Dianne C. Jones, Ed.D.
Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Coaching
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
116 Williams Center
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Whitewater, Wisconsin 53190
262-472-3221 (FAX)
Email: jonesd@uww.edu

As coaches, we all have preferred teaching styles that may or may not match the learning styles of our athletes. In fact, we may not even know the learning styles of our athletes. As a result of our ignorance about the learning needs of our athletes, as well as our inability to communicate in a manner that they can comprehend, we may not be providing all athletes with the fullest opportunity to learn and -- equally important -- perform.

The way the coach presents information and feedback impacts the athletes' ability to understand new concepts and acquire new skills and techniques. As such, a key effectiveness strategy for coaches who wish to create a learning relationship that accelerates learning in the athletic domain is to gain a greater understanding of their athletes' learning styles.

Learning styles are the unique way in which each individual begins to concentrate on, process and retain new and difficult information (Dunn, 1984). The objective for the coach, therefore, is to help each athlete capitalize on his/her learning strengths. When instructional strategies match individual learning styles coaches and athletes have indicated improvement in academic and athletic performance as well as enhanced self-esteem (Brunner & Hill, 1992).

In addition there is improved communication and increased understanding of individual differences for the coach. However, in order to accomplish this, the coach must first know the preferred learning styles of his or her athletes so they can align the learning needs of their athletes with the learning objectives in the athletic domain.

Coaches should be aware that most people teach using their preferred mode of learning with little regard for the needs of the learner (Dunn et. all, 1989). Coaches, like teachers, also have a preferred style of instruction, -- a style which may or may not meet the needs of the learner (Pettigrew & Heikkinen, 1985). Many coaches end up teaching based on their experience as athletes.

For many coaches, that means that they were taught by the "sage on the stage" method. The embodiment of this style is the coach who lectured at his/her athletes for the entire practice as if the athletes were merely empty vessels just waiting to be filled up with new knowledge! The irony is, however, that while we use this style the most, lecturing ranks among the least effective strategies for learning and retaining new information!

In society most individuals' preferred learning style is the visual learning style (65%), followed by auditory (30%) and tactile/kinesthetic (5%) (Mind Tools, 2002). Since athletes are students, too, at first blush you would think that their learning style preferences would mirror those of the general population.

However, when the author had her coaching education students, the majority of whom are former high school athletes, complete the Barsch Learning Style Inventory (Literacy Partners of Manitoba, 2002A), the results indicated the following:

Visual 65% 58% 357
Auditory 30% 24% 147
Kinesthetic 5% 18% 109

Individuals have a "most" and "least" preferred mode for learning and each mode has its own strengths and weaknesses. All learners show some combination and degree of all three styles, but one or two styles typically dominate their approach to learning. As such, two athletes may have experienced identical learning experiences and yet one benefits from the experience and one doesn't in terms of translating that learning into performance enhancement. Therefore, the coach needs to be aware that "One learning style does not fit all!"

The visual learner relies on seeing and prefers using written information, notes, diagrams, and charts. The auditory learner, on the other hand, relies on the spoken word and comprehends information by hearing and reading out loud. The kinesthetic learner relies on activities and learns through touching, doing, and 'feeling' the learning. (Literacy Partners of Manitoba, 2002B).

All coaches can use learning style information to enhance their athletes'/teams' performance. According to Coker, (1994) there are five procedures that will help the coach enhance the learning of his or her athletes.

  • First, know your learning style because coaches tend to teach using their preferred learning style rather than the athlete's.
  • Second, know your athletes' learning style.
  • Third, initially use an integrated/eclectic approach to teaching in the athletic domain and then adapt your teaching style to the individual learners.
  • Fourth, create cue words to use with the athletes.
  • Fifth, create coaching strategies and incorporate cue words and instructional strategies.

Finally, remember that the same teaching strategy will not necessarily have the same degree of effectiveness with all athletes.

So how do you use learning styles in coaching? In order to facilitate the learning styles of athletes the coach should first consider the integrated or eclectic approach to presenting information. In other words, present information by incorporating the visual, verbal and kinesthetic approach.

Another strategy is to have your athletes complete a learning styles inventory so that you can more closely match your teaching style to their preferred learning style. Several inventories are available on-line so that practice time does not need to be spent on the activity (Literacy Partners of Manitoba: Barsch Learning Style Inventory 2002A; Soloman & Felder, 1999A).

Formal testing is one of the best ways to determine the dominant learner style of your athletes. A second method to ascertain learning styles is through observation. Specifically, observe what the athlete focuses on and know their tendencies (Coker, 1994). For example, a comment from an athlete to a coach to "show me" would indicate a preference for visual style of learning.

Also, listen to the learners' questions; "I don't feel it" would indicate a kinesthetic style. Finally, listen to the descriptive words the learner uses. For example, "I see", would suggest a visual learner. It is also possible to determine an athlete's learning preference by observing him or her teaching a teammate, since most people will use their preferred mode to teach others.

The coach also needs to develop cue words for the individual perceptual modes for their specific sport. Listed below are some cue words for the visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles (Coker, 1994):

  • Look
  • Watch
  • Show
  • Demonstrate
  • Observe
  • Imagine
  • Hear
  • Sound
  • Repeat
  • Perform
  • Execute
  • Try
  • Feel
  • Touch
  • Move

Example of cue use for a basketball jump shot:
  • Visual
        º "See the pads of your fingers facing you."
  • Auditory
        º "Hear the sound of the net swishing with good follow-through."
  • Kinesthetic
        º "Feel tension in your forearm as a result of the follow-through."

Coaching strategies also need to be developed and are often sport-specific. Listed below are some strategies for all three learning strategies (Literacy Partners of Manitoba, 1999B):

VISUAL 65% of the Learners
  • Films
  • Videos
  • Pictures
  • Chalkboard
  • Notes
  • Playbook
  • Imagery
  • Write
  • Diagrams
  • Statistics
  • List
  • Checklist
  • Viewing
  • Charts
  • Cards
  • Reading
  • Quotes
  • Schedules
  • Handouts
  • Demonstration
  • Schedule

AUDITORY 30% of the Learners
  • Tapes
  • Talk to others
  • Lecture
  • Cue words
  • Encourage
  • Listening
  • Discussing
  • Self-talk
  • Repeat
  • Listen and respond
  • Narrative video
  • Music
  • Team meeting
  • Guest speaker

KINESTHETIC 5% of the Learners
  • Take notes
  • Study sheets
  • Associate with real world
  • Examples
  • Role Play
  • Activities
  • Doing
  • Move the athlete through the skill
  • Goal setting
  • Repeat
  • Question
  • Touching
  • Simulations
  • Practice
  • Mirror/shadow
  • Task cards
  • Structured hands-on activities
  • Assessments
  • Guidance

Coaches are constantly searching for methods to improve the athletic performance of their athletes. One method that is often overlooked is the way in which athletes learn and process new information. Another "tool in the toolkit" for coaches is to consider the learning style of their athletes when presenting new information and giving feedback.

Failure to individualize the teaching/coaching strategy through which instructions and feedback are presented denies athletes the necessary opportunities to learn in ways that align with how they learn most effectively.

As coaches become better able to adapt their style of teaching and coaching to support the learning style needs of their athletes, they create powerful learning relationships with their athletes that not only enhance the learning experience, but also accelerate it. That's no small thing when considering the length of a typical athletic season coaches have to work with. One of the most important lessons for coaches, however, is that - One teaching style does not fit all!


Brunner, R. & Hill, D. (1992). Using learning styles in coaching. Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Coaching, 63(4), 26-28, 61.

Coker, C. A. (1995). Learning style and consistency across cognitive and motor settings. Perceptual Motor Skills, 81, 1023-1026.

Coker, C. A. (1996). Accommodating Students' learning styles in physical education. Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 67(9), 66-68.

Dunn, R. (1984). How should students do their homework? Research vs. opinion. Early Years, 14(4), 43-45.

Dunn, R., Beaudry, J. S., & Klavis, A. (1989). Survey of research on learning style. Educational Leadership, 46(6), 50-58.

Literacy Partners of Manitoba (2002A). Creative student assessment: Appendix D: Information and questionnaires for assessing learning styles and preferences: Barsch Learning Style Reference Form [On-line].

Literacy Partners of Manitoba (2002B). Literacy Network News: Learning styles using the senses [On-line].

Mind Tools (2002). How your learning style affects your use of mnemonics [On-line].
Available: https://www.mindtools.com/mnemlsty.html
Pettigrew, F.E. & Heikkinen, M. (1985). Increased psychomotor skill through eclectic teaching. Physical Educator, 43(3), 140-146.

Soloman, B. A. & Felder, R. M. (1999A). Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire [On-line].

Soloman, B. A. & Felder, R. M. (1999B). Learning styles and strategies [On-line].