Flexible Thinking – Executive Function and Coaching (Part-2) – Flexible Thinking and Working Memory

Flexible Thinking – Executive Function and Coaching (Part-2) – Flexible Thinking and Working Memory

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Other Articles Related To This One In This Series

In this second part of four, relating to executive function and athletic performances and coaching competencies, I examine the importance of flexible thinking and working memory.  Part One exploring impulse control and emotional thinking can be found here. Part three exploring self-monitoring and planning/prioritization can be found here.

This has been a fun series of posts to develop and has allowed me to realize how much of my own coaching practice has been formed and shaped by applying these concepts learned in the context of the classroom to my athletic coaching. I hope you get as much value out of this piece as I have gained writing it.

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Flexible Thinking For Athletes

Rowers need flexible thinking to adapt to changing conditions and unexpected situations during practice, racing sessions and team life. Rowing is a sport that requires a high level of precision and coordination, and the ability to think flexibly is essential for maintaining performance and achieving success.

Flexible thinking allows rowers to adjust their strategies and techniques in response to changing conditions, such as wind and water, and to make quick decisions when things don’t go as planned. For example, if a rower competes in a race and the wind picks up, flexible thinking allows them to adjust their technique and maintain their pace. Similarly, if a rower’s oar gets caught in a buoy, flexible thinking allows them to assess the situation and take appropriate action quickly.

We recently saw a great example of flexible thinking in the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race, where Cambridge made an intentional decision (my current understanding) to head for the shore out of the main current channel, which you could argue was a decisive point in deciding the winner. It’s a great example of examining all variables and doing something creative to create a situational advantage.

Watch the video below (it is configured to start at the point where Cambridge make their move).

I also think that seat racing provides an opportunity for athletes to be strategic. After two rowers are swapped there is usually a period of time when the new combination has a few minutes to row about and get used to the new line up. Athletes that are good seat racers know that they alone will not win the seat race. A smart approach is to row with others with a “how are WE going to win this seat race” mentality. Some successful rowers that can act like chameleons are able to be flexible and adjust timing and general flow to the combination they are currently to go as fast as possible.

Cognitive Flexibility

Another example of flexible thinking is when a coxswain knows when to change their line into a bridge when there is congestion with other crews on the river.  Sometimes, you need a power ten; sometimes, you need half pressure for a few strokes. If you go to the Head of the Charles, in Boston in late October and spend 30 minutes watching the crews coming through Week’s footbridge to see the success or failure of flexible thinking in action. For more information on the set of competencies that a skillful coxswain should have and why flexible thinking is critical, read my article The Case For The Coxswain Seat: The Perfect Ride To Develop Your 21st Century Skills.

Flexible thinking also allows rowers to adjust their goals and expectations as needed. It allows for re-framing a perception of a challenge or disappointment. It’s always challenging to make final decisions which athletes are going to make the varsity boat and which ones are going to make the JV boat. A coach is most likely have a rower who is close to the top boat but does not make it. Naturally, there will be disappointment.

However, re-framing this disappointment as an opportunity to show leadership in the JV and assuring the athlete that there will be continual coaching evaluations could be the difference between an invested rower and one that lets that disappointment govern their performance. You might be interested in my article – Goal Setting – I am not sitting in the seat that I want for a look at cognitive re-framing.

This idea of re-framing is an excellent skill and perhaps worth an article in itself. The journey through the process of a season will likely bring many challenges for rowers. Sometimes performances won’t go well. Therefore, looking at the experience and re-framing it positively and constructively is a very helpful skill. This worksheet I have created will help you work through challenges by re-framing perspective, rather than avoiding them or letting them stall your progress.

Coaches can also benefit from flexible thinking when writing training programs for their athletes. There are times when performance gains are not present. While helpful, sound, and scientific training principles exist, just because a certain team or crew trains in a certain manner doesn’t necessarily mean the program should be replicated. Athletes are often at different places in their development. Some are more explosive and anaerobically inclined, and others are more aerobically favored. By looking at performance data and considering developmental stages, it is possible to analyze the effectiveness of an athlete’s physiology and output in a given performance benchmark. Time and scheduling are also important factors in designing the most effective training plan for a particular person or training group.

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In summary, rowers and their coaches need flexible thinking to adapt to changing conditions and unexpected situations during practice, racing sessions, and team life. It allows them to adjust their strategies and techniques, make quick decisions, adjust their goals and expectations, maintain performance, and achieve success. Flexible thinking also helps rowers to stay calm under pressure and think creatively when faced with challenges.


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Interleaving Rowing Drills

Working memory refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind for a short period. This is important to understand and should be considered when designing training programs, practices and/or race strategy. Our working memory can only hold a certain amount of information. Additionally, Cognitive Load refers to the mental effort required to process information. These two concepts should help us frame how and when we provide our athlete’s instruction and feedback. 

I must carefully select the drills we use at practice for a part of the stroke I want my athletes to master. In addition, my instruction should be broken down into manageable chunks of information that my athletes can use to move correctly, activate the appropriate muscles, and create force when needed. 

Its a good idea to work on one section of the stroke at a time. The human brain has a forgetting curve.  If rowing drills are taught in some kind of a sequence over time, it’s a good idea to “interleave” drills that were taught earlier as the sequence of drills progress over time.

However, my current understanding is that it is important to periodize technical principles. Drills can be introduced at specific parts of the training cycle. The sequence and timing of drills are important considerations. I can start a training cycle with a couple of new drills and work towards mastery in those drills. Then, new drills that address other stroke mechanics can be introduced. The older drills can be interspersed with the new ones at specific points. This practice is known as retrieval practice. The concept of interleaving content is a pillar of effective teaching. The human mind needs to do some “forgetting” and relearning toward mastery of skill. We often periodize training plans, why not periodize the technical drills as well? Food for thought.

Over the last couple of years at my school (Holland Hall, Tulsa, OK) we have been engaged in professional development led by the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. During one session, a thought from one of our coaches, Glenn Whitman, resonated with me. To paraphrase this quote…

“We spend so much time trying to input content into the minds of our students. However, we should spend more time helping them retrieve concepts and ideas,”

…or words to that effect.

The human mind forgets ideas and concepts over time, and effective learning allows for that forgetting but is also strategic about revisiting content periodically. This, in turn, builds stronger neural connections, which result in retaining knowledge and skills on a longer timeline. 

There are times during a practice on the water when instruction is warranted. At the same time, we should also be aware when it is time to be silent and let the athletes figure things out. Often a balance needs to be struck and experience will inform us where this is at any given point in time.

For example, my coaching methodology for coaching novices employs the idea that if I can coach novice athletes to simultaneously reach the same point in the stroke, they can develop the movement and motor patterns toward automatic skill and higher levels of mastery. I like pause drills (really at any level, but particularly for novices). Pause drills work because they allow for the concepts of cognitive load/working memory and provide athletes the chance to focus on one thing at a time. 


I consider each athlete holistically.  It is one the reasons that I developed the 3D Life Fitness Diagnostic. Our athletes also have other areas of their life to manage. Context is very important when designing a training program. Suppose I schedule a 2K test during the exam period. In that case, I need to have my finger on the pulse of the academic load of that athlete and adjust expectations appropriately or possibly rethink the schedule.  

Equally important is reading the room and knowing when to pivot my plans in a practice. Sure, there are times when I need to push our athletes so that they can handle the pressure of exam periods and important end-of-year examinations. However, my advice is to keep the last few paragraphs in mind and trust your gut as you navigate your learning environment, managing challenges appropriately with the athlete’s best interests in mind. In the words of Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold em…”

As I write these articles about various aspects of Executive Function, I has given me a better appreciation of how all of the components of these concepts work together to form a cohesive framework for all aspects of creating and managing environments that foster mastery and effective learning. In part three, I take a look at self-monitoring and planning/prioritization. Consider joining the mailing list so that you don’t miss a future article, or reach out to me for a free coaching consult, I’d be happy to chat about rowing with you!

Attribution: Elements of this series were inspired and informed by professional development offered by The Center For Transformative Teaching and Learning and the “The Placemat” – MBE Strategies For Teaching and Learning. For more information on the CTTL, please visit this link.


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