Specific plays, memorization for studying, adopting fads, copying people… these all have one thing in common, and I think it holds most people back.
In Joshua Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning”, he describes making smaller and smaller circles. This means that he would rather learn one skill deeply to internalize its principles, rather than learn many skills just to show off. Bruce Lee also said, “I fear not the man who practived 10,000 kicks, I fear the man who practiced 1 kick 10,000 times.” The idea behind these statements is that understanding principles trumps other types of learning.
My first foray into principles based learning was in my second semester of my second year at UBC. My first year, I followed my high school dogma that most of my fellow students also seemed to be following: memorize everything! The question always was: how am I supposed to know everything in this textbook for the final?? However the word “know” is most often thought of as “memorize”, so most students are really asking: how am I supposed to memorize everything in this textbook for the final. That semester, I took an economics course from a professor who was known to have very challenging exams. His exams were abstract, and he’d ask questions like, “Joe believes in the Sun God. Explain why Joe should not believe in the Sun God.” Then, he would provide a whole page for an answer. This proved very troublesome for a student who had memorized terms and graphs in order to study for the test. That was, until I went to look at an old midterm to see how it was marked. What I learned that day changed my approach to education and life.
The way that those questions were marked, was by checking to see if the student had written down three principles. The prof called them “Brainwave Principles”. That’s it. Three principles. No page long ramblings…three simple principles. A student only had to write three lines to get full marks on a ten mark question.
I then realized, that he had 12 “Brainwave Principles” in his textbook, and that you could answer every question by applying those 12 principles. If I truly understood those 12 principles, I understood the whole book. I tested this on my next exam in his class and aced it. Specifically, I knew what Principle applied to what question, and I was able to explain that in my answer.
My second brush with principles based learning was after listening to this Ted Talk with Elon Musk. In it, he talks about using First Principles based reasoning to come up with his ideas for business. He said that reasoning by analogy is just like copying everyone else. But when you copy everyone else, you follow their same thought pattern and therefore see limitations where they see limitations. By instead boiling everything down to first principles, Elon claims that he has been able to see the problem from a completely different perspective and is therefore able to examine if the perceived limitations of an idea are in fact true. This talk inspired me to dive deeper into the idea of First Principles reasoning.
Finally, after talking with a teammate, he mentioned how some of the really intelligent students in his program didn’t need to study for their courses, because they DERIVED their answers. They completely understand the principles behind the questions that a prof is asking, and therefore are able to piece together how to answer. In contrast, students who memorize answers to questions have trouble answering those questions if they are presented slightly differently than what they expect. They are less flexible, and their knowledge if more fragile. Meanwhile, a student who understands principles is flexible and robust because they can answer any iteration of a question testing their knowledge of a principles.
I then purposefully aimed to make my studying more principles based. The process looked something like this:
- Understand the terminology so that I could understand the language of the concepts, the principles, and the problems
- Aim to understand the overarching principles of the subject at hand
- Aim to have a working knowledge of the concepts inherent within those principles
- Enjoy my free time!
I applied this process to all of my courses. I was able to study much less…meanwhile, my marks actually went up. Why? Because I internalized the principles and it was easier for me to bring forth information in test taking scenarios. Because my knowledge represented a deep understanding of the principles on which the question was based, I could answer any type of question about that principle because all I had to do was apply it. On the other hand, memorized information was always more fragile because if I took in too much information, there was a chance it would be crowded. Also, without any sort of association, it’s fairly easy for your memorized information to go POOF in a test taking scenario. Principles based learning creates associations.
Strength & Conditioning
How this translates to strength and conditioning is just that…through translation. Coaches (myself included) often get bent out of shape over what exercise, modality, intensity, volume, etc etc, is best for training. In my eyes, it simply doesn’t matter. If we accept that the goal of strength and conditioning is to improve sport performance, then we’d also probably agree that sport performance can be improved when athletes can completely express themselves physically, in their sport, without hindrance of any kind. This usually translates to the idea of effectively and efficiently using the body in a coordinated and controlled manner to express force. To do so, the athlete should have internalized various movement principles. Things like: holding tension through the core while under load in order to stabilize the spine, mobile joints should be mobile and stabilizing joints should be stabile, be able to dissociate different parts of your body smoothly, etc.. Therefore, the idea that athletes “must train this way” is absolute bogus. A coach who is saying “all athletes should squat and lift heavy”, is really probably saying that “athletes should be able generate lot’s of force into the ground, and hold tension through their core to maintain a neutral spine while doing so.” I think that there are principles of movement that athletes must master in order to perform in their sport optimally. With those in mind, I aim to find the most effective way to train those movement principles. A mistake that coaches make is that they think “these drills are good for hockey” because it looks sport specific and then end their thinking there. If those drills do not lead to an improvement in hockey performance through skill translation, those drills are a waste of time. But if those drills lead to some sort of translation (let’s say, increased ability to generate lateral force, and increased control and power in the hips in certain movements), then those drills are useful. The key is translation of athletic/movement principles, not mimicry of sport movement in non-sport contexts.
The strength coach should therefore understand what movement principles their athletes can develop that will translate to their performance. Then the strength coach should explore the best way to instruct and implement those principles into an athletes training program. Instructing exercises for the sake of instructing exercises, or improving numbers on lifts for the sake of improving numbers of lifts is absolutely useless unless an athlete can translate a skill or ability to generate force to their sport. So improving a squat does nothing for the athlete unless it now allows the athlete to learn to hold more tension in their core to keep themselves stable and put more force into the ground. If the athlete has increased their squat weight without actually improving in their sport, the squat was a waste of time for the athlete.
This also translates to being a hockey coach. When coaching, I’ve struggled with teaching plays to my players because I found that those plays would often fall apart when the players entered a game. If I’m particularly good at constructing clever players, and if the players are good enough to execute them, I may get a quick win. But as soon as another team figures out those plays, if all the players have previously relied upon was the plays, they are now standing on one leg. If instead, the players are taught principles, the players can adapt their play to the situation that meets them. Like a student who has internalized principles of a subject versus memorization, the player who has internalized important principles in hockey is more flexible and robust to any situation. This creates an empowered player and team who have the trust of the coach to solve their own problems.
The coach should aim to teach principles that will lead to the biggest effect in a team’s game. I do not think that chipping the puck out, or dumping and forechecking are good concepts to be preaching. Both of those concepts teach the principle of chasing. I think that passing and possession are principles that coaches should be aiming to teach. If I teach the principles of passing, support, and creating triangles, then if a specific play isn’t working, but the players are flexible in finding their solutions, the players are more adaptable, and the team is more likely to succeed.
Ideally a coach would ask themselves what principles they should teach in order to get a desired outcome. Not, what play or action should they teach. For example, a coach struggling with the breakout could either: a) tell their players not to make turnovers and to chip the puck out or b) teach their players principles of making plays to exit the zone. Similarly, a hockey player struggling with stick handling can: a) try to pick apart each aspect of their stick handling that they are deficient in and try to train each piece or b) figure out the principles of puck control on a deeper level – for example, posture and relaxation. A student should look at the principles and concepts taught my their teacher and aim to understand them completely rather than memorize every word in the book.
I’m aiming to improve my ability to use principles based learning, teaching and coaching. I hope this has inspired you to do the same.