Let ‘em figure it out: A new approach to coaching and teaching
We’re constantly looking for ways to improve performance in ourselves and others – on the field, in the classroom, at work, at home. It’s characteristic of a culture such as ours centered on success and efficiency.
But new research suggests you may have it all wrong. As it turns out, when trying to get better at something, teaching people what to do – that is, the physical movements of the task – is less effective than teaching them how to picture the outcome. For instance, a baseball player will be more likely to get to the right spot to catch a fly ball when asked to picture the path of the ball rather than when taught how best to run or move his body towards it. A dancer may find it easier to learn a complex routine by following a mental picture of what a graceful dance feels like rather than obsession on the technical movements. A drawer will create a more accurate picture when someone describes the image rather than describes what movements to make with the pen. In fact, in one study, the drawings where participants were simply told what the image looked like were almost as accurate as those in which participants copied the image directly.
There is a physiological explanation here: in order to draw, dance, or catch effectively, lots of different muscle groups are required to fire, often against each other, when performing the task. It’s nearly impossible to instruct your body to perform each minor movement, but creating a picture in our minds of the desired outcome – the precise drawing, the elegant dance, the secure catch – gets around that.
There are a number of ways to interpret a theory like this (called the perceptual control theory) as it relates to the teaching and coaching of those seeking high performance. Many of us tend to approach instruction – that is, guiding someone how to hit a golf ball, throw a Frisbee, be a respectful member of a family – a similar way: There’s a right way of doing something, so therefore I must teach them precisely how to do it that way. According to the perceptual control theory, however, it’s not necessarily important to teach people how to do something, but have them picture the outcome and, assuming they have at least a general understanding of the task, let them fill in the blanks.
How often do we leave someone to fill in the blanks, particularly those we care about, when teaching them to master a task? Many of us hold on with even more feverish tightness to the people and things we love; it’s hard for us to let a loved one attempt something when we know there’s a strong likelihood of failure. Well-intentioned parents and coaches may claim they need to show a child the way, the right way, or else she’ll be left floundering, embarrassed and, eventually, without motivation.
Although often, it’s the very act of allowing someone to figure it out on their own – to flounder, to struggle, to question, to adjust – that’s most empowering for them and builds the strongest self-reliance. Among the most basic psychological needs that must be met for a person to feel motivated are:
- competence (“I feel like I’m pretty good at this, and that I can get even better”)
- relatedness (“I feel like I’m part of a loving, caring, and supportive team / family / community”), and
- autonomy (“I feel like I’ve got some voice in matters that relate to me, that I can make my own decisions and not be led along without any say of my own”)
Giving people, particularly children, creative leeway to make decisions and figure things out on their own not only satisfies a major psychological need that fuels motivation, it may even lead to enhanced performance. The product of heavy adult involvement and intense instruction isn’t always pleasant; some athletes who have been very closely guided in their technical movements become rigid on the field of play, for instance, and have difficulty deviating from their memorized movements. And when things go poorly, they’re often ill-equipped to figure stuff out on their own; after all, they haven’t much practice doing that.
Ultimately, there’s rarely simply ONE right way to do anything – cook a steak, hit a tennis ball, shoot a free throw, stretch your hamstrings. In your own teachings, see if you can help create a mental picture of whatever you’re hoping to achieve, and give your student or child the space to put some of the pieces together, however disjointed or misaligned those pieces might seem at first.