How to Make it Stick- Learning that lasts. Part 1

Jonathan Gelnar
Oct 20 · 7 min read

Link to Audio Version-

We live in a time where we have the knowledge of the history of the world readily available. We can learn and master anything we want with the click of a few buttons and some persistent practice. With that being said, we can learn anything but we do not have enough time to learn everything. So how do we take what we need, simplify it for our players and make training stick? In addition, how do we asses each player’s optimal learning point? I will hit on several topics this week and it may get heavy, so bear with me.

What doesn’t work

Mindless drills with no buy-in.

  • I think the first thing we need to earn is buy-in. I talked about “starting with why” earlier this year and the reasons behind it. Essentially, if we don’t create buy-in, we run the risk of our players not being engaged and they go on autopilot. When they aren’t engaged, they aren’t learning and neither they nor the team is getting any better.

No deliberate practice.

  • A big part of this is understand the why behind the process. For those in the classroom, this would be the objective. What exactly do I need to do to accomplish this? What exactly is being asked? Not only is this important for learning, it’s extremely important for the generation that we are coaching, Generation Z. According to Jason Dorsey, when Generation Z knows the objective for tasks they are more motivated to complete the task. (

So, what are some ideas to combat this?

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

— Ben Franklin

Well, the easy answer would be to say, “Do the opposite of the above and in 7–10 days you will have complete buy in for your program….


So here are some ways we can combat this.

Attentional focus and deliberate practice

When we’re discussing deliberate practice, when the players know the objective (what is being asked and what exactly they need to do to accomplish the task) is the biggest part to this. As I stated above, it’s vital to this generation to understand the why behind it, so let’s give it to them! How do we focus their attention on the task and have them work towards executing it flawlessly? It has to start with the understanding if our players know exactly what is being asked, and then we can gear our questioning to each individual after.

Desirable purposeful work vs filling time and space

“Purposeful practice has well-defined goals, is focused, involves feedback and requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.”

— Anders Ericsson

  • This is a lot easier said than done in the team setting. We have 50 minutes to hit, indoors, in the middle of winter with a small amount of space. This is where the why and the objective have to kick in. I also think it’s important to discuss with the players what they want to work on. It’s their career, attaching that “why” to anything in practice will immediately increase buy-in or at the least provide accountability. Let me give you an example..

Player: Hey coach, why are we doing tee work? Tee work sucks.

Coach: Well, we have a lack of space its 30* outside and in our intro meetings after spending the entire fall going through our system, you pointed out that you loved this drill and it helped you lock in your swing.

Player: Yeah well, I think I’m ready for something different.

Coach: Sounds great, what did you have in mind?

Player: *blankly stares at you wondering how in the world he didn’t get a different reaction from you.*

Coach: Let’s do this, give your absolute best with your remaining reps for today, go home and think about what you’d rather do and text me in the morning.

Player: Bet

This conversation would have been completely different if “coach” had blown the player up in the first part of the conversation. I would definitely have a conversation with this player about his approach the next time. But if we blow him up in front of the team it may set the tone for the rest of the year that we don’t want to ever be questioned over what we’re doing, which shouldn’t ever be the case.

Another step with this process would be spaced repetition. Spaced repetition occurs after introducing the task, and then spacing it out a few days apart. When something is spaced out, you can easily asses if a player knows it if they are able to retrieve it from their memory. This is known as “active retrieval” and if they can’t, it hasn’t stuck yet. Another example of testing active retrieval would be to ask them what the objective of each drill is at spaced times throughout the week. This not only helps with active retrieval but also is a great form of reflection.

Here are some other options to help get a players training to stick.

  • Expressing it in your own words. Being able to mentally record an idea and store it long term can be crucial in the learning process. An easy way to do this would be to have them send you a video explaining the concept or what they felt in their own words. This helps with learning by allowing the player to teach you the concept but also put it in their own words, both great strategies for remembering anything long term.
  • Connecting it to prior knowledge or something, you have heard before. Most of us rely heavily on our past experiences to teach us things today, but being able to connect ideas is essential in the learning process.
  • Explain it like I’m five. This may be my favorite and it can be used coach to player or player to player. When you think your player has an understanding, tell them to explain it to you as if you were 5 years old. Most likely, this will make them simplify some of the language and it will be a true test of if they actually know the subject, or if they just use the buzzwords you use. You don’t truly know anything, until you could teach it to a 5-year-old.
  • Reflection- Yes, again. At the end of practice ask “what is something learned today”. You can do this either in the group setting by randomly asking players each day or asking individual players on their way out practice. If we want them to get better at a faster rate, we need to be able to build on our previous days work. A major key is having them retain as much information as possible, and reflection is about as good as it gets for retention.

Interweaving practice with desirable difficulties

Finally, we want to have a feel of when to interweave practice with desirable difficulties. In an ideal world, most of what we would do in practice would mimic what players see in the game. We see a lot of stuff on social media about how to make practices more game like, and there is a lot of evidence to warrant that. There are countless studies done over the matter. (Cite) There are a few things that I would like us all to keep in mind.

  1. Do the players understand that doing this in practice may lead to short term losses but substantially better gains over the long term? If they don’t, a conversation needs to be had. An easy example of this would be Mixed BP, which causes players to make closer to game like decisions in batting practice.
  2. The next thing we need to keep in mind is the level of difficulty and the amount of stress our players are under. Think of it like a rubber band, if your players are under too much stress and we are stretching it past its limit on a daily basis, it snaps. It can be the same way with our players. This is where having “feel” as a coach is extremely important. If our players are under a constant state of stress at home, at school, and at practice, there’s 0% chance we will get their best day in and day out. There may be days that taking feel good BP is necessary. Don’t kill the messenger, but it’s true.
  3. All of that being said, we ideally want to make the stage of desirable difficulty around 4% harder than their comfort level to achieve the flow state. Steven Kotler states in The Rise of Superman that

“Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap. How hard is that? Answers vary, but the general thinking is about 4 percent. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.”

So how do we know what everyone’s 4% is? To me, it just means slightly harder than what they’ve already mastered. Having a feel for how to push each player and pull each player and knowing what their optimum challenge point should be the goal of any coach, at any level in any sport.


Understand that when players take action, it becomes a memory that they use to anticipate the correct decision when the player is faced with a similar situation. If you’re reading this, you want your players to get better. Therefore, setting up an environment for this to happen has to be the most important thing we do on a daily basis. There will be days the players will do more talking than you will. However, just like you are asking your players to do, don’t bromance your comfort zone, coach.

Have a great week.


Jonathan Gelnar

Written by

†follower. Husband. Influencer of our nation’s youth through the national past time. @union_baseball. Host of @aotc_podcast

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