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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Old dogs and new tricks

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks". With many of us now coaching older adults who either want to learn new skills, or in one case I'm about to start, to revisit long abandoned ones. Research is clear, getting older is no reason not to learn 'new tricks'. We all know it takes a bit longer. There's a couple important ideas, however, that apply not just to older athletes but to coaches of elite athletes. First, anything that has been learned can be unlearned. That's a combination of good teaching and the athlete's desire to get better. Second, it's a judgement call for coaches whether the benefits of a skill done better outweigh the costs of doing so. Many fine athletes defy all the 'rules' of how a skill (closed or open) should be executed: famously, PGA golfer, Jim Furyk. Many world champions have become champions despite their poor form but with a will to win that overcomes other deficiencies. So that's a coaching judgement call - your ability to assess the critical or root cause fault rather than the symptom.

Now to those older athletes. Research shows that when older (50+) athletes) get positive feedback (knowledge of results or KR) after a series of good vs poor trials. They seem to learn better. So no surprise there .... because that's what research tells us about young learners! In other words, good teaching counts whoever you are coaching. My experience tells me the way young athletes learn in the class room (or in some cases struggle to learn) turns up in sports practice. Long term, bad teaching/learning experiences stay with us for years. Older athletes need plenty of reassurance that they can learn ("You're not at school any more!") - it just might take a few more trials and a few more breakdown drills. Example of that research? Clark and co-workers (2016) in a big sample in 2016 found that: "Our study demonstrated that motor learning in older adults benefited from KR as well. Although the 65year-olds in our study tended to be generally less proficient relative to the 21-year-olds in Chiviacowsky and Wulfs (2007) study, the group who was provided KR after good trials demonstrated more effective retention performance than the group who received KR after poor trials." Hmm, time to review how I'm coaching again.😔

(photo source: National Geographic Channel)

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