A 'Meta-Learning' Approach for More Productive Training

Athletes and coaches across all sports incessantly speak about the importance of 'focussing on the process', and process goals. As coaches and practitioners we are likewise ever mindful of scheduling constraints and the need to make best use of the finite time permitted to prepare our athletes. In previous posts we have spoken about the importance of mobilising mental resources, and the critical role of athletes' perception in relation to training responses. Here we will venture into the realms of teaching and learning, in order to make meaningful use of the notion of 'process focus' in the context of sport. In our quest for more purposeful training we will explore the concept of 'meta-learning', and outline how these principles might be applied to the process and the practice of preparing athletes.

the state of ‘being aware of and taking control of one’s own learning’
— John Biggs


The concept of 'meta-learning' refers to the processes that govern and underpin learning across different domains. This includes the learner's awareness of their own learning process, consideration of how best to approach learning a task or topic, and the ongoing 'metacognitive' processes of selecting, reviewing and refining their strategy employed to do so.

In the present era of connectivity and incessant distractions from mobile technology and social media, authors in the field of education identify that young people increasingly struggle to develop study skills and the ability to self-regulate their learning. These observations from a scholastic realm equally apply to sport and athletic preparation.

Coaching has many parallels to teaching. It is no coincidence that historically many elite coaches and practitioners have come from a teaching background. I would contend adopting a teaching perspective is entirely more useful than taking a 'service industry' viewpoint, as is becoming increasingly common in the field.

On a fundamental level, in the training environment the athlete is there to learn and be challenged. For instance, as outlined in a previous post, we can conceptualise training as a problem-solving exercise. Just as it is important to learn how to learn more effectively, in a sporting context it is equally critical for an athlete to learn how to train more productively.


Long term athlete development models refer to the 'learn to train' phase as an integral part of the developmental process. Yet beyond this acknowledgement, it is very rare that athletes are actually provided with any tangible direction on how they can learn to train more effectively. Accordingly, many athletes do not customarily give any real consideration to their approach to the training process, and the strategies they might employ to make best use of these opportunities to develop.

Notable authors in the field, such as Barry J. Zimmerman, have pioneered the application of concepts of 'self-regulated learning' to motor learning in the context of sport, particularly with young athletes. Here we will extend the application of 'meta-learning' principles to all facets of physical and athletic preparation. Just as many in the field extol the virtues of 'deliberate practice', by extension it is also beneficial to be deliberate in our approach to training.

Young athletes in particular may require additional guidance and tools to be focussed, deliberate and systematic in their approach to their preparation. As we explore in the next section, such practices that place the athlete in the centre of the training process are also beneficial as a means to support and preserve intrinsic motivation.


A feature of modern elite and professional sport is a preoccupation with 'high performance teams' as comprising an extensive array of specialist support staff. In the drive to provide comprehensive specialist support what can be lost is the role of the athlete in directing and regulating their own practice and preparation.

We generally assume that the athlete is invested in becoming better. Whilst an athlete might be fully engaged, in many instances they can nevertheless find their role in the daily training process may become somewhat passive. Professional team settings or high performance systems can operate in such a way that responsibility for the day-to-day process is unwittingly delegated to the respective member of the support staff, so that the onus is taken away from the athlete.

Likewise, in a commercial setting, where the athlete (or parent) is paying for coaching services, there can also be a 'transactional mindset' - i.e. 'it is your job to make me better'. This not only abdicates responsibility, but also renders it very difficult to hold the athlete accountable to the process or the outcome.

Fundamentally, the intention the athlete brings to their training, and the attention and mental effort they invest each time they train, are critical to the outcome. By definition the athlete is an active player in the process; their role and contribution must be continually emphasised. Indeed over time the athlete should become more actively involved in driving their own preparation. The culture of the team and the daily training environment must facilitate this.


Investigations of 'talented' athletes in different sports indicate that an apparent point of difference with more successful performers is the level of planning and effort they invest in their approach to training and practice.

In particular, critical elements of 'self-regulation' simply involves the athlete being self-directed and proactive in their approach to their own development. The degree to which athletes take responsibility for their own learning and practice can be demonstrated in their behaviours both during and outside of sessions.

Accordingly these 'self-regulatory' behaviours and cognitive processes that underpin training seem to be part of what differentiates successful performers in different sports. For instance, preliminary evidence indicates that part of what separates elite and non-elite team sports players is the level of self-awareness of their own areas of strength and weakness, and how they make use of this knowledge. Other apparent points of difference include the level of forethought employed during practice, and the level of effort and attention the athlete is willing to invest during training.

Moreover, self-directed learning and self-regulatory practices appear to be particularly critical in certain sports. Notably, self-regulatory learning behaviours appear to be more prevalent among athletes in individual sports.


In the media (and social media) a worrisome trend is that we increasingly hear athletes and even coaches refer to 'the grind'. This is a problem as it calls to mind to the notion of grinding through hours of practice or training in a mindless manner. It is crucial to recognise that hours of practice logged by an athlete are not equal in quality or yield. When it comes to acquiring and honing skilled performance, a single hour of 'deep' mindful practice will yield far greater results than multiple hours of mindless repetition.

In the same way we should give greater consideration to the quality of all aspects of physical and athletic preparation undertaken by an athlete. @@Training exposure alone does not equate to outcome@@. Attendance and compliance is an important starting point; this provides the opportunity to improve and develop. However, taking advantage of the opportunity afforded when the athlete comes to training is contingent on what mental resources they invest each day.


@@Connecting mind and body is the holy grail when it comes to athletic preparation@@. @@Along with time, attention represents a precious and increasingly scarce resource@@.

Being 'mindful' first requires the athlete to have some awareness and give consideration to how they approach their preparation. This is often overlooked.

If you ask an aspiring athlete whether they have given any thought to how they approach their skill practice, it is entirely possible that this has never occurred to them. I would venture that the likelihood is even less if you were to ask whether they have given any serious thought to how they approach their physical preparation.

@@The intention that the athlete brings to their practice and training is crucial@@. Arguably this begins even before the training session commences. The athlete should be clear in their aims and objectives from the moment that they arrive at the training facility.


Borrowing once again from the self-regulated learning literature, we can identify four major pillars for self-directed preparation practices. These pillars are goal setting, evaluation, monitoring, and reflection.


Goal-setting is a critical process whereby the athlete sets their intention in relation to skill acquisition and physical development. From the outset the athlete must identify their long-term aspirations, medium-term aims or outcomes, and objectives they are working towards in the short-term.

Clearly setting goals is a good way to provide direction. Beyond this, having some clearly defined aims and outcomes also provides something to hold the athlete accountable to. The athlete's aims and objectives will naturally evolve over time, and so should be reviewed periodically and updated as necessary.

Each day the athlete should be prompted to remind themselves why they are there, what they are working towards, and the person they want to be. In this way the imagined future version of themselves that they aspire to be serves as both a 'virtual' role model and the standard that they hold themselves to on a day-to-day basis.


To be deliberate and systematic on their approach requires the athlete to be aware and give consideration to their role in the process. Self-awareness is not only the starting point, but is also integral to each step of the process that follows.

A simple questionnaire can be employed to allow the athlete to evaluate their current status and rate themselves on different aspects:

Priority - how do you rate the importance of achieving your sporting goals?

  1. Most important thing in my life

  2. Of equal importance to other priority areas

  3. Fairly important, but other aspects of my life are more important

  4. Not hugely important, mainly for recreation

Are you doing everything you can? Rate yourself in the following areas (0 - 5 scale - 0=TERRIBLE; 5=OUTSTANDING):

  • Consistent attendance

  • Focus and intention each day upon arrival at training

  • Attention allocated during the session (e.g. execution of each repetition)

  • Mental effort invested

  • Lifestyle ('wellness' factors, relationships, distractions, other stressors)

  • Personal admin (organisation, time management, balancing commitments)

  • Sleep (consistency, duration, quality)

  • Nutrition (e.g. preparation, content, timing)

  • Therapy (including self-therapy) and regeneration


Just as self-awareness is the foundation, self-monitoring is a critical practice that underpins self-regulated learning and a self-directed approach to athletic preparation. Self-recording is the formal process for this.

In a recent conversation with Ben Rosenblatt he made a compelling argument for putting the onus back on the athlete, particularly with respect to daily monitoring practices.

Clearly it is beneficial for the athlete to keep a record of their training, and log the sets and repetitions completed. It is also in the athlete's interests to be diligent in completing the daily monitoring tools they employ (e.g. sleep and wellness measures). Given that these tools are intended for the athlete's benefit, there should be a clear expectation that the athlete should take responsibility for them.

There are important implications here that extend to the athlete's life beyond training facility. Lifestyle factors are critical in supporting training adaptation, and from a health and injury viewpoint. These factors are entirely dependent upon the behaviours and decisions the athlete takes when beyond the reach of the coach or practitioner. Given that it is ultimately incumbent upon the individual, personal responsibility must therefore be emphasised and reinforced as an integral part of the culture of the training environment.


Just as we have spoken about reflective practice as critical for coaches and practitioners, it is equally crucial that athletes exercise reflection. Implementing a practice strategy is of limited value without the facility to evaluate its effectiveness, and to reflect and refine their approach over time.

Dan Pfaff emphasises the importance of the daily debrief as an integral part of the training process. It is important for the athlete to record their own observations on the process as a basis for reflection; the use of a training journal allows the athlete to record any information that is pertinent, including coaching cues that resonated and also their own cognitive strategies. In-depth review and feedback sessions should also be scheduled at regular intervals, usually following the completion of each training block.

In combination these elements provide the framework for the athlete to reflect upon the training process on an ongoing basis. In turn these tools and processes further prompt the athlete to consider how might alter how they approach their training to improve outcomes, and seek any guidance to assist them to do so.


@@The process behind the process matters@@. The level of awareness, attention and thought the athlete brings to their preparation are critical factors. It follows that @@as coaches and practitioners we should give greater consideration to athlete's role in the preparation process@@.

There are a number of different pillars and processes that can help inform and support how the athlete approaches their training and practice. Just as this is critical for skill practice, the same emphasis should also be applied to how an athlete approaches their physical and athletic preparation.

Mindful 'deep practice' is effortful and requires considerable investment of mental resources. This is much the same with physical preparation. As such, a willingness to invest effort and attention on the part of the athlete is a critical trait and a likely determinant of their future success in the sport. This is particularly the case with individual sports given that self-regulatory learning behaviours appear more prevalent among successful performers in these sports.

Developing the pillars of self regulated learning behaviours are likely to confer wider benefits. For instance, developing self awareness and educating the athlete on taking responsibility for their own development are important for their own sake. These are desirable traits, and the disciplines they develop will have positive transfer to the scholastic realm and the athlete's life beyond sport.

Enjoyed the read? For more on a variety of topics relating to physical preparation and athletic development see the Books section of the website.

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