Coaches' Desk:
Brain Study and Learning Technique


Dr. Henry Holcomb, a psychiatrist who heads a Johns Hopkins University group that studies how people remember wrote the following: “It takes the brain about six hours to store in memory a new physical skill, such as riding a bike, playing a piano piece” — or performing FUNdamental dribbling fakes/feints. Furthermore, researchers have found that this memory can be wiped out if the mind’s storage process is interrupted by trying to learn another new skill.


They have shown that time itself is a powerful component of learning — it is not enough to simply practice something. You have to allow time to pass for the brain to encode the new skill.


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By measuring the blood flow patterns in the brain, the scientists determined that it takes five to six hours for the memory of a new skill to move from a temporary storage site in the front of the brain to permanent storage at the back. During those six hours there is a window of vulnerability when memory of the new skill can be easily eroded if the person attempts to learn a second new skill.


“If you were performing a piano piece for the first time and then immediately started practicing something else, then, that will cause problems in retention of the initial piece that you practiced,” he said. “It would be better if the first practice session was followed by five to six hours of routine activity that required no new learning.”


In the Hopkins study, the researchers used a positron emission tomography device, or PET, to individually measure blood flow in the brains of 16 test subjects while they learned a new motor skill. The people were placed into the PET and then taught to manipulate an object on a computer screen by using a motorized robe arm. The test required unusually precise and rapid hand movements that could be learned only through practice. During the learning process, the PET image showed that blood flow was most active in the prefrontal cerebral cortex of the brain.


After the learning session, the test subjects were allowed to do unrelated routine things for five to six hours and were then rested. When operating the robot arm this time the blood flow was most active in the posterior parietal and cerebella areas, said Holcomb.


“This shift in the brain is necessary to render the memory invulnerable and permanent,” he said. “What we see is the consolidation of the memory.” It is such a consolidation, said Holcomb, that allows a person never to forget some skills — such as riding a bike, swimming or FUNdamental soccer techniques — that were learned as a child.


This brings us to our consolidating ‘Serve’ environment, which was developed for CYSA coaches solely to make teaching technique easier for coaches and permanent for the players. Here is another perspective for you to consider:


First off I want to thank you, Rod Gilchrist, for a great coaching course. I really learned a lot and have been successfully using many aspects of the ‘9-Step Practice Routine’ that I was not successful with last year, including "the Serve". Your fresh perspective on it helped me to take another look and give it another try, and I think I am already seeing results from all of the extra touches the girls are getting.


Again, thanks for all of your help. Coach Dan S.


“The e-mail above reflects an issue a lot of candidates expressed at my last "E" course,” wrote Rod Gilchrist, CYSA Staff Instructor, “Where they struggled to get the kids to "buy in" to the serve. I've sensed this was an issue for quite some time, but this was the first time that candidates had articulated it to me. What challenged them as coaches was to get the kids to do a "perfect" serve right from the beginning.


“As a solution, my approach has been to cover all the potential technical aspects that can be put into ‘the Serve’, and emphasize that they incrementally build these into the kids' routine, as their technique develops over time. I was a little dismayed that the coaches were not aware that a minimum of 12 different attacking and six defending techniques, are practiced/repeated every time players go through ‘the Serve’ properly.


“There's too much to think about (humans have a finite amount of "working memory") in the beginning to expect a "perfect" serve. With repetition we internalize the components we practice, then free up more memory to add an additional task to the repertoire.


“I emphasize to my candidates to, in the beginning, just get the kids running in some kind of server/receiver routine and quickly get to what kids want: playing 1v1.


“I also suggest that when introducing the serve/1+1/1v1, that the first time around, skip the 1+1. Go straight to competition so the kids are having fun, working to solve their own problems, and giving the coach the opportunity to OBSERVE and see what each player's strengths and weaknesses are.


“Then, at the next practice, we can logically introduce 1+1 for the kids to work on a technical/tactical aspect, and the kids know that the fun (1v1) is just a few minutes away.”


Had the Johns Hopkins University group studied soccer technique training they may come to the following Consolidating Conclusions:

  • If you were performing ‘the Serve’ for the first time and then immediately started practicing something else, then that will cause problems in retention of the initial techniques that you practiced.
  • It would be better if the first ‘Serve’ was followed by five to six hours of ‘Serves’ that required no new learning besides the 12 attacking and six defending techniques that are inherent in ‘the Serve.
  • The players were glad to practice their techniques in the cooperative (1+1) and ‘Serve’ environment. Knowing that the competitive (1v1) FUN games were just a few minutes away.


Send your comments on this ‘theme’ to Karl Dewazien at cysanorth@comcast.net.