Data overload and coaching – how can an athlete ‘process’ all your instructions?


I was reading the Economist and they had an article on how the world is evolving to handle ever larger quantities of data.  One paragraph leapt out at me

as the torrent of information increases, it is not surprising that people feel overwhelmed. "There is an immense risk of cognitive overload," explains Carl Pabo, a molecular biologist who studies cognition. The mind can handle seven pieces of information in its short-term memory and can generally deal with only four concepts or relationships at once. If there is more information to process, or it is especially complex, people become confused.  

How does this affect the rowing and sculling coach?

When you coach and when the coxswain gives instructions are your athletes suffering cognitive overload?

Take this small excerpt from the morning's outing from an experienced university coxswain. "working on the balance, keep the weight on your feet, make sure you control the slide forward.  Moving into steady state on the next stroke, now! Keep that balance level at the finish, weight on your feet, ….." 

All good stuff but risking cognitive overload as there are too many instructions, observations and a lack of explicit 'how to' statements.

Seven pieces of information kept in short term memory is quite a lot.  In my experience of caoching I find that with a new crew they can handle two things at once.  Generally this works out like this:

  • Do an exercise e.g. finishes square with a late feather or in fours / sixes
  • Then try to incorporate this into 'normal' rowing with all eight
  • Do another excercise e.g. moving hands away from the extraction together arriving at 'hands away' position in perfect time
  • Then try to incorporate this into 'normal' rowing with all eight
  • Lastly, combine both exercises into a single exercise e.g. square finishes to hands away pausing at hands away.

I generally find that most crews can only 'cope' with thinking about one of these things at a time.  What happens is that when you switch the focus to the second exercise, they neglect the action they learned in the first exercise!  That's why I try to always do both exercises twice before moving to combining the two into a single focus.

Even this sometimes becomes "too much to think about" for some athletes.

In this case, I usually try to move them onto a slightly different focus –

  • thinking about square finishes during the normal rowing after having done the exercise twice. 
  • Then I tell them 'not to think about square finishes' for 20 strokes. 
  • Any thoughts that come into the mind, just put aside and leave your body just rowing not thinking about rowing. 
  • After 20 strokes the coxswain instructs them to think about making a square finish
  • Then five strokes later they are instructed 'not to think' about it
  • Repeat

What happens is the crew learns to 'observe' and 'check' their individual technique and make small tyechnical changes just for themselves.  In between they are practicing automating the rowing movement. 

If this is successful, it frees up the mind to think about something else, while the exercise movement is continued in the background without any active front-of-mind thinking process to support it.

This helps to "automate" the movement and embed the technique with the athlete coaching themselves.

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