to retrieve the memory of how to do it.

In Make it Stick, we learn that the best way to prepare our athletes to effectively perform skills in games is to practice in a completely different way than we are used to.

If we want them to perform in games, we need to make it hard for them to remember a skill we have previously taught them then let them work to retrieve that memory. A player doesn’t learn through massed practice of a skill (the above example of practicing relays for thirty minutes once a week). A player learns through having to work to remember how to do the skill—whether that is a motor skill or a mental skill.

The learning happens in the work to retrieve.

The brain only rewires itself to perform in complex environments (games) when it has to work to remember something practiced before.

So if we go back to our example of relay practice, what way of practicing this is going to lead our athletes to perform it most proficiently in games?

If the research in Make it Stick is correct, then the best way to do this is to interleave and space out your practice of the skill. I have seen this type of practice do wonders.

Here’s what it would look to “interleave” and “space out” practice of our relay example:

We would have our initial practice session that we described above. Then we might wait a couple of weeks to go back to it.

At that point, that next practice is going to look ugly. It is going to look like our team didn’t learn anything. They are going to be sloppy. They are going to go to the wrong place, they are going to throw the ball to the wrong bases, their throws are going to be bad, etc.

It is going to feel like we didn’t get any better.

This is the biggest reason why coaches don’t employ the right kind of practice.

It is going to feel like we got worse, but we didn’t. This session may take a little patience and a little bit more time, but if we give our players the time to overcome their forgetting of the previous information we taught them they will remember. It will be frustrating for us and it will look and feel bad. Be better than that. Don’t care what it looks like or feels like in that moment. It will feel better when your players effectively perform the skill in games.

If you can get to the other side of that frustration, then the players will finish that session better equipped to perform cuts and relays properly during games.

Is your goal to perform this skill better in practice or better in a game?

Is your practice performance or practice?

Let your players struggle to remember what they were taught two weeks earlier. Let them work through it until they are doing it proficiently again. If you do this, you are rewiring your brain to better perform in games. The hard work they just did to remember is what will make them perform better in games. This is what the research is showing overwhelmingly.

If they are going through the motions of this because they do it the same amount of time every week over and over again, then they will struggle to remember how to do it properly in games. Their brain and nervous system is not working hard at all to remember. It hasn’t had to. So it’s not learning.

The next step is interleaving.

The next time you practice cuts and relays, you can mix in some more specific work. Stop the session in the middle of it to teach the outfielders how to properly pick up a ground ball up against the fence and get the throw in quickly. At the same time, you could break down the infielders relay actions and how to throw a long hop into third base or home plate.

Another way to interleave is to spend ten minutes doing cuts and relays and ten minutes doing first and third defense then go back to cuts and relays for ten minutes. That can be followed by ten minutes of bunt defenses and then another ten minutes of cuts and relays.

Again, with interleaving, you are making the brain work. It may not go well. It will require patience and a tolerance for “shit show.” It will not look good. You will not be able to show it off as beautiful practice—i.e. eyewash.

Eyewash may be the single-most undermining trap in player development.

If you are worried about how practice looks, you’re likely engaging in eyewash.

If you instill practice as a value for your team and teach them the principles of correct practice, then you don’t have to worry about maintaining their buy-in through the struggle.

Practice doesn’t have to look pretty to be effective. In fact, in most cases, looking pretty usually gets in the way of effective practice.

Certainly we don’t want to waste time. We need to be efficient to be effective, but if we are prioritizing game performance over practice performance then we really need to build up our tolerance of chaos.

Make it Stick also presents research that shows that having students try to solve problems before they know the solution is very effective.

This is essentially how the constraints-led approach works. The teacher places a problem in front of the students. The students try to solve the problem without yet knowing the solution. In this effort, the students find different paths to get to the right solution. In other words, their brains are working to retrieve the solution.

Motor learning is no different than how the brain learns. That is because it is the central nervous system that is being programmed to perform the right movements. And, of course, the central nervous system takes its directions from the brain. The central nervous system is part of the brain.

Another myth that is dispelled by the research presented in Make it Stick is the idea of learning styles. The research shows that teaching a student in their individual learning style takes away the work that actually creates the learning.

Of course, we all have different learning styles. But the research suggests that if a teacher does the work to teach individual students within their own learning style, the student is not doing the work necessary to achieve the learning.

An effort to make the learning easy will not cement the learning very long in the mind of the student.

If it is the work to retrieve information that actually rewires the brain to learn then it would make sense that making learning easier would actually make learning less likely.

So the research makes sense. This again goes back to the ecological approach to development. You must create an environment of psychological safety that allows for the students to rise above their learning styles and do the work necessary for real, long-lasting learning.

Having the patience for students to do the work necessary to get outside their comfort zone and learn in a way contrary to their learning style will lead to longer-lasting, more transferrable learning.

What this also means is that intentionally teaching a student in a style that makes them work outside their preferred learning style might actually be more effective than teaching them in their preferred learning style.

Don’t take the work out of the practice. Doing so will lead to stunted development. It’s the work that makes the athletes learn.

In summary, the main premise of Make it Stick is that the work of retrieval is what rewires the brain to remember motor skills long-term.

Early in the book, the authors make the statement that we truly don’t understand how learning works.

“People commonly believe that if you expose yourself to something enough times…you can burn it into memory. Not so.”

This is the lie that we engage in when we practice the same skill over and over, hoping that our athletes will remember that skill in the most high-pressure situation.

The authors continue, “many teachers believe that if you can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head.”

There is a time for massed practice. There are certain skills that are learned better through massed repetition, but we have to always remember the underlying principle that it is the work of retrieval that makes the learning actually stick.


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