Learning styles do exist, and they all have the potential to be effective. Unfortunately, there is no documentation of a singular “best” learning style or teaching style that is guaranteed to help all athletes. I’ve heard many athletes tell me that they are “visual” learners. The fact is that the athlete might enjoy learning visually, with pictures, movies, etc. That doesn’t translate to not being able to absorb information using a variety of presentation styles.

The fact of the matter is there are well over 70 different learning styles schemes (Coffield, 2004), most of which are supported by “a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks” and “professional development workshops for teachers and educators” (Pashler et al., 2009, p. 105).

Is there scientific research that supports the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches a style most comfortable to them? In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork to evaluate the research on learning styles to determine whether there is credible evidence to support using learning styles in instruction. They came to a startling but clear conclusion:

“Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.” (1)

Educational Psychologist Daniel Willingham goes so far as to say people should stop thinking of themselves as visual, verbal, or some other kind of learner. “It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles],” he says, but there’s not any benefit to it, either. “Everyone is able to think in words, everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”

A sample of common learning styles are listed under the acronym VARK:

  • Visual learning (pictures, movies, diagrams)- Visual learners learn best by seeing. Graphic displays such as charts, diagrams, illustrations, handouts, and videos are helpful learning tools for visual learners.
  • Auditory learning (music, discussion, lectures)-Aural (or auditory) learners learn best by hearing information. They tend to get a great deal out of lectures and remember things they are told.
  • Reading and writing (making lists, reading textbooks, taking notes)-Reading and writing learners prefer to take in the information displayed as words and text.
  • Kinesthetic learning (movement, experiments, hands-on activities)-Kinesthetic (or tactile) learners learn best by touching and doing. Hands-on experience is essential for kinesthetic learners.

Since research seems to indicate a single “best” approach to presenting information doesn’t exist, and some athletes might prefer one form or another, where does that leave the volleyball coach? My recommendation is to not restrict your presentation to a singular form. Using multiple ways to impart information to appeal to a broad spectrum of learning styles.

Using an example taken from the U-18 World Championships a few years back, Belarus had a great setter that was also a very small blocker. The coach created a defense to compensate for the small block. The middle-back player would move to the right and, along with the RB defender, defend the area over the small right-side block. Here is how one might teach this information to the team, considering the various learning styles in VARK.

CB and RB defend over the block

Visual- A photo (see above photo), video, or whiteboard drawing will supply the visual information of what the coach wants from the defensive system. Make it clear how the CB and RB need to work together and change court positions to defend the area behind the small blocker.

Auditory- verbally review the information with players individually (preferable) or as a group. For a coach to verbally present the needed information is easy. However, I would also have a player(s) repeat the critical aspects of the defense to the coach or the team. Players would be responsible for knowing the defensive duties of all the players on the court.

Reading/Writing- There is significant research that would indicate the process of writing what you want to remember is the best way to recall the information. When I was with the USA U-18 teams, every player had a notebook and pen to take notes of all the information presented. Coaches would review the notes taken and ask questions to players, ensuring the material is understood. There was also a Q&A with all the players to have them verbalize their understanding of the material. Using the example above, we would present the defensive adjustment, in what situations would the adjustment be made, and have the player write the information and then draw out on the whiteboard the duties of each of the defensive players.

Kinesthetic- on the court, take the player and place them on the court to defend behind the small blocker. Emphasize the movements from the base position, then moving to dig behind the small block, the visual cues involved, and the duties of all the defenders. Then, drill the defense in live situations where the players must defend an attack going over the small block. The coach can stand behind the MB player to observe the movements and perhaps guide them manually to the desired location.

I have found the best way for players to remember is to incorporate all the components of VARK. However, remember, there are many learning styles “out there.” Unfortunately, in many coaching situations, a coach will present information using one, maybe two of the styles in VARK. It is a mistake for the coach to only present the information in a manner the coach prefers instead of what the players require.

The coach needs to bring energy to the process and exhaust every avenue to ensure the players know the needed information and take this knowledge onto the court. There is no magic to being able to transfer information to the student. To touch all the bases of the learning styles, the coach must put forth the effort to meet the needs of all the students.

In the video below, former Ohio State football coach, Urban Meyer, talks about “direct teaching” and the expected effort of every coach on his staff. What I like about the approach of Coach Meyer is he places the responsibility of learning in the hands of the coach, not the player.

Urban Meyer-Direct Teaching

I would encourage all coaches to use an “all of the above” approach to how they present information to their team. Different players will react to some styles better than others. So, use all the available styles in your teaching methods. In addition, take responsibility for the results. If what you are doing is not working, don’t be afraid to “blow up” the methods you are using and try another form of teaching. The students deserve our best efforts.

(1) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x