As we reflect on the wonderful Winter Olympics, we are reminded of the pressures and joys of elite sport and how everything can hinge on one hundredth of a second or the angle of a ski edge. While marginal gains in Pyeong Chang might have come from brilliantly-designed helmets and Kevlar suits, other sports are looking to learning to gain the upper hand. The more we know about physiology, psychology, nutrition, materials science, bio-mechanics and beyond, the more complex it all becomes. And the more complex things are, then the more surprises crop up. Athletes need to be able to harness deep understandings and to use them rapidly to make good decisions in the face of the unexpected. And that’s where elite learning comes in.
As our understanding of the neuroscience and social complexity of learning grows (read more here), it enables us to improve learning, to make it more engaging, with problems solved quicker and better. People need to want to learn and to be excited by applying their learning – fortunately, we know how to make this happen: light, temperature, humidity and noise all have an impact (read more here). Movement improves cognitive function, ownership and collegiality matter, the cues and clues of a social moment during learning helps our brains to retrieve understanding rapidly, the role of our coach, the way a space can help us see the different learning tasks on offer, an environment that enables collaboration, peer-to-peer learning and reflection, physically touching objects, and so much more. The aggregation of so many small details add up to substantial gains on the field of play. Better learning helps win medals and tournaments.
Learning has been one of the few areas untapped by elite sports’ search for marginal gains, but this is changing. As we understand more about ‘better learning’ the sports world is starting to take note. And if it’s better learning you’re after, there’s really only one person to call.
When the GB Hockey team called Professor Stephen Heppell he visited what they had identified as their ‘learning space’. What he found was not what springs to mind when we imagine elite Olympic athletes, carrying the hopes of a nation on their shoulders. The GB Hockey learning space is a cabin located on their Bisham Abbey training ground. It was a cluttered, dark space with wedding-venue chairs, a pull-down projector screen and a shopping trolley acting as a storage unit for kit. An effective space in which to fine-tune tactics and strategy for international-level sports it was not. Athletes didn’t want to use it at all. Stephen observed, discussed, planned, and then called long-standing collaborators Spaceoasis with his ideas. Together we transformed the space.
The GB Hockey coach, Danny Kerry, had adapted a Subbuteo set to enable the team to act out scenarios. We scaled this up, putting a 1/10th scale pitch (in blue, like a real hockey pitch) on the floor and designing acrylic figures the athletes can move around to help visualise, debate and refine their set pieces and strategies. Doing helps embed what they are learning.
Tiered seating was installed so the team can sit together as one, close to the action, rather than feeling isolated on separate and distant chairs. For the coach drawing everyone into the learning is simple and immediate and the huge writeable walls help that too.
Table Top Hockey
As well as the pitch on the floor, we also designed special graphics for our Bite mobile tables with writable LearningSurface tops; a scaled down blue hockey pitch on the table’s surface that can be written on with a suspended chalk pen. This enables athletes to sit alone or together and sketch out plays. Because they are physically writing and drawing the moves, working collaboratively, it further helps embed the learning.
The Big Screen
A large wall-mounted flat-screen TV is linked to the aerial cameras that record training sessions so, while sitting comfortably on the tiered seating, everyone has a clear view of the recordings so they can review their play. Technology has much to offer learning and this is a good example of how to harness it to good effect. And compared to the dull old projector, the bright screens mean learning happens in the best light, not in the gloom behind brain-deadening blinds.
The original hut was dark and cluttered. The microtechnology in Dulux Light and Space paint along with light-coloured flooring enables light to bounce off the hard surfaces making it a bright, welcoming, effective learning space.
Motivation is crucial when it comes to learning. Reminding learners, elite athletes included, of prior achievements reinforces the reason you’re there and why you’re working so hard. Digital wall-mounted photo frames share pictures of past success alongside the current team too. Membership and us-ness really matter.
“Scholars of the game”
The refurbished hut (known as The Cabin) has proved a highly effective learning environment with players and coaches saying that “time off the pitch is no longer wasted”. As reported in the Daily Telegraph on 2nd February 2018, when Eddie Jones, the England Rugby team coach and an eclectic seeker of effective ideas, came to see what The Cabin was all about he immediately saw the potential of Kerry’s innovative approach to coaching. And he saw the results.
Extract from Daily Telegraph article “Hockey guru inspires England’s shot at history” February 2nd 2018
‘..underpinning his philosophy is a simple tenet. Kerry wants to make his athletes ’scholars of the game’. “It’s the concept of peer-to-peer learning rather than you as the font of all knowledge, a didactic approach.”
It is here that the Cabin comes in. A 10m x 4m shed by the side of a hockey pitch at Bisham Abbey, Kerry is delighted with the impact it has had since undergoing a makeover last year which was overseen by educationist Professor Stephen Heppell. It now features everything from optimised lighting and heating levels to that Subbuteo pitch. It seems Jones was impressed too. “Five minutes after he left I got an email from his PA asking if we could send over Stephen’s details and the company who built our cabin,” he says.
Simon Hick, Managing Director of Spaceoasis commented;
“What this project shows is how effectively learning can be enhanced when you carefully consider the environment. We talk a lot about form following function and this unique space is designed to enable exactly what the athletes need to do in the space; learn from each other, learn in a physical way and in an environment that shows they are valued and celebrates their achievements.”
Professor Stephen Heppell concludes;
“When an idea propagates in a viral way, you know it’s a good one! For me it is unthinkable that any serious sports nation would be without a major learning strand, properly funded to support their elite athletes. Our competitors need to be able to cope with the unexpected, when everything they didn’t anticipate gets thrown at them. When they are under pressure the only way to prepare is through elite-level learning. This stuff works!”