Athletes’ Learning Styles: A Must-Have for your Coaching Toolbox

by Bo Hanson - 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments | Apr 01, 2013
Have you ever noticed how some rowers “get” instructions immediately, while for others it takes a while for things to click? As a coach, this is something you’ve had to deal with on numerous occasions. Many coaches develop their own ways of “working” with their athletes and having a well-proven framework can be extremely useful.
Have you ever noticed how some rowers “get” instructions immediately, while for others it takes a while for things to click? As a coach, this is something you’ve had to deal with on numerous occasions. Many coaches develop their own ways of “working” with their athletes and having a well-proven framework can be extremely useful. What I mean, when I talk about “working” with your rowers, is creating an effective method of helping them learn. We understand all rowers and athletes are unique and cannot be coached in exactly the same way. Each of your rowers is likely to learn in their own unique way, knowing how they learn is the key to helping them improve (and reducing your stress too!)

Why Teach to the Learning Styles

Being able to adjust how you “teach” to suit the individual needs of rowers is a hallmark of great coaches. When coaches adapt their “teaching” it comes down to adapting to the different “learning styles” of their rowers. Put simply, a learning style is a preferred way of taking in and processing information in order to develop knowledge and skill, which can be applied in a competitive environment.

As coaches, the first step is to understand your own learning style. Your learning style effects how you structure and create learning opportunities for others. What is interesting is that as coaches (teachers), we commonly work in a framework that works for ourselves. This basically means we teach others the way we like to be taught. The same goes for how we lead, communicate and relate to others. Being aware of our own preferences helps us to make conscious choices about how to maximize the learning opportunities we have with our rowers, in the quest to create performance improvement. While all your rowers, especially those who have college educations, should have a basic understanding of how they learn best, in reality most athletes have very little knowledge about their specific learning style. When an athlete is unaware of their learning style, it often leads to them being clueless about what, why and how the coach is trying to teach them. This can result in frustration for both the coach and athlete and eventually, a decline in performance is inevitable, especially when there is a significant mismatch in styles from coach to athlete.

The best news is that the opposite situation is also true. When a rower knows how they learn best, they are able to take an active part in creating more opportunities for this to happen. In addition, coaches who know the different learning style preferences are able to include every style in their practice sessions, thereby meeting the needs of the entire rowing crew.

Different Learning Styles

As mentioned earlier, a learning style is a preferred way of taking in and processing information in order to develop knowledge and skill. The internationally regarded experts in this field are Honey and Mumford from the UK. Their model includes four different learning styles (or stages within a learning cycle) with each person having their own preference of a combination of the four different styles. As their research has shown, by understanding your own learning style preferences and by developing your non-preferred learning styles, you can effectively learn more efficiently and effectively. We will focus on the four styles shortly, but before we do, let’s look at what learning styles are not...

What Learning Styles are NOT

It is important to note, when we refer to learning styles we are not talking about whether you are visual, kinaesthetic, auditory or auditory digital. This is often the language we hear being used. However, these four elements are what we refer to as preferred modalities or channels for presenting information. The visual, kinaesthetic, auditory and auditory digital modalities are simply different methods of presenting and receiving information. They are not preferred learning methods and do not relate, as such, to how we process internally the information we receive. While the difference is subtle, it is important to appreciate.

In our experience, most coaches know these modalities and how to use them. Similarly to learning styles, each of us has preferences of one modality over another, but in reality we can use all four as required by the situation we find ourselves in. For example, a rowing coach often uses the auditory channel to deliver their technical directives to the crew. If the crew lacks the preference to take information through this channel, then your coaching directives are going to be compromised. A coach should be aware of their rower’s ability to take information in and through which channel they prefer. Another critical area that is most often overlooked or misunderstood is what research has shown to be most important in terms of not just understanding an athletes preferred modality but to know the best modality to send the information in, for the given situation.

For example, let’s say a rower has a visual modality preference. The best way to give them information would therefore be through the visual channel. This is what makes the use of video so effective as a learning tool. However, when on the water and trying to teach a more effective catch, the modality you may choose to use is the kinaesthetic modality by creating an exercise, where the rower can FEEL the difference between an accurate placement versus a poor placement. Perhaps you could use a “roll up” drill to have the rower feel what it is like to stop the seat then place, then push. Now if you also video this drill to show them after practice, you massively reinforce their learning by using their preferred modality. A lot of sporting success relies on having a well developed touch and feel for the physical activity. Rowing certainly fits into this description. So in summary, try to present information in the way the information serves to be presented. Or, if you have an athlete who has a preference for visual, but you need them to listen for a certain sound of the blade of the oar entering the water in a rowing stroke, then you need to present that information in the auditory format. It just makes sense to present the information in the way which best suits the information you are presenting.

Now, back to Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles...

Their theory suggests there are four preferences and stages in learning (Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist) and each stage follows on from another, but is cyclical in nature and therefore one can start at any point according to their learning preferences. These stages are also considered learning styles, so ‘style’ and ‘stage’ can be interchangeable when referring to Honey and Mumford’s work. Below is a model of their four stages (styles) of learning, followed by a description of each stage.

While we all have a preferred learning style, an individual rower does not just learn in one way, but rather has a combination of learning styles. Each of us prefers one, two or three of these styles more or less than the other styles. Hence, the style we prefer the most is our learning style preference and will be how we prioritize our learning experiences. For example, someone who prefers the activist style is likely to avoid sitting in lectures and conferences preferring instead to be more experiential and hands on, therefore learning on the job and trying different ideas to see what happens (learns from experiences). In reality, despite one of two styles not being our preferred styles to learn, we can still gain some learning using them. As noted earlier, knowing our preferences and further developing our non-preferred learning preferences helps us learn faster and more efficiently. When coaching our athletes, we can therefore strategically create a “learning journey” for our athletes by leading them through each style of the four-stage cycle.
The following sections go through each of the learning styles: the Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist.

The Activist Style (or Stage)

Activists are likely to:

  • Immerse themselves fully in new experiences
  • Enjoy here and now
  • Open minded, enthusiastic, flexible
  • Act first, consider consequences later
  • Seek to center activity around themselves

Our coaching tips for working with “Activist Style Athletes” are:

  • Allow them to experiment so they can try different approaches.
  • Let them dive into an activity so they can work it out as they go.
  • Let them talk about what they are doing and share their experiences of what is and isn’t working for them.
  • Give them a variety of drills to address the same technical change you are trying to make.
  • Give them some brief key points to think about after the practice session and before the next practice ask them what worked last time and what they aim to do this time.
  • After the drill, ask them questions to help them reflect. You can also encourage them to watch a team member who is excellent at that technique.

The Reflector Style (or Stage)

The Reflector Style is where the rower looks back or thinks back upon an experience of doing something and in this reflection on that experience they think about what worked, what could be done better. This stage is where most of their learning occurs. As such, because they prefer to reflect, they are not the type to do as the activists do and just jump into anything, without a great deal of planning and thinking about a time when they previously did the activity.

Reflectors are likely to:

  • Stand back and observe
  • Cautious, take a back seat
  • Collect and analyses data about experience and events, slow to reach conclusions
  • Use information from past, present and immediate observations to maintain a big picture perspective.

Our coaching tips for working with “Reflector Style Athletes” are:

  • Let them observe the technique in action. (They can watch an activist.)
  • Give them a briefing on what the practice session is going to contain so they can imagine themselves and prepare mentally before they do it.
  • Create an environment where it is ok to not be perfect immediately.
  • Let them think about and share with others what worked well in the drill after doing it.
  • Encourage them to simply have a go, without too much thought - To trust themselves.

The Theorist Style (or Stage)

The Theorist Style is where the rower studies, applies rules and makes sense of the experience from an intellectual perspective. This may then be followed by the derivation of general rules describing the experience, or the application of known theories to it (Abstract Conceptualization). Basically, this style prefers to “understand” the mechanics of a drill, the reasons behind it, why they are doing it. This style of learner can effectively look at the whiteboard, full of naughts and crosses and learn the strategy of the game and the associated tactics. Intellectually, they enjoy thinking about something to understand the “nuts and bolts” before moving to another stage of learning or doing the activity in practice.

Theorists are likely to:

  • Think through problems in a logical manner, value rationality and objectivity
  • Assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories
  • Like to read about how things work
  • Disciplined, aiming to fit things into rational order
  • Keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models and systems thinking

Our coaching tips for working with “Theorist Style Athletes” are:

  • Give them reference materials to help them prepare for the theory of what the practice session contains.
  • Give them background information as to why particular drills are being used.
  • Explain the inner workings of techniques and mechanics of the sport.
  • Encourage opportunities to test different theories and to talk to you about different approaches they may have researched.
  • Help them verbalize their ideas to fellow team members to include their perspectives and to ensure the theory works in practice.

The Pragmatist Style (or Stage)

The Pragmatist Stage is where the rower thinks about how to apply their new knowledge and understanding of a concept, principle or technique in the context of their own world. This style of learner is extremely biased in what they will and will not learn. What this means is the pragmatist learns best when they know how the information being presented is going to help them in the context of their world. For example, they want to learn when they know the learning is extremely “relevant” to them and their role on the team. A rower will want to improve their technique only when they see how their current technique has cost them a better outcome in their last race. You as coach must be able to talk about how developing a better technique will help them achieve better results. They do not want to learn things they deem to not be relevant to them specifically.

Pragmatists are likely to:

  • Be keen to put ideas, theories and techniques into practice
  • Search new ideas and experiment
  • Act quickly and confidently on ideas, gets straight to the point
  • Are impatient with endless discussion
  • Our coaching tips for working with “Pragmatist Style Athletes” are:
  • Make sure the practice session is clearly linked to the game strategy.
  • Ensure the practice session is played out in close to a real-life sporting environment.
  • Ask the pragmatist athlete how they will use what they have learned in the next competition.
  • Keep their goals in the forefront of your mind when planning sessions.
  • Never divert from the proven, practical and realistic techniques that they know work in their world.

Catering for all Learning Styles and Using all Learning Styles

Creating a holistic learning experience means appealing not only to a rower’s preferred style, but enabling the learner to journey beyond their preferences into the other learning styles. This builds the depth of their learning experience and also develops their learning ability. For example, while a rower may have an activist preference, once they have had the experience (i.e. completed the drill), instead of moving to the next drill too quickly, the coach can ask them a brief question relating to the drill to develop another style such as discussing the relevance or application (pragmatist) or direct focus to when they have developed a similar drill (reflector). The point is, asking questions creates a well-rounded learning opportunity and this means a deeper understanding and knowledge starts to develop. Which of course is the starting point to being more skillful.

At times, a rower may go through all four styles in a flash, or over days, weeks or months, depending on the athlete and the learning taking place and of course the effectiveness of the coach. That is the key element in this equation – how effectively can a coach lead their rower through each of the styles, thereby increasing their learning experience and results.

As a coach, you may be inclined to present information in a way that makes sense to your learning style, but maybe not to all your rowers. Knowing we all have our own unique preferences for learning means that:

For coaches, there is a need for adjustment between learner and coach. Sometimes the athlete and coach’s preferences are complementary, sometimes antagonistic, and of course sometimes collusive if they both tend to go for the same style in the cycle.

Being unaware of learning styles and what the athlete and coach preferences are creates space for major neglect of some styles and this can prove to be a major obstacle to learning. Therefore, skill and performance improvement is negatively impacted.

Starting with an athlete’s learning preference and then developing other learning styles within the coaching experience will allow you to build depth and further develops the athlete’s skills in learning more effectively and efficiently.

Where to from here...

If you have any comments, suggestions or advice on this article, we’d love to hear from you – please contact me to share your thoughts (see below).

A version of this article was first published by Athlete Assessments in their December 2012 Newsletter. If you’d like to subscribe to future newsletters or contact Athlete Assessments, go to the website. Also, if you’d like a copy of any the resources mentioned above, contact our office directly as per below:, call 760 742 5157 or email

About the Author

Bo Hanson was previously a consultant coach with the USRowing men’s national team. He was also one of the 2009 and 2010 USRowing Annual Convention presenters and after such overwhelming feedback from the delegates, we asked Bo to share his most valued rowing advice with our readers on a regular basis.

Bo’s own rowing career spanned four Olympic campaigns, winning three medals for Australia and he was and remains the youngest rower to compete at an Olympics for his country at 18 years of age. He is now an in-demand coaching consultant for Athlete Assessments ( and works with coaches across a vast range of sports. He maintains a personal connection to rowing coaching through his involvement with his own high school and the rowing clients he consults to.
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