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Stages of Learning

As a coach and teacher, one of the biggest struggles is differentiating instruction for students or athletes who are different stages of their developmental process. If you have a group of players who are the same age but drastically different in their competency, how do you make sure everyone has the same chance of improving? Do you separate them into groups based on ability? Do you keep everyone together and give different types of frequency of feedback to each player? There are a lot of questions to be answered but before even thinking about your topic, you have to be aware of what stage of learning each athlete is in. In this blog, we will discuss the three stages of learning and how to teach each stage so that everyone has an equal opportunity to be successful. 


Cognitive Stage of Learning - Beginner

Description: Athletes are at the beginning stages of their development and perform slow, jerky, uncoordinated movements while having to pay attention to every detail of their performance. 

Major Questions to Teach: Convey a General Concept of a skill

  • What do you have to do? 

  • How to do it? 

  • What is most important to know? 

How to Teach Players at this Stage: 

  • Provide ample opportunities for the player to explore their movements

  • Use short verbal cues

  • Bad Example for this stage: “Turn your foot at 45 degree angle and put your plant foot 2 inches away from the ball”

  • Good example for this stage: “Point your kicking toe towards me”

  • Use as many visual aids as possible. A lot of athletes are kinesthetic and visual learners who thrive when they are able to see themselves or someone else correctly performing the skill. 

  • Examples: Give demonstrations while explaining, video players and critique their movements, encourage players to practice in front of a mirror. 

  • Encourage Self-Talk

  • Example, when teaching a soccer player a scissor move, having them say the steps or the skill (right foot around, get low, outside left foot touch) while practicing can help the player remember the components. 

Associative Stage of Learning – Intermediate 

Description: Players are more consistent and fluent in their performance. They are beginning to recognize how skill movements must change based on the environment or situation around them. Also, they are able to monitor themselves by utilizing their own internal feedback.

Major Questions to Teach:

  • How do you put your thoughts into action?

  • How do you improve the timing and rhythm or each part of the skill?

  • How do you add direction, speed, and angles to your skill?

How to Teach Players at this Stage:

  • Integrate different sources of sensory information.

  • For example: While working on turning off a pass, have players practice in various environments such as checking their shoulder (visual cue), having their teammates saying, “Man on” or “Turn” (verbal cue), or feeling where a defender is on their back (tactile cue). 

  • Players will also have to manipulate the ball in different directions with different weights which will help progress them into refining their skills rather than just learning them. 

  • Organize practices with conditioned games that stress the importance of handling different environments. 

  • For example, when working on turning off a pass, your game could have restrictions such as “every pass has to be forward”. This would force players to have to use the different types of verbal, visual, and tactile cues in order to be successful. 

 Autonomous Stage of Learning - Advanced

Description: Players at this stage have excellent timing control and are able to coordinate their whole body in fluid motions. Their skill performances are very consistent with little to no variation between repetitions. 

Major Questions to Teach:

  • How do they effectively make adjustments to various game situations automatically? 

  • How can they self-evaluate their own skill performance and make adjustments?

How to Teacher Players at this Stage:

  • Focus more on strategy than the skill development

  • Example: “Why did you play that pass with the inside of your foot rather than the outside?”

  • Work on mental preparation and attentional focus

  • Example: “Constantly be aware of your surroundings and think about what you want to do with the ball before it comes to you”

  • Use Mental Imagery. Imagine the play happening before it actually does and evaluate the pros and cons of your potential choice in seconds. 

  • Motivate, Support, and Encourage Diversity

  • Example: If a player has different shooting technique then you normally teach and their technique is successful, there is no reason to change it. 

A lot of coaches I have observed try to cram so much information into one session and then they ask players what they learned. More times than not you will get a lot of different answers. For me, a successful training session is when parents ask their child what they learned in practice today and they all are able to describe the same thing based on their learning stage. For example, if I am conducting a session with four, 14-year-old players at various learning stages I would expect them to tell their parents about the same general concept but have differing details. The player at the cognitive stage might say, “I learned how to pass the ball using the inside of my foot. Coach told me that I was not getting my plant foot close enough to the ball which is why my passes are always going in the air”. The player at the associative stage might say, “We worked on passing with the inside of the foot and coach was showing me the different times I should use a 2-touch or a 1-touch pass during the game. Both these players received the same session, but the main difference came in my feedback. 


Coaches have to realize there is no one size fits all approach to development. You have to constantly evaluate what stage of learning your players are at while constantly evaluating your coaching approach based off those stages. Without this evaluation and adjustment, lower level players will improve while higher level players will get bored and stay stagnant or vice versa. I know it may seem like there is not enough time to individually talk to every player but if you are serious about each players development and helping them reach their varying potentials you will modify your sessions so that every player, regardless of their learning stage, is accommodated and given the best chance to improve. 


Thanks for reading,

Mike Matera




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