The start of the school year is my favorite time of the year because it marks the start of the college football season. While college freshmen have plenty of adjustments to make, freshmen football players who hope to see the field this year have especially unique and daunting challenges. The average college player is bigger, better conditioned, and faster than the average high school player. But that’s only part of the story.
There’s a good reason why so few true freshman can avoid an initial redshirt season, especially on teams with depth: playing time depends on the player’s ability to rapidly build their knowledge and performance fluency with their team’s offense or defense. They need to become fluent in the playbook, interpreting signals from the sidelines, reading and reacting to coverages, knowing where to line up, communicating on the field before the snap, etc. Being fluent means that they remember what to do (retention) and can put their knowledge into practice without thinking about it (application). They can perform equally well with a long snap count or a hurry-up offense (stability). They can perform with 65,000+ screaming fans in the stands (stability). They can perform without mentally taking plays off when they are frustrated or out of breath (endurance). These characteristics of exemplary performance—retention, application, stability, and endurance—are hallmarks of performance fluency.
Fluency comes from a high rate of practice, feedback, and reinforcement. All summer long coaches have been talking about getting the players quality reps. As the reps increase, so does the potential for feedback, shaping, and positive reinforcement. This is essential for building fluency because the rate of change in behavior is directly related to the rate of positive reinforcement for that behavior. You won’t hear a football coach telling a wide receiver to run a route once to demonstrate that he knows how to do it and then check that off as learned. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many organizations. When organizations onboard new employees, they often require only a minimum demonstration of knowledge and skills for these employee to be considered “game ready.” Luckily, the average employee is not under the same level of scrutiny as college football players, nor do they become the topic of Internet discussions every day after work.
Whether through a formal onboarding program or more individualized on-the-job training, new employees will benefit greatly from a high rate of structured practice, feedback, and reinforcement. This will accelerate the fluency building process rather than waiting for daily activities to produce fluency over the long term. Create frequent opportunities for employees to demonstrate what they know (knowledge) and what they can do (skills). Always pair this practice with timely feedback, coaching, and positive reinforcement for incremental improvement.
- Reinforce accurate and fast responding – Design practice activities that provide a high level of repetition so that you can shape accuracy and speed of responding. Focus first on having the employee get it right, and then focus on building speed while maintaining accuracy. Using progressively faster speed goals will limit the employee’s available time to think through how to respond and will shape quick, automatic responding while minimizing errors.
- Build fluency in the fundamentals – Start by building fluency in the fundamentals of the job, the core need-to-know knowledge and skills required for the basic job tasks. When practical, build knowledge fluency first so that that knowledge can be readily applied as needed during skill development. Then break down large tasks into subtasks and build fluency in those subtasks. Small training units will allow high rates of success and reinforcement. Keep the “playbook” simple and add to it only after the employee demonstrates fluency in the basics.
- Put it all together and increase complexity – Having already successfully built knowledge and skill fluency in small, fundamental training units, it will be much easier for you to build fluency in responding to more complex situations. (For example, students fluent in algebra are much more likely to be successful in their calculus classes than those with limited algebra proficiency.) Gradually add novel and increasingly complex practice situations to your fluency building training.
Read more about Knowledge Fluency and Stay Connected.