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  • Writer's pictureFarran Mackay

Psychology 101 for Coaches: Mind-Body connection

As coaches, we're passionate about helping our members reach their full potential. But have you ever wondered what's happening inside their brains as they learn new skills? Understanding the psychology of cognitive and motor skill learning can help us become better coaches, and create more effective training programs. So let's dive into this fascinating world without getting lost in academic jargon.

The Two-Stage Learning Process

When we learn a new skill, our brains go through two main stages: the cognitive stage and the autonomous stage.

  1. Cognitive Stage: The "Thinking" Phase In the cognitive stage, our brains are busy absorbing information about a new skill. We might watch someone perform a movement, read instructions, or listen to our coach's explanation. Our brains are trying to create a mental blueprint for the skill, so this stage is full of trial and error. As coaches, it's important to provide clear guidance and feedback during this phase to help our members develop the correct mental model.

  2. Autonomous Stage: The "Doing" Phase Once our brains have a clear mental blueprint, we move on to the autonomous stage. This is where the magic happens. As our brains start to automate the skill., we no longer need to consciously think about each step, and the movement becomes more fluid and efficient. As coaches, our role is to help our members practice the skill repeatedly, making small adjustments and corrections along the way.

Mixing It Up: The Power of Variability

Did you know that adding some variety to our training can actually help our athletes learn faster? Research shows that practicing a skill in different ways or in different contexts (known as variable practice) can improve motor learning. This could mean changing up the equipment, environment, scaling options, or even the order of exercises. By introducing variability, we force our brains to adapt and become more flexible, ultimately leading to better skill retention.

The Role of Feedback

Feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. It helps our members understand what they're doing right and where they need to improve. But not all feedback is created equal. Here are two types of feedback that can make a big difference:

  1. Immediate vs. Delayed Feedback: Immediate feedback can be helpful during the cognitive stage, as it helps members build the correct mental blueprint. However, once they reach the autonomous stage, it's better to delay feedback or provide it less frequently. This encourages members to rely on their own internal feedback mechanisms and develop better self-awareness.

  2. Positive vs. Negative Feedback: It's essential to strike a balance between praise and constructive criticism. Positive feedback can boost motivation and self-confidence, while negative feedback helps members identify areas for improvement. As coaches, we need to tailor our feedback to each individual's needs.

Putting theory into practice

As coaches, understanding the two main stages of skill learning - the cognitive and the autonomous stages - is essential to help our members reach their full potential. Here are some tips to improve your coaching during each of these crucial phases:

Cognitive Stage: The "Thinking" Phase

  1. Break down complex movements: Simplify new skills by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable parts. Teach each part individually and gradually integrate them to form the complete movement.

  2. Use clear and concise language: Explain new skills using straight forward language ("Jip en Janneke taal") to ensure your members understand your instructions. Avoid jargon and focus on the key points.

  3. Demonstrate: Always demonstrate a new skill, emphasising proper form and technique. This provides a visual reference for your members and helps them create a mental blueprint of the movement.

  4. Foster a supportive environment: Encourage trial and error, creating a safe space for members to experiment without fear of failure. This will help them gain confidence and learn from their mistakes.

  5. Provide constructive feedback: Offer specific and actionable feedback, focusing on both the positives, and the areas for improvement. Be patient and understanding, recognising that learning a new skill takes time.

Autonomous Stage: The "Doing" Phase

  1. Emphasise repetition: Encourage your members to practice the skill repeatedly to help their brains automate the movement. Repetition is key to transitioning from the cognitive to the autonomous stage.

  2. Introduce variability: Add variety to training by altering scaling options, equipment, environments, or exercise order. This promotes adaptability and can improve skill retention.

  3. Use delayed feedback: In the autonomous stage, provide feedback less frequently or with a delay. This allows athletes to rely on their internal feedback mechanisms and enhances self-awareness.

  4. Encourage self-reflection: Prompt your athletes to evaluate their performance, asking questions to help them identify areas for improvement. This fosters independent learning and growth.

  5. Monitor progress: Keep track of your athletes' progress, adjusting your coaching approach as needed. Celebrate their achievements and provide continued support to help them refine their skills.

By implementing these tips during both the cognitive and autonomous stages, you'll enhance your coaching and help your athletes learn new skills more effectively. Remember to be patient, supportive, and adaptable, tailoring your coaching to suit each individual's needs.

The power to support learning

Understanding the psychology of cognitive and motor skill learning can transform the way we approach coaching. By embracing the two-stage learning process, introducing variability, and providing the right kind of feedback, we can help our members learn new skills faster and more effectively. So let's put this knowledge into action and continue to inspire our CrossFit community to reach new heights!

Supporting all aspects of coaching

At Virtuous Coach Development, we're committed to addressing all facets of coach development, and understanding motivation is just as crucial as any other aspect of coaching. Whether it's at the affiliate, team, or individual level with our support, expertise, and experience, you'll acquire the tailor-made knowledge and skills essential to elevate your coaching game (or that of your team).

Feel free to schedule a call to have a chat over coffee (or whatever you want!) about your affiliate, team, or your own coaching.


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