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  • While the panel on the left describes the mechanism behind how we learn, this can be dramatically affected by our attitude - to learning and to life in general.

    There is an increasing body of knowledge that lifelong learning is the key to a successful and rewarding life. Yet the ability to learn new skills seems to be something that many of us grow out of!

    So why does this happen? While we are learning new things, we are constantly putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone. In many Western cultures, as we get older we seem to seek out situations that are inside our comfort zone. Becoming an "elder" seems to be built around impressing others with what we can do and how much we know. It isn't about what we don't know or aren't particularly good at. In fact, admitting that we aren't very good at something (or have made a mistake) is seen as a sign of weakness. As we stay well inside our comfort zone we stop, or even, avoid learning opportunities. It takes courage to put ourselves out there and expose our vulnerabilities - it can be hard to shine a light on the things that we aren't good at or don't know how to do. Sure it is going to be uncomfortable. It can knock your confidence in the short term. But we need to face up to these feelings and acknowledge that this is just part of the learning process. It is the first step into a new world.

    Do this and from here on in it gets easier. All we need to do is keep pushing. We need to keep learning. We need to learn to accept the feelings that come with being a beginner or a novice. Whether that is embarrassment, lack of confidence, success or just out and out frustration. Encompass these feelings, recognise them for what they are and learn from them. You'll find it rewarding.

    Even now, no matter how well (or badly) I perform, I think of myself as a LEARNER. I'll never stop being a LEARNER.

    Ironically, I find this an effective method for dealing with stressful situations in competitions - when the pressure is really on, I often find myself saying "What am I learning here today?" I find this re-focusses my attention on the process rather than the outcome - a key theme we'll discuss more later.

  • Have you ever watched a professional playing sports and thought how effortless they make it look? Ever tried it for yourself, only to find that it is 100 times harder than they make it look!

    The truth is that they will have spent thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours, of practice to make it look that effortless - it takes an awful lot of practice to make it look that easy!

    So how do we learn these skills?

  • How we learn

    When we start to learn any sport, we are shown how to hold the bat/club/racket; where are feet should be positioned; how to move from one spot to another; where to look at the ball; how to get our timing right. At first, we are all fingers and thumbs. Nothing feels right and our movements don't flow. There is a lot to take in and it is difficult to get it all right simultaneously - you might get the racket hold right, but then forget about your feet or forget to watch the ball.

    But with practice, our performance starts to improve - our movements start to feel more natural and our actions start to flow. OK, so we still have a long way to go - we aren't going to win any tournaments just yet - but we are making progress. We are starting to learn. So what's going on here?

    To conserve energy, our brain automates tasks that we do repetitively. Take breathing, for example, this is something that (hopefully!) we do repetitively. Our brains have automated this process and it is something that we only become aware of by exception. This automation ability is performed by the "sub-conscious" part of our brains. It is referred to as the "sub-conscious" as it is a part of our cognitive performance that we aren't aware of - it happens without us having to think about it. This capability extends beyond just supporting basic functions such as breathing and can be used to automate relatively complex tasks such as hitting a tennis ball, signing our name, or driving a car.

    However, when we begin learning a sport, we start out using our "thinking" brain. This is the part of your brain that allows you to maintain complex thoughts and ideas. Think about your favourite holiday, your brother's surprise birthday party next week or calculate 4 times 8 - all of this will be completed using the "thinking" part of our brains. This is all good news. It is what fundamentally separates humans from other species. However, there is one big drawback with out "thinking" brain - you can only think about ONE thing at a time (later on, we will use this drawback top help us focus).

    When we are trying to hit a golf ball, kick a rugby ball or hit a moving target with a shotgun - this requires a complex set of multiple body movements timed to perfection. With our "thinking" brain limited to one thought at a time, we often struggle to get the movements to flow - we can only think about one thing at a time - either our hands, or our feet position, or our upper body movement - we are going to struggle to get them all right at the same time.

    This is where the "sub-conscious" comes into play. The good news is that your sub-conscious allows you to control a large number of movements simultaneously - maybe tens or even hundreds of individual movements all at the same time. This is an incredibly powerful ability and is frequently underestimated purely because we aren't necessarily aware of it in action.

    Don't believe me? Sign your name. That's your sub-conscious part of brain controlling the pen. If you start thinking about the movement of the pen (is it going up? Down? Sideways? Is the speed varying?) and you will find that your signature suffers as a consequence. That is because the "thinking" part of your brain is now interfering with your "sub-conscious" performance.

    So how is this relevant to how we learn a sport? When we practice, we start out by using the "thinking" part of our brain and through practice transfer this performance to the "sub-conscious" part of our brain. Through the automation process, we are transferring these actions from our "thinking" brain into our "sub conscious".

    This is why our professional makes playing the sport look so easy - they have practised it to a point where the brain has automated the skill and it is part of the "sub-conscious" performance. So how can we make this learning (or automation) process as efficient as possible?

Further information


There are a number of websites online that can provide more detailed information. I have included a list for you to use as a starting point.


You'll find an extensive list of books included on the Further Info pages. They are all readily available on Amazon.


There are some great TED talks available that cover many of the areas discussed on this website. I have included links to many of them on the Further Info pages.