Thoughts from Helsinki; nonlinear pedagogy

This past week has been an unbelievably incredible learning experience.

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in the 1st Scientific Conference on Motor Skill Acquisition at Kisakallio in Finland.  I was by far the most differently qualified speaker at the conference, but think that my insight from a practitioners point of view was a valuable contribution and while I hope the attendees and presenters gained something from my experiences, I know that I absorbed years worth of knowledge in the few days spent in the Finnish woods.

And we were definitely in the woods.  Finland has 11 facilities similar to Kisakallio, which is a sports learning and training center established by the Finnish government in the 1950s to promote sport, health and the advancement of training.  They specifically built them outside of cities so the people there could focus on their work without the interruptions of many modern-world things, which is a great idea in my opinion.  People of all ages attend camps, from young children to professional athletes.  The food is good, the air is good, the facilities are good, the lake is beautiful, and the sauna is hot.  You can train and relax and then be fresh to train the next day.  Even with the sun setting around 3:30pm it’s the perfect place to practice.  (I can only imagine what it is like in the summer when the days are bright almost 24 hours a day.)

The conference was a three day event with about 12 keynote speakers and a handful of shorter presentations.  If it was possible to sum it up into a general theme then nonlinear pedagogy would be the topic of the week.  Basically, there were a lot of studies about optimizing learning/skill acquisition as well as on coaching and the potential negative effects of early specialization.

The presenters were from all over the world; from Australia and Asia to the US and Canada and across mainland Europe and the UK.  Some of them have more years in professional research than I have had on this planet (and I’m not taking about you Côté) and the collective knowledge bank at Kisakallio this week was astounding.  Speaking of that, some of the most enlightening moments came from relaxed conversation when everyone was able to gather and share thoughts.  This is one of the more valuable aspects of conferences: behind the scenes chatter and collaborations.

The best thing, to me, about this group was the overall sense of curiosity.  Perhaps it is because many are professors and always asking “why,” or perhaps this is why all of these people have been successful in their respective fields, but you get the feeling that everyone is constantly searching for answers and open to new possibilities.  (The only exception to this were the English blokes who just can’t seem to grasp the fact that American football is better than soccer.  I kid, I kid)

What I am taking away from the conference is a greater understanding of how we humans learn and improve.  It wasn’t the first time I had heard/read about nonlinear pedagogy, but it was broken down with research that allowed for an easy understanding of just how important it is.  The grossly simplified idea is that instead of specializing at an early age (for example kids focussing solely on soccer or basketball starting at 6 or 7 years old) learning is improved when there are a variety of activities participated in.  Also, burnout is reduced, certain injuries can be prevented or postponed and dropout in the activity is lowered.

I think too often there is an idea that we need to do just one sport (or musical instrument or academic subject and so on) early on in order to become elite in that field. What the research has found, though, is that in order to get to the most advanced stages in a skill you are greatly aided by utilizing crossover activities.  For example, balance and body control are very important in most sports, and if you ask Federer about this “elegant” approach to tennis he says that he developed a lot of the skills that helped to make him one of the best ever by skiing, playing soccer, and participating in all types of sports.  He directly attributes the way he plays tennis to activities which might not clearly relate in any specific way.

If you stop and think about it for a while it makes sense.  By varying between a number of activities as a child you are exposed to a larger variety of different motion patterns (I’ll keep this sport specific, but it can be any type of development) and task assignments.  By changing from your main sport to an alternative one you learn a larger variety of motor skills, a lot of which can translate from the supplemental sport to your primary down the road.  This also helps focus as variety keeps us on our toes learning-wise.  As I personally have noticed, doing the same thing over and over (say 5 months of putting) makes it very easy to turn robotic and lose attention.

I have read a lot about interleaving and random practice in the past years, but this idea of nonlinear pedagogy takes it a step further in that I understand a bit better about how you can practice your main sport by not practicing that at all.  For me this is most evident in something like billiards.  I played a lot of pool as a child and when I am putting in golf I use the same visualization to read the break now as I used to read the combo shots in pool.  By playing that game growing up I learned a skill that can then translate to golf.  That’s not saying that I wouldn’t want to learn how to read and visualize on the putting green, but rather that playing target sports and pool helped my golf game improve down the road in a way that solely focussing on golf specific tasks might not have.  I know that I am taking a skill from billiards and applying it to golf.  There are countless examples that I can think of, too.  So many things contribute to who we are an how successful we become.

A lot of it comes down to engagement and fun, too.  By breaking up practice with other sports it’s easier to stay engaged.  Burnout and dropout can come from doing the same thing over and over for years.

Speaking of fun, another topic that was presented was the way in which people, especially children, learn during practice sessions.  There’s new research on the structure of practice based around when technical (think drills) practice should be implemented and how much of that structure, or lack thereof, optimizes how the brain absorbs knowledge.  To sum it up, the two extremes would be to have one group of kids doing a full practice of very structured drills focussing on a movement pattern such as kicking a corner kick or throwing a free-throw.  Over and over the kids are in line and take their turn kicking of throwing.  This was a popular model when I was learning soccer and basketball as a young kid.  The opposite of this would be free-play where the kids have an obstacle course and a ball and are allowed to create their own games and play.  What they found is that the more that free-play was introduced into practice the better the learning retention of the desired skill.

I’m over simplifying a lot in that last paragraph as I do not have the research in front of me while sitting at the Copenhagen airport, but my takeaway is that creativity and fun result in a better learning environment.  Mix that with playing a variety of sports (maybe starting to specialize around 14 or 15) and you have an all around athlete.  It mirrors the idea of an undergrad education, too.  We take a large variety of different subjects in order to round out our education and then once we find something interesting we focus more deeply in that subject.

Seems to make sense all around, but honestly I hadn’t thought much about it before hearing all of these presentations.   The next step is to teach coaches how to use these ideas in their own practices.  For me, I am going to start thinking about ways in which I can practice differently, be it by playing more things like Urban Golf or by creating all different types of fun and weird shots to make around a practice green or by branching out and doing things seemingly unrelated, but that are target and aim specific such as archery.  Actually, archery could be a great game for golf, you learn how to align and aim your body and consider the wind…

At the end of the day, it’s not 100 percent specific nor is it 100 percent non-specific training.  There is a mix of the two that each individual needs to figure out for themselves.

Boarding time, next stop Washington DC en route to Oregon.

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