Concepts for Coaches #4: The Forgetting Curve
No, your athlete won't remember what you said tomorrow
At any given moment, your brain is being bombarded by sensory data. If we actually processed everything that our brain was detecting consciously, we’d be easily overwhelmed and essentially malfunction, much like a computer or iPhone running too many apps at the same time (loathe as I may be to use a computer processing metaphor, this one works).
We’re not meant to process everything.
We’re designed to be efficient at one thing at a time.
This efficiency is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to narrow our attention, find focus, and tune into the salient cues in the environment that allow us to perform.
It also causes us to forget.
The forgetting curve was first studied by a memory researcher, Herman Ebbinghaus, who wanted to better understand how to help people retain information. As the field around memory has unfolded, some studies have suggested that we forget half of what we’ve been taught within an hour. The forgetting curve is pretty steep.
To illustrate, think of a time you attended a cocktail party. You went around, introduced yourself to 10, 20, or maybe even 30 people. How many people’s names can you remember? If you’re a normal person, you’ll be lucky to remember maybe 5-10 names. It’s not a sign you don’t care. It’s a sign your brain is working normally.
Unfortunately, in sport, when an athlete forgets something we’ve taught them, we tend to attribute the forgetting to an internal, stable characteristic about the athlete. We call them a deragotory name, profess that they’ll never learn, throw our hands up in frustration.
All because we forgot the forgetting curve.
Rather than associating forgetting with idiocy, we’d be better served to remember that learning and retaining information is hard. But, there are things we can do to increase the chances our teams remember what we need them to.
So how do we fight forgetting? It turns out that people are more likely to remember information based on several key characteristics:
How meaningful the information is
How we feel when we’re learning
Rest & Sleep
The quality of the presentation
Let’s unpack these.
How meaningful the information is
Most coaches give way too much feedback. By commenting on every little thing as a drill or game unfolds, coaches inadvertently are constantly redirecting their athletes attention to what’s important. As a result, the message is sent that none of the individual pieces of feedback alone are important. Overcommunicating about too many dimensions sends the message that there’s nothing to learn here.
Instead, coaches would do well to stay focused on one particular skill or aspect of the game for blocks of time. Ignore giving feedback on the other elements, even if it makes you want to pull your hair out. By staying consistent, you’re signaling to your team that this is something that matters. You’re teaching them what to pay attention to, and helping them retain the information by ensuring they understand how important it is.
How we feel
Emotion is a critical function in learning. There’s a reason that most people only need to touch a hot stove once to learn that it’s painful - the fear & pain are emotional glue that hold the memory in mind, and teach us not to do that again.
That’s an extreme example, but illustrates the point - when we teach, we need people to feel something to make it sticky. This is what makes storytelling so effective as a teaching mechanism, and why most players forget what their coach says in their less-than-rousing pre-game speech.
Ideally, we position the lessons we teach positively - we make our players feel some sort of pleasant emotion when we instruct. Though this isn’t possible 100% of the time, we should be mindful not to be overly negative or punitive when instructing, unless we want our players to think learning is painful.
Rest and Sleep
Some of the most interesting data on cramming for exams suggests a brief nap (20-30 minutes) after an intense study session results in better recall come exam time. Though cramming is generally a bad strategy (more on that in a moment), the fact that it can be made more effective by a quick nap points to the central role learning plays in combatting forgetting.
Sleep plays several important functions for our brain, but for our purposes here, the most important function is that it consolidates what we’ve learned. Rest can have a similar effect. In essence, sleep serves a deep processing function, allowing our brains to consolidate what’s most important and improving our access at a later date.
To really maximize our recall, it’s helpful to engage in what’s called “spaced learning”(a much better strategy than cramming). The idea is that if we forget about half of the information we’ve presented in an hour, then if we present the same information again around that same time, we restart that cycle and improve what can be retained. That’s a rudimentary example, but you get the point.
Repeating what you teach is really important. There’s a reason sales people say that they need on average 8 points of contact to land a deal. It’s not because they aren’t persuasive. It’s because people need time to learn and remember what you’re even selling in the first place.
A simple rule to follow is 1:1:1 - repeat the material 1 hour after introducing it, 1 day after it’s been introduced, and 1 week later. This type of spacing increases the chances that our athletes retain what they’ve been taught and minimizes the risks of the forgetting curve.
It’s also helpful to consider when new information is being presented. Are you teaching new skills at the beginning or end of practice, or the beginning or end of the day? As our energy is drained, learning becomes more challenging. In fact, learning is one of the most metabolically taxing things our brains can do. By timing up the new information we teach, we can minimize the impact of forgetting.
I’m not suggesting you need public speaking classes (though it might help), but simply standing up and talking with no examples, emotion, or energy likely isn’t going to cut it as memorable. Instead, consider how you can make your presentation interesting. Tell a story. Use yourself as an example. Act it out.
The next time you’re frustrated with your team or employee for failing to remember something you said, ask yourself about the above dimensions associated with memory. Did you present the information as meaningful? Did you use emotion, tell a story, or repeat yourself? Did you give a quality delivery or say it in passing?
Learning is hard. Recalling is hard. And teaching is hard. We’d all do well to remember the forgetting curve.
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