Creating an optimal learning environment is not something that happens by chance. There are some fundamental founding principles to follow and a formula that can be applied.
Let’s start with the most fundamental of all – motivation. A leaner has to be motivated to learn. In psychology, motivation is often known as the ‘why of behaviour’. It helps to explain why we do the things we do and even why we don’t do the things we should do. There is a reason behind our decisions and our actions, which all stems from our motivation.
Why does a soccer player get out of bed at 6am on a cold, wet Tuesday in December to drive all the way to the training ground and run and kick a ball around for 2 hours? Why do they then have a bite of breakfast before doing a strength & conditioning session, followed by physio, a bite of lunch, a meeting with the coach and back on the field for another 2 hours? What’s it all in aid of? Why do they do all this 6-7 days a week for years on end?
The answer is perfectly simple – it’s all in pursuit of an trophy or league winners. That’s what motivates them. That’s their reason.
Our motivation to do something can come in all sorts of forms. Sometimes we are motivated to avoid things we don’t want. Sometimes we are motivated towards something we do want. It’s true that some athletes are motivated as much by the fear of failing in competition (and looking foolish) as they are by the excitement of competing. People are often motivated to impress others, or to ensure they don’t let someone down. I see a lot of coaches and parents telling their athletes’ things like “this competition is a great opportunity” and “if you can’t motivate yourself for this, what will motivate you?”
The problem is that in these situations, a coach is trying to impose their reason on the athlete. Motivation has to come from within. The reason for doing something can’t come from someone else; it has to be your own reason. There is a huge difference between the strength and the durability of motivation that is intrinsic (i.e. genuinely comes from within) and external motivation. For example, if I am motivated to lose weight so that other people will be impressed, that motivation will evaporate if I lose some weight and no-one notices. Eventually I will think, “What’s the point?” My reason for losing the weight no longer exists. However, if I wanted to lose the weight so that I felt good and could improve my performance, I’ll continue to have a reason whether anyone else notices or not.
Motivation is absolutely dependent on having a compelling reason. It has to come from within. It really is very simple – YOU HAVE TO REALLY WANT IT. You can’t make yourself want something because someone else wants you to have it. You will never be truly motivated by the need to please other people. Your motivation has to be genuine and has to come from within.
Street Soccer fosters intrinsic motivation by engaging players through the joy of playing. This is largely done simply by creating an environment that is enjoyable and allows players to express themselves.
However, there is another key part of the formula that needs to be recognised. Motivation is underpinned by confidence. We all know this from our own experience. We tend to be motivated to do things which we are confident about. If we are confident in our own abilities to complete a task, we’ll be motivated to do it. As human beings we enjoy being successful, so we are often motivated to do things where we know we can display mastery. In short, we like doing things we’re good at, so we tend to do more of them.
Street Soccer coaching builds confidence in players by creating a ‘threat free’ environment in which players are allowed to play and experiment without the possibility of ‘failure’. Threat reduces our ability to learn because it narrows our perceptual field. When we’re under threat we usually experience a form of tunnel vision. In contrast, challenge and stimulation enhances learning by widening our perceptual field. This narrowing and widening happens because threat and challenge cause changes in a part of our brain known as the hippocampus.
The learning environment in Street Soccer is based on coaching that is free of judgement. Coaches allow players to experiment and discover a solution that works for them. In this context there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of performing a skill, just a variety of possible solutions. In Street Soccer coaching there is no ‘perfect model’. The most effective way of producing a skill for one person will be different for another. Even the way each player kicks a ball will be individual. Every player’s body is different, they have different sized feet, their limbs are different lengths, their weight is distributed differently, their muscles are different sizes and strengths and their centre of gravity is located in a different place in their body. So, how would it make sense to get every player to try to conform to a textbook model?
Added to this, every player has a unique neurological system. The neural networks in our brain and our nervous system are created from the moment we start moving (even before we are born). As we move we start to build up networks by linking neurons so that we can produce movement patterns. We can see vast differences in the way that babies move. Babies may have only been moving and creating networks for a year or so. Imagine how different the neurological systems of 2 eight years olds will be. So, why would it make sense to make 2 very different eight year olds kick a ball the same way?
In Street Soccer coaching, the freedom to experiment and find your own way is delivered through the most powerful learning vehicle known to man – play!
There is a very good reason that almost every creature on earth learns through play. Lion cubs learn how to hunt and survive through play, as do Dolphins and Orca. Play is the medium though which we learn fastest and most effectively. The learning we receive during play is not ‘bolted on’ it is deeply learned and becomes part of us. This type of learning has been termed ‘genuine learning’ by psychologists.
Play has been defined as “A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective”. Play in its most genuine sense is not there as a means of learning. It just so happens that learning is an almost inevitable consequence. In fact, play creates the conditions necessary for whole brain learning. Three of major ingredients for whole brain learning are ‘immersion in the activity’, ‘a state of relaxed alertness’ and ‘stimulation’ (active processing of information). These occur naturally when we play and perhaps go some way to explaining why we learn so effectively during play.
However, learning is not the only benefit we gain from playing. Play is inextricably linked to creativity. Many multi-billion pound businesses such as Google use this principle at the core of their creative process. They know that when their people are free to play with ideas, they become creative. When we are free to play and express ourselves, we become creative. When we are engaged in an activity for the simple pleasure of doing it, we will often experiment, try things differently and explore. We use our imagination to help us find new possibilities. This process leads us to finding creative solutions. When we have a trusted environment where there is no judgement or fear of failure, we tend to be more willing to give things a go and see what happens. The more boundaries we have, the less experimentation we tend to do. If you’ve ever watched young children opening gifts at Christmas, you’ll have noticed how much more interesting the box is to them than the gift inside it. Although it seems ironic to adults, to a child the box is far more interesting. Normally the toy does a few interesting things, but it has a fairly small number of possibilities. The box on the other hand has a vast number of possibilities. A box is a house, a boat, a cave, a hide-out, a store, etc etc etc. When you’re inside the box your world is a little different. With the box on top of you the world sounds different, looks different and probably smells different. The box becomes fascinating because it has endless possibilities. It engages our natural curiosity and our imagination starts to give it different meanings. When these phenomena coincide, our natural creative juices flow.
As we play, we try more things. As we try more things, we develop more neural connections. More networks, connections and links in our brain equals more intelligence. This is as true with ‘movement intelligence’ as it is for intellect. With more neural connections and more intelligence, we and our brains are able to adapt to novel situations more effectively.