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Podcast | The Science of Skill Development

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 11/10/16, 5:00PM EST


There's as much a mental side to skill development as physical

Getting better isn’t pretty and isn’t always just about reps. There is as much a mental side to it as a physical aspect and a ‘growth mindset’ that believes in the hard work of improving skills is necessary to do so.

Trevor Ragan started the Train Ugly project to challenge and question everything that we think we know about sports, education, and development. Through this journey he has worked with best-selling authors, Olympic coaches, professional athletes, renowned professors, and thousands of coaches, teachers, students, and players from all over the world. Train Ugly was formed out of curiosity to find out the best ways to approach learning and upgrading development.

His aim is to bridge the gap between what research says and what we actually do for skill development.

“Growth mindset, in a nutshell, is two things. First, it’s helping people believe in their capacity to grow,” said Ragan. “It sounds simple but the research shows that one of the biggest hurdles that we have to jump in order to become a great learner is first to believe that we can actually do that. It’s such a powerful concept that skills are built, not born, and they can be yours if you earn them.”

“It’s impossible to learn something if deep down you don’t think that you can.”

Adopting a growth mindset is believing in yourself that you can put in the work to grow a skill. If you don’t put in the work or challenge yourself, don’t expect results.

“Being good has come from something. It’s easy for us to just adopt the story of ‘oh, they’re a natural’ but that doesn’t do justice to the effort and the process that they’ve gone through to develop that skill.”

Players learn more from doing than listening. Practices often involve standing around and taking instruction. While that is necessary at times, it’s important for players to get as many reps as possible.

“A lot of the things that we do in a traditional practice, we rob players of reps. One strong principle of growth that I think everyone would agree on is you learn by doing, and therefore the more that you do something, the more that you’re going to learn.”

Ragan suggests making reps more game-like to increase their value, therefore making practice time the most significant. The reps a player does should be meaningful and not just go through the motions. That is an important part of the brain’s learning process in itself.

“Learning is a by-product of struggle and challenge. When we take on a challenge and when we struggle, that is how our brain is built to learn and grow.”

By taking yourself outside of your comfort zone, you are challenging yourself to learn new skills and go through unfamiliar experiences.

For example, a player goes to the gym and uses one pound weights instead of whatever weight they would struggle on in the later reps. While the number of actual reps could be the same, the improvement seen and meaningfulness of the reps is different.

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