THE STAGES OF LEARNING
If you want to become the best biker you can, we seriously recommend you sign up for one of our Rider Development Courses.
“Of course you’d like us to”, we hear you say, “but it’s a lot of money and I think I’d get just as much from the odd coaching session.” Understandable, but before you click away we’d like to tell you why we think a course is a such a good idea if you truly want to rider better. Coaching, how new skills are acquired and honed and how best to teach them has been the subject of years of study. Our instructors have learnt from the best.
At heart, it’s all a matter of how our brains work …
The first step in mastering any new skill is what coaches call the cognitive or understanding stage of learning. During this first step you develop an understanding of the skill: what it’s for, when it’s used and how it’s achieved. Take something as simple as braking: it may seem obvious that it’s a way to slow down, that we use it to control our speed and we achieve it by applying the brakes. But to master it you need to know much more: the position to adopt for best balance, which brake (or brakes) to use, how hard to apply each brake, how the surface you’re riding affects braking and so on. If you’ve never ridden off road before, there’s no reason for you to know these things. You can only learn by being told or shown what to do. At this stage braking correctly – performing the skill – will require all your attention; you’re in an unfamiliar environment (on a bike, speeding down hill) and you have to think hard about what to do. You’ll rely on your coach for cues (“brake now”, “lean forward”) and he’ll be giving you feedback on every attempt, reinforcing what went right (so you know to do it the next time) or correcting what didn’t. At this stage learning is largely a process of trial and error; you should be pleased if you get it right 2 or 3 times out of 10.
The next stage in learning a new skill is the associative or practice phase. You start to think less about what to do and more about how to do it. You start forming motor programmes, the series of individual muscle movement ‘subroutines’ that constitute a particular skill. These programmes are sometimes called muscle memory , but actually they have nothing to do with your muscle. They’re the patterns of neural activity triggering muscle movement, stored in long term memory and retrieved when you need to perform the skill.
To build these programmes new neural pathways have to be laid down, and that takes repetition and practice. With practice your performances becomes more consistent. The simpler parts of the skill become fluent and are well learned, but the more complex elements still require most of your spare attention. As you form motor programmes, you’ll also start to get more ‘kinaesthetic’ feedback, the sense of where the parts of your body are relative to one another. Whenever you perform the new skill right, this feedback reinforces the motor programme making it easier to get right the next time. You’ll start to detect and correct your own errors; your success rate will be more like 5 to 7 correct attempts out of 10 and you’ll rely less on your coach for feedback.
As an aside, the building of motor programmes is why having a coach is so important. We talked about how you create a new motor programme by repeating the right way, but you can just as quickly form a new motor programme by repeating a wrong way. It’s repetition of the action that forms the programme, not whether the action is right or wrong. Having a coach kick starts the process by making sure that you understand the right way even before your first attempt. Your first attempts aren’t just trials of any old way, but a way that – at least intellectually – you already believe works. You’re not just stumbling around, you already have a good mental model of what to do; it’s just that it’s in your short term, cognitive memory. You can use it, but you have to think about it. The task, then, is to move it into long term ‘muscle’ memory. Your coach’s role in this is – through further instruction and feedback – to make sure you avoid repeating incorrect attempts. Sure, you’ll still make lots of wrong attempts, but if those wrong attempts are wrong in different ways and all your good attempts are the same, it’s the good attempts that reinforce each other. The wrong attempts, all being slightly different, aren’t exact repetitions; they don’t reinforce each other. It’s pretty obvious, but the more correct attempts you can repeat and the more quickly you can do so, the faster you’ll master the skill.
The final stage of learning a new skill is the autonomous phase. Now the new motor programmes involved are well learned, stored in your long-term memory and instantly retrievable. The new skill isn’t really new at all now, it’s as much as part of your repertoire of life skills as walking or picking something up. You don’t have to think about what to do or how to do it, it’s just there and 9 times out of 10 you do it right without any thought at all. Now the ‘thinking part’ of your brain isn’t loaded with what and how to ride, you have the spare cognitive power, spare attention to focus on other things: reading the trail, race tactics, even just enjoying the peace of a ride on a glorious Scottish day!