Monday, February 2, 2004 - Coaching
Learning Styles and Their Application to Teaching Skiing

- By: Lisa J. Patterson

It is believed that we all learn in different ways.  Think back to when you were in school, learned a new hobby, or sat in on a weekend conference.  How did you learn the key concepts or intricacies of a new skill?

Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, developed the “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” in 1983. His belief is that humans have eight different types of intelligence, and therefore eight different pathways in which we learn. These intelligences are:

  • Verbal/Linguistic (word smart)
  • Logical/Mathematical (number/reasoning smart)
  • Visual/Spatial (picture smart)
  • Body/ Kinesthetic (body smart)
  • Musical/Rhythmic (music smart)
  • Interpersonal (people smart)
  • Intrapersonal (self smart)
  • Naturalist (nature smart)
  • How do these apply to ski instruction?  Because everyone learns in diverse ways, we as teachers / coaches / instructors need to take these learning differences into account when teaching.  If we are instructing a group of eight children, they could potentially all learn in different ways.  If this is the case then we need to try to teach the same concept using a variety of methods.

    For example, if you are teaching the “One-Step Double Pole”, you might explain the technique (verbal/linguistic), break the technique into logical steps or progressions (logical/mathematical), you may demonstrate or have the skier follow another skier who does the technique correctly (visual/spatial, interpersonal).  You may need to move the skier’s body parts at the correct time so the skier can feel the correct timing and body actions (body/kinesthetic).  It may be necessary to use a beat or rhythm in order to have the skier grasp the concept of timing, such as:  using 4/4 time (1,2,3,4 &), have the skier double pole four times and on the last & beat, kick back with foot (music/rhythmic).   An explanation, demonstration and then letting the skier, through self-reflection, try to grasp the concept on their own, may be all that is needed (intrapersonal).  Describing the kick of the one step double pole technique to children maybe as easy as getting them to pretend that they are squishing a bug and wiping it off their feet (naturalist).

    Needless to say, we don’t learn in just one way, but rather, we will likely have strengths in a number of these intelligence categories.  As coaches, “The question to ask is…not how smart are [our athletes], but how are they smart?”  If we know how our athletes are smart, then we as coaches will be better prepared to teach them and likely teach them more quickly.

    A more simplistic way of thinking about learning styles, is to break our way of learning into three senses:  auditory (hearing), visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing, feeling).

    Typically one modality is more dominant.  I am much more of a visual and kinesthetic learner than auditory. If I think back to my university days, I could never learn by just listening to a lecture, I always had to write down key points and see these ideas on paper.  Likewise, to learn to spell difficult words or remember unusual names, I need to write the word down or visualize the word or name in my mind.

    A ski related example is when I was refining my classic technique. I had a number of coaches telling me to get more forward lean and more ankle flexion.  I didn’t make drastic improvements until I had a coach place me in the correct position so that my body could feel what correct forward lean was, and feel what angle I needed for proper ankle flexion.  I also had the benefit of watching and then mimicking a very powerful classic skier who did both of these aspects well.

    With these three sensory learning modes in mind, it is crucial that when teaching a ski technique that we follow the basic 4 step teaching methodology to teaching a ski lesson.

    1. Explanation (auditory)
    2. Demonstration (visual)
    3. Practice/Drill (kinesthetic)
    4. Detection and Correction of Errors (auditory, visual, kinesthetic)

    By following this basic teaching methodology, coaches will have a better chance of having a new ski skill grasped quickly by their athletes.  If the skill has still not been digested correctly, then it is necessary to find another way of explaining, showing, doing, or in other words TEACHING, the same skill.  Sometimes it is necessary to come up with five different ways to say the same thing.  The fun in coaching is coming up with a new, creative and successful way to teach a difficult skill or to successfully teach to a difficult learner.

    As coaches, it is paramount that we have good technique, so that we can demonstrate well, and also because children often mimic and copy us without our realizing.  The youngest child in a ski family of 3 or more children, often has better technique at a younger age, or learns proper technique faster, because they have the advantage of having followed and copied their older siblings.

    There are a number of other learning style theories out there besides the “Multiple Intelligences Theory” or the “Sensory Learning Theory”, such as: “Right Brain / Left Brain Cognitive Styles” and “True Colours” to name a few.  Whatever theory you choose to follow, it is significant to understand how we as coaches learn, since we often teach the same way we learn. Likewise, it is good to know how your athletes best learn so that you can cater to their learning styles.

    To find your learning style, complete a simple learning style questionnaire.  They can be found at high school guidance offices, or complete an Internet search using “learning styles” as you key words.  Better yet, take up a new sport, hobby or skill and take note of how you learn.

    Armstrong, Thomas. 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences, New York: Plume, 1993.
    Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic, 1983.
    Butler, Kathleen A.  It’s All In Your Mind:  A Student’s Guide to Learning Styles.  1988.
    Kane, David & Martin.  Right or Left:  Which is the Right Cognitive Style for Quality Teaching?  American Secondary Education.  1990.

    Lisa Patterson is a level 3 coach and former national team skier and schoolteacher.  Her current position with Cross Country BC as Regional Coach focuses on the development of coaches and athletes at the grass roots level.

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