Self-Monitoring, Human Nature, and Sustained Learning

It is a psychological reality that self monitoring enhances learning and ultimately enhances performance on the playing field. This process of performance improvement is grounded by well set goals and continued through periodic thoughtful reflections. “Thoughtful reflection” can take many forms. It ranges from Curt Shilling’s in depth journaling during and after games throughout his career to regular meetings with sport psychology consultants to debrief and reflect on practices and performances.

Considering all this, one must consider the philosophical “human nature” factor in the embracing of self-monitoring. Is it reasonable to expect the Schilling-esque discipline of regular and repeated note taking of most athletes? The busy collegiate athlete? The occasionally petulant high school competitor? If it is not reasonable and all agree that self reflection leads to better play, the burden of implementing completion of training logs or journals lies on coaches (aren’t they busy enough already?). Furthermore, if this is the case, little personal accountability for performance is developed.

Young and his colleagues recently examined the use of training logs on athlete beliefs and performance (Young et al. (2009). Effects of self-monitoring training logs on behaviors and beliefs of swimmers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 413-428). Swimmers were asked to complete logs in private and away from the swim center. Athletes were found to have increased adherence to at practice training regimes, furthermore intentions to analyze one’s quality of training were increased (a nice sign of personal accountability). There were minimal differences between the group that monitored “targeted training behaviors” and the group that monitored physical responses to training (i.e. sleep, hydration, etc.). Certainly more examination is necessary to learn about the nuances of how the content of training logs influence different training and competitive objectives. Nonetheless, it continues to remain clear that self-monitoring benefits athletes… for a while, at least according to Young and his colleagues.

In this study, benefits appeared to taper off after about 17 days. Perhaps this is where “human nature” or in more scientific terms habituation rears its head. After a certain period of time, the quality and mental effort put into training logs erodes. It becomes mindless rather than the true goal of mindfulness. This is evident to anyone that has had the opportunity to view journals of youth and high school age athletes at sports academies. Too often, over time, the notes on the pages at best are vague comments dashed onto a page with good intention, at worst many blank pages with only the occasional chicken scratch. Self-monitoring often begins with good intention, good education, and quality reflection, but too often fails to fulfill its potential.

Here are a few ideas to] maximize the potential of self-monitoring and make it stick:

1. Coach Involvement – Players should be expected to complete journals on their own, but knowing they will receive feedback on and acknowledgment of their efforts helps motivation and quality. If it is perceived by the athlete that coaches give self-monitoring little importance, the lead will be followed.

2. Monitor with Purpose and Within Reason – There are a million things that an athlete can monitor – goals (technical, tactical, mental, fitness), stress levels, sleep patterns, nutrition, statistics, etc.  Thoughtfulness about each can benefit player development, focus on all could lead to mental paralysis. Just because you can monitor it doesn’t mean you should. The art of the training log is to make it both user friendly and performance-enhancing.  To improve the mental game and move efficiently towards competitive goals, I believe monthly goal-setting/evaluation and regular competition evaluations are reasonable expectations for most athletes. Quality thought is important throughout. Once well embraced practice evals and more can be added, but it is important to set the athlete up for success in the monitoring process.

3. Periodized-Like Approach – Young and his peers saw positive benefits for 17 days. A successful intervention for over 26 days is seen as ideal for sustained behavior change. If we are to suspect some form of habituation can occur while keeping training logs, it is important to change things up periodically. This could be adding a new factor to monitor while removing another every three weeks or so. It could mean switching from monitoring practice behaviors to monitoring competition behaviors regularly. It could also mean appropriately balancing a focus on stats with attention to performance routines. Be creative and purposeful. Consistency of habits is important, but the mind like the body needs periodic changes in stimulation to stay agile, fresh, and focused.

Quality self-assessment leads to athletes that learn quickly and perform at their potential. Creating and sustaining quality self-assessment can be a challenge. Athletes that reach the highest levels and stay there find the necessary motivation and focus. Challenge yourself to create a plan and a culture for sustained athletic self-awareness.

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4 Responses to “Self-Monitoring, Human Nature, and Sustained Learning”


  1. 1 Greg Chertok February 8, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    There is much to be said for “changing things up”. Variety, it has been asserted, is the spice of life. The self-monitoring process is so vital in order to achieve enhanced self-awareness and the masterful recognition of one’s own needs (amount of sleep/hydration, ideal in-game heart rate, proper pre-game meal, etc) but, like a bar of sweet, milk chocolate, too much of the same thing will ultimately leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. As the human body responds most favorably to fitness regimens that promote variation, one’s mind – particularly one of a youth athlete – requires a bit of change to keep them alert and their self-monitoring meaningful.

    An older man, approaching the 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, recently confessed to me his secret to marital success: “Keep her guessing. Keep her on her toes. One day, return home from work with a rose, or a nice shirt, or a piece of jewelry, or a loving embrace. Never fall into a long-term lasting routine. The possibility of surprise fortifies the relationship, and keeps it lasting”.

    Whether it’s the content that’s being self-monitored (goals vs. ideal heart rate vs. sleep patterns vs. diet vs. self-talk vs…), the timing or frequency with which self-monitoring occurs, even the color of the paper on which it is being recorded, at a certain point things much change. And it’s important for each coach to know when that “certain point” is for his or her team. Keep the athletes on their toes and they, like the subject of their self-monitoring, will stay fresh.


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