Mirror Neurons

05/15/2023 |

Due to the necessary athletic restrictions, I have had regular conversations with several coaches over the past year. We talked about coaching life, bottlenecks, and to what extent these influence the level of our coaches. While pondering these conversations, I heard neuropsychologist Erik Scherder on television explaining terms like mirror neurons.

A few days later, during a parent-teacher conference, my daughter’s teacher said with a wink: “You know what they say, ‘If you can’t do something well yourself, you can always become a teacher.'”

Can we as trainers, teachers, coaches, or parents make something of this? One of the most challenging tasks that a coach regularly faces, and where many see the challenge, is “leveling” a group. Who do you pair with whom so that the exercise can be performed without major problems? An instructor who has been obligated to give training or a youth player who trains the minis will not immediately master these skills. However, the question arises whether these coaching skills are actually necessary for the child’s development.

According to the above, this could and perhaps should be different.

Mirror Neurons

What are mirror neurons?

(Explained briefly and simply, as I don’t have the expertise of Dr. Scherder.)

If you watch someone with a concentrated, intense gaze, for example, bumping a ball in volleyball, doing a 360Flip on a skateboard, or performing a freestyle maneuver in windsurfing, neurons in the brain are activated that help you learn the observed movement faster than if you did not follow it intensely. The more often you watch the motion sequence as an athlete, the more neurons are activated.

A tennis coach once challenged his students. While he explained to one how to perform the forehand in tennis, another student had to watch the coach perform the forehand for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, the student who observed was as advanced as the one who had practiced for 20 minutes. Isn’t that remarkable?

I’m not saying that as a coach you should practice reception for an hour while the kids just sit on the bench and watch, and then go home happy. No, I want to point out that leading by example is important. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Group Division

“If you can’t do something well yourself, you can always become a teacher.”

In sports, we often tend to group kids by age or level. However, baseball players in Curacao do it differently. During baseball training, older players (max. 16 years) are mixed with younger players (min. 6 years). The older players then teach the younger ones how to throw, hit, etc. This principle is also applied in Montessori schools. Older students take on the role of a mentor for younger students and teach them. A major advantage of transferring one’s skills to another person is that it deepens one’s own understanding of that skill. The older ones benefit, and the younger ones activate their mirror neurons. A win-win situation.

So, dear coaches, perhaps it is a good idea not to “level,” but to give the older ones in the group the task of teaching the younger ones, and at the same time give the younger ones the task of imitating what the older ones do or say. Practically: Let the older players teach the lower levels before their own training. Or let a Youth player perform the volleyball drills with an older Youth player for at least half an hour during a training session, exercises that you have thought of or found on VolleyballXL.

In this way, you as a trainer/coach can step back and observe developments, providing personal assistance if needed. Moreover, a trainer’s level is not judged by their skills but by whether they can make themselves redundant by raising the players to be self-sufficient.

Dennis Veth

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