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Coaching Multiple Learning Styles

As a coach, have you ever wondered why some athletes immediately “get” a new drill while it takes others longer to pick it up? Most coaches need to work with large groups of individuals, all bringing their own experiences to the field and all with their own learning styles. This can make it challenging to find the best way to present new information to your athletes because everyone learns differently.


The Theory of Multiple Intelligences was developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor. He espoused the idea that people don’t have just one type of intelligence, but rather a combination of several and exhibit characteristics that are stronger in some areas more than others. The idea here is to understand that people process information differently. A teacher in the classroom or a coach on the field may find that presenting information in only one modality may miss some students or athletes.


These intelligences are not learning styles as they have come to be known in education circles, but rather can provide a framework for presenting information in ways that best meet the strengths of your athletes.


Dr. Gardner’s original list included seven types of intelligence:


Visual-Spatial Intelligence (picture smart)- People strong in this area think in terms of physical space. They are very aware of their environment. These athletes may learn best with models, charts, graphs, pictures, etc.

Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence (body smart)- People exhibiting this strength can use their body effectively. They have a keen sense of body awareness and like to move and touch. These athletes prefer hands-on learning, role playing, sports games, and dancing. Most of your athletes will demonstrate strength in this area.

Musical Intelligence (music smart)- People with musical intelligence display a sensitivity to rhythm, sound, and love music. These are your musicians and singers, always humming or whistling, tapping out patterns and playing with sounds.

Interpersonal Intelligence (people smart)- People in this category are social and enjoy interactions. They understand people and relationships and enjoy group interaction and collaborative efforts.

Intrapersonal Intelligence (self-smart)- People who are self-smart have a good understanding of themselves and their own interests and goals. These athletes are good at self-reflection and learn well through books and journal writing.

Linguistic Intelligence (word smart)- People strong in this area like activities that involve listening. They like word games, tongue twisters, oral or silent reading, creative writing, and spelling. Writing stories or poetry is a strength, as well as using computers and other multimedia tools.

Logical/Mathematical Intelligence (number smart)- People with number smarts can think conceptually and abstractly. They like patterns and relationships, experiments and solving puzzles, formulas, and problem-solving activities.

Naturalistic Intelligence (nature smart)-. This was added in 1995 to the original list of seven intelligences. People exhibiting this type of intelligence are comfortable in nature and its surroundings. They love animals, the outdoors, and all living things. These are your hunters, farmers, and park rangers, to name a few.


Before you begin to try and implement these intelligence styles into your coaching, it may be helpful to identify your own personal intelligence strengths. People tend to choose a modality and coach in a style that is familiar to them and highlights their strengths. Being aware of other ways to present information may help you to be more effective and reach those athletes who don’t seem to grasp concepts initially.


How can you implement these concepts into your coaching? Introducing a new drill to your athletes might looks something like this:


  • Using a whiteboard to illustrate the plan (Visual-Spatial Intelligence)

  • Having the athletes actually move through the drill (Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence)

  • Using rhythm to tap out a set of steps in a skill move (Musical Intelligence)

  • The nature of team practice itself being a collaborative, team effort (Interpersonal Intelligence)

  • Post-game or post-practice discussion where athletes reflect on the event (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

  • Adding key words or cues to the diagram (Linguistic Intelligence)

  • Explaining the overall concept of a drill or strategy before trying to execute it (Logical/Mathematical Intelligence)


So, what would this look like to a soccer coach teaching his/her team the shoulder drop drill which can be used when approaching defenders? This drill involves a player dribbling towards a defender. On approaching a defender, the player pretends to take the ball with the outside of their foot stepping to one side while dropping their shoulder. The player then takes the ball with the outside of the opposite foot, pushing off in the opposite direction, accelerating away from the defender. The key is to know when to make the move: too close and the defender can steal the ball, too far away and the defender has time to react.


  • Visual-use a whiteboard to draw out the skill.

  • Bodily/Kinesthetic-having the players walk through the drill.

  • Musical-clapping or counting out the rhythm of the drill so players know when to drop the shoulder and make the move while dribbling.

  • Interpersonal-Some players act as defenders while another player tries to evade them while practicing the shoulder drop drill in practice.

  • Intrapersonal-quick post drill discussion on how the execution of the drill went, what was learned, etc. There are many possibilities for discussion or the recap of a drill.

  • Linguistic- label the white board with key words/phrases.

  • Logical/Mathematical-explaining the concept of the drill while drawing and labeling on the white board before the players practice it.


Athletes, especially younger ones, may be unaware of their strengths in these areas. In addition, people can be show strength in multiple areas of intelligence so by incorporating just a few of techniques with your athletes during practice, you may find it easier to engage your athletes more quickly when presenting new information. Coaches who can adjust their coaching style to meet their athlete’s needs will be more effective in the long run.

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