Posted by Sam Watson ● 22 March 2020
Learning in Sport
In the first phase of the 2019 Badminton Horse Trials, one of the largest sporting events on the planet (200,000 spectators), Oliver Townend made history….TWICE! First, he smashed the Badminton dressage record on his first horse and then he later took second place on his other horse, becoming the first rider in the competition’s history to occupy both of the top spots after the dressage phase.
That was the ‘wow’ part. The ‘whoa’ part came in the press conference a couple of hours later.
Reporter: “Who do you train with?”
Oliver: “Eh, no one really, except a set of mirrors. I had a couple of judges come and give me feedback once or twice during the winter, but mainly I just watch DVDs and work it out myself.”
Now, Oliver Townend has of course trained with top coaches at points throughout his career, but he delivered a powerful message to athletes as to how he currently trains. The same message has also been echoed by many top-class athletes. Andrew Nicholson, former FEI world number one in eventing, recently spoke on The Eventing Podcast about modern riders being over-coached and wanting their hand held. “You’ve got to work things out yourself, make your own mistakes and figure out why things happened.”
I don’t think Nicholson means that you shouldn’t have teachers, I think he means that you shouldn’t be aiming to learn in the same way that someone would learn the alphabet or the periodic table, by simply remembering what you were told. I think he is talking about the difference between ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’.
In my own journey through the sport, I talk about the TFL cycle (try, fail, learn). But recently, as a coach, I find myself focusing far more on developing the understanding of my athletes. If they can understand the ‘why’, then ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ we do it becomes so much easier.
When it comes to learning and understanding, some might debate the order. Laurent Bousquet, a renowned Olympic coach, recently said to me: “People don’t automatically learn from failure. They must first accept it, then they must understand it, and then they can learn from it.” Laurent puts the understanding before the learning and it’s a great point. In school, I learned an awful lot without really understanding. You get away with that when faced with structured and somewhat predictable examinations, but sport is not so easy.
In order to really make it as an athlete, particularly in equestrian sport where we are required to train our partner (the horse), I think we have to reach the understanding level. If we are trying to remember what we learned amidst the heat of the competition, I don’t think we stand a chance.
So, how do we better our understanding of our sport and the skills within it?
Feel, which is the first-hand physical experience, is vital. Footballers, tennis players, golfers and riders all develop feel through physical practice. I disagree with people who say that you are born with feel. For me, it is something you develop. Feel is part of the experience, but how do we convert experience to expertise? For me, we do that with our eyes and our mind. First, we have to watch. Watch others and watch ourselves. That is how we consume the information which we can use to develop our understanding. But we also need feedback, which is the insight, and that is where we use our mind and the minds of other experts and coaches.
When Oliver Townend was watching DVDs, he wasn’t watching just any DVD. He was watching Carl Hester who is one of the greatest dressage riders and coaches the sport has seen. He was using his eyes to absorb information, listening to the insightful feedback of experts and consequently furthering his understanding of the skills in his sport.
In most skill sports, like football, tennis, golf and eventing, the skill levels seen today have advanced from past generations. The players aren’t necessarily more talented, they have just learned more and they have learned from those past generations.
We haven’t really increased the amount of experience, and therefore feel, that a player gains compared to those in previous generations, but what has improved is the feedback process, and therefore the understanding. In my opinion, the single biggest advancement in skill sports is video. That is how we learn from past generations and from ourselves and it is why skill levels are advancing at an accelerating rate.
When Lauren Bousquet talks about first accepting and then understanding, what better tool could you use for both of those processes than a video of your own performance? Some people need to see their failures before they will accept them, others might need to see their successes before they accept them. In either case, the ability for a coach to add their layer of insight to the performance replay will aid the understanding phase.
Players from past generations might have seen the occasional live game of sport but possibly never even seen their own performance televised. It’s hard to be it if you can’t see it. Think of all the camera angles, slow motion replays and expert analysis we see on television nowadays. All the tools that are consciously and subconsciously deepening our understanding.
When a superstar scores an incredible goal, it is replayed umpteen times on TV and probably goes viral on social media. What happens next? All over the world, in streets, gardens, parks and pitches, youngsters are all replicating exactly what they have seen on their screens. An expert has probably discussed the movement and technique of the player and given other insightful feedback which helps people understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ the goal was scored. Then they go outside with a ball, they try, they fail, they learn and eventually they will succeed.
Oliver Townend’s record-breaking accomplishment seems unbelievable and unachievable to the normal person. But in reality, he watched other professionals talk and demonstrate their training on a DVD, and then he watched himself try to replicate that using mirrors. Incredible achievement through incredibly simple means. He employed professional judges to ensure he was on track and to seek out another form of feedback, but what he achieved in the final year of a decade will, in my opinion, pave the way for how athletes in skill sports train for the coming decades.
Watch others, develop an understanding, practice and train, improve your feel, gain more experience, fail often, try again and never stop learning. That describes the modern approach and summarises how those young kids develop their football skills from watching their heroes on TV. However, Oliver Townend’s mirrors and judges describe the future. Watch yourself, seek feedback from others and develop such an understanding that you can even give feedback to yourself.
In years to come, you will see youngsters kicking a ball in front of their smartphone so that they can watch it back and compare themselves to the superstar on TV. They already have all the information they need. They have seen what it should look like and they have had the details explained by experts, the only thing that is missing is being able to assess how far removed they are from the finished product. When Oliver Townend was able to fill that gap by watching himself as he trained, it’s no wonder he came out and broke records.
Don’t think you can become world number one from scratch without coaching. You will need coaches throughout your journey, as Oliver Townend did. Crucially, you will always require expert feedback, which is where Oliver’s decision to bring in top judges was an inspired move. However, how you improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your daily progress is through the use of a very simple tool that you already possess. In fact, you’re probably using it right now….
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