Brain Based Learning and Differentiated Teaching

This is an excerpt of the second article in a three part series that has been contributed by John Pascarella, Sporting Kansas City Assistant Coach. The first part was published in our Coaching Advanced Players blog.

In the first of this three part series I began with a saying from Coach John Wooden:  “You haven’t taught until they’ve learned” and how this caused me to think of my own coaching style and how I sometimes find it difficult to get my points across to players in different ways when they don’t understand the initial way I’ve tried to explain it.  In that article I compared US Soccer’s Simple to Complex teaching methodology to the French Federations Whole-Part-Whole method emphasizing that I didn’t feel one was better than the other but stressed that coaches need more than one way to teach progressions so they can teach players with different types of learning styles.

In this article I wanted to expand on that idea by sharing a teaching theory that advocates different approaches to help maximize your ability to teach and influence your players. Keeping in mind that players are all different in knowledge base, understanding of the game and learning styles I have come to realize that using different approaches can help me maximize each of my player’s potential by making the information more learner-friendly.

Learning is both a spatial and rote (memorization) process.  Throughout parts of Europe this understanding of the learning process has given way to a slightly different and varied way of teaching and has recently been dubbed by some as “Brain Based Learning.”   As well as taking the learning process into consideration we also need to account for differences in people by using different methods to teach.  The educational model currently being used in various schools throughout the United States to address this is issue is called “Differentiated Teaching.”

Brain based learning in football has been championed most recently by Michel Bruyninckx in Belgium, Thomas Tuchel in Germany as well as being the methodology used at Barcelona FC.  It has its roots in the theory of “differentiated teaching” which is a training approach pioneered by Wolfgang Schoellhorn, an expert in kinesiology and human movement at Mainz University in Germany.

My belief is that by combining the methods of Brain Based Learning and Differentiated Teaching we can touch on the last frontier of developing world class individuals – the brain!!

Cognitive readiness, improved perception, mastering of time and space combined with perfect motor functioning is now the highest level of player developmentSkillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player.  Therefore, we need to stop thinking that football is only a matter of the body but also a matter of the mind.

Regularly presenting new activities to the players keeps their mind focused and on edge.  By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available.  In this regard, it makes perfect sense to use lots of different approaches, exercises and modalities in order to maximize the potential of your team because all the players that comprise that team are different and learn in different ways.  Using the information gained through research in educational areas (and a little creativity by the coaching staff) we can use the information gained on how players learn and match it with the optimal style in which to teach them.


Here is a summary of the major points of both Brain Based Learning and Differentiated Teaching. 

Brain Based Learning is learning through both experiences and memory and done in a comfortable environment so the learner focuses on the content and not how they feel as they are trying to process the information.   The basic principles are:

  1. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
  2. Memory involves two types - spatial and rote.
  3. Learning involves different senses and each person has a preferred learning style. (Ex) Sight, hearing, feeling/doing.
  4. The search for meaning comes through patterning (repetition - “deliberate practice.”)
  5. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.  Creating a learning environment of relaxed alertness is important for learning to take place.
  6. Feedback is best and most “impactful” when it comes from the experience and not dictated by an authority figure.  This can be encouraged by the coach through a process called “guided discovery.


Differentiated Teaching is the process of maximizing each player’s growth by proactively planning a variety of instruction methods to meet the needs of players with differing learning styles, background knowledge and readiness. The players readiness (background knowledge) and the  learning style of the participant needs to be considered before presenting information to the player.  The basic principles of differentiated teaching are:

  1. Several different elements and materials are used to support learning.  This process is called “Orchestrated Immersion.”
  2. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with each player however the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit the learners’ readiness and background   knowledge.
  3. How the material is presented must be based on the participant’s preferred learning style. Some people prefer to see the information (visual learners), some prefer to hear it (auditory learners) while others prefer to do it (kinesthetic learners).
  4. Whole group introductory discussions (of big content ideas) may take place but are usually followed by small group work. This process must be well thought out and organized with flexible groupings, engaging all participants by varying the tasks and mode of instruction.
  5. Emphasis needs to be placed on critical and creative thinking.


The learning process

Focusing on the basic principles of both brain based learning and differentiated teaching, a coach can create a team environment, in meetings and training sessions of Orchestrated Immersion – learning environments that fully immerse players in an educational experience.  While creating this environment the coach needs to cater to three different types of Learning Styles.  Taking into consideration the 3 different styles makes it easier for each player to understand the information you are trying to convey.  To do this successfully the coach needs to create a feeling amongst the players of Relaxed Alertness by eliminating fear while at the same time maintaining a highly Challenging Environment around the team. This challenging environment is created in part by using the Guided Discovery process – encouraging creative thought and extracting answers from players by using leading questions and not just giving them the answers to soccer problems.

If the coach is able to immerse his players in a rich and realistic learning environment while catering to their individual learning preferences and eliminating the fear of failure it will lead to the Active Processing of the information.  This consolidation and internalization of all the relevant cues increases a player’s cognitive development and is the learning process at work.

Let’s explore each of these six main tenets more closely so we better understand how to engage the learning process.[wpsharely id="6889"][/wpsharely]

The rest of this article is published in the December, 2013 edition of WORLD CLASS COACHING available in the Member Drills Database. If you don't already subscribe click here to access thousands articles and training sessions.

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