Have a look at the following sequence of 17 letters and try to memorise it. Give yourself 30 seconds at most:


Now cover the sequence and repeat it back. How did you get on? Would you do any better if I arranged the same sequence of letters like this?

Coaching For Memory
Coaching For Memory


Why do you think it is easier to remember sequence 2?

In my last article on evidence-based coaching, I spoke about how we as coaches can use the concepts of ‘schemas’ (mental maps of information) to help our students organise the way they think about paddling and make connections between skills. In this article, I will go into a little more depth on how we ensure that what we coach is remembered by our students.

The first thing it is important to point out is what exactly it means to ‘learn’ something. In education, we often talk about learning as a ‘lasting change in long-term memory’. For example, in the world of paddlesports we wouldn’t say somebody had learned to roll if they only did it once under the watchful eye of an instructor. We would need to see whether they could remember how to do it independently a few weeks later. For somebody to have learned a skill, it needs to have stuck in their long-term memory. This is why it is crucial that coaches think about structuring their coaching to promote memory. As coaches, we want our sessions to be memorable, not just because people enjoy them but also because they remember what we teach them!

In the research of educational psychologist Barack Rosenshine, planning for memory makes up a large part of his Principles of Effective Instruction. One of these principles is sequencing, presenting new information in small steps and in a logical order. This essentially explains why the second set of letters was easier for you to remember. I sequenced the letters in a way that made them more memorable and I broke them down into three smaller units to make it even easier. In coaching, this requires us to think carefully about how we break skills down into smaller manageable chunks and in what order we teach those chunks. Just like baking a cake, teaching a skill happens in small steps and doing these in a certain order give us the best result. To teach a turning stroke, for example, we might break it down at a basic level as follows: 

Basic paddle shape > Body rotation > Turning on the move > Edging to aid turn

Of course, for every coach the steps chosen and the order in which they are coached may differ. The important thing is that we consider how best to ‘chunk’ the skill and why we would coach it in a certain sequence. The order in which we teach steps will also affect how our students build their schema for this stroke (see my first article for more on this). Don’t forget that these steps for a single skill might not all be done within one session and may well be spread across a medium- or long-term coaching programme.

Coaching For Memory

Whilst we are thinking about zooming out from a single session and looking at longer-term coaching programmes, we must also think about how we plan across and between sessions to support memory. Another powerful technique for building competency with memory in mind is what Rosenshine calls ‘spaced retrieval’. This is simply the idea that we forget things at an alarming rate unless we regularly retrieve them from our long-term memory. In other words: use it or lose it! The implications of this for us as coaches is that we need to plan time in our sessions to recap and practice skills, or parts of skills, that we have covered before. If I taught forward paddling in session 1 of 6, for example, I might return to it and see what my paddlers remember in sessions 2, 4 and perhaps 6. I would see if what I taught in session 1 had been remembered and might add another step in my teaching sequence at this point. The more a paddler has practiced a skill, the more time we can leave before we bring it up again. Hence why I might not recap forwards paddling every session but rather 1…2…4… etc. and I might recap skills in a session that were covered last week, last month, or last year.

This is a very brief overview of two evidence-based strategies of planning coaching with memory in mind. If you are curious to have a go at optimising your coaching for memory, here are three quick tips to get you started:

  1. Chunking: Present new skills in small, logical steps. Think carefully about how you will break skills down and, crucially, in what order you will coach these steps. As learners, we quickly become overwhelmed with long processes. Breaking skills down makes the information for manageable to remember. 
  2. Short recaps: Perhaps plan time in each session for some quick retrieval practice of things you covered last session, three sessions ago, last year etc. I like to do this at the start of the session, as it gives me a good idea of what my paddlers have retained from previous sessions and allows me to adapt my current session accordingly.
  3. Get writing: I’ve found that planning for memory is a fairly complicated thing to do in your head. Try scribbling down a rough outline of your series of sessions and look at where you might schedule in some retrieval practice. This also works really well for breaking down skills into logical steps in a mind map or flow chart style.

My aim with this series of articles is to generate some form of discussion around how we can coach using evidence-based strategies and how we can best draw from research on the science of learning to optimise our coaching practice.

All feedback will be gladly received. 

Words and pictures: Shahid Wahab