How Working Memory Affects A Young Athlete’s Learning
If you have coached kids, you will know that they can only process a limited amount of information at any one time.
Limiting the load of what kids need to pay attention to is a linchpin of learning.
Enter Cognitive Load Theory. Knowledge of this concept will help you plan and deliver effective learning sessions.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Cognitive load theory relates to working memory (i.e. what a person is consciously thinking). Working memory allows a person to temporarily hold a limited amount of information in the mind for immediate use. For example, it is used when a child carries out instructions from a coach. It is obviously important when learning new skills or strategies.
“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. The capacity of the working memory is limited and easy to exceed. If an athlete tries to think about too much at once, their working memory becomes overloaded. This will lower their ability to think and remember.
Beginners are already overwhelmed with incoming information. They are less able than “experts” to effectively direct their focus and so are already faced with a flood of information challenging their working memory.
When teaching someone something new, we need to ensure that we are not overloading their working memory. We don’t want to cause a confused athlete. We want to help effective thinking and remembering.
Some ideas for limiting the cognitive load on kids include:
Coaching cues are snippets of information from the coach that help individuals to perform a skill. (E.g. “Drive your knee towards the hurdle.”) Too many coaching cues crowding the working memory may result in the child being unable to concentrate on anything that you’re telling them. One coaching cue at a time may be a better strategy. Let them become familiar with that and then move on to the next.
We often want to deliver as much feedback as we can, in as short a time as possible. We want to fix everything at once. We need to be a bit more strategic. Due to limits of the working memory a young person may only be able to effectively focus on one point of feedback at a time. Give the child time and space to process this feedback before adding to your advice.
Due to the limited capacity of the working memory, coaches should be mindful of overloading it with information or activities that don’t contribute to what we are trying to teach. Shield athletes from extraneous information that will vie for valuable learning space. Help them narrow their focus down to hone in on what will be most helpful.
Coaches will often strive to make things interesting and novel for kids. In doing so, we need to take care that our drills, challenges, activities, and games don’t become over-complicated and negatively affect learning. Be aware of how much you are asking the child to process. If you expect a child to remember aspects of a new skill, as well as the rules of a new game, or the route of a fancy new obstacle course, they may not be able to focus on either. Kids will often lose their way because they’re trying to remember the skill and they’re trying to remember the drill. They can’t do both. When you’re introducing skills that the kids are unfamiliar with, you may want to make the initial activity relatively simple. Another strategy may be to first focus on teaching either the skill OR the drill in isolation. You can combine them later on. It’s very enticing to keep things interesting by using fancy activities. There is a time and place for such things. Just make sure that “fancy” is not negatively affecting focus.
Be mindful of the limits of working memory. Practice and eventual “automation” can reduce the burden on working memory. This will “free up space” to learn new information. In the meantime, be restrained in how much you expect beginners to recall.
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Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.