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Differential learning in sports

India has a population of over 1.3 billion, with so much undiscovered talent. In my experience as a Dutch physical education teacher living in Bangalore for the past few months, there is so much to gain in India’s sports ecosystem, especially regarding sports diversity and having fun with sports. I’ve followed a few different sports classes, and they were all focused on making no errors in the practiced sport, but there are so many more fun ways to get on a higher level. Using ‘Differential Learning’ could create a more diverse sports ecosystem and attract more people to play sports. Thus, motivating more people to pick up playing a sport.

A lot of trainers are used to or still use ‘traditional learning’ to reach the ideal technique in a sport by repeating the movement until no more errors are made. Variations in the technique will be seen as errors that should be avoided. But is this really true? Is there even a perfect way to execute any sport? Let’s take a look at two different athletes in the same sport - both athletes play the same sport but are still different from one another because they move differently from each other. Even though they have those differences, they can still play at the highest level possible. This gives them an edge over their competitors.

What is Differential Learning?

Differential learning means that you’re going to change the content of what’s being taught, the learning process, the product, and the learning environment. What this creates is an environment that supports making mistakes and the ability to utilize one’s strengths. This means you can change the whole sport they are playing, how they are playing the sport, with what material they are playing, and in what kind of environment they are playing.

Let’s understand differential learning using the sport of Badminton as an example -

We can change the sport of Badminton completely into another new racket sport - with different rules, change the racket for a ball or balloon or change the shuttle with a tennis ball, and lastly, we can take away the netting for something else or even just hang it a bit higher. Just play around, making the game more fun and exciting. Let’s see a video to understand the concept better: See the next video from 00:30 onwards. (720) Badminton Jeugdtrainers express: Motorisch leren - Differentieel leren – YouTube

Once you train in a specific sport for multiple years, the progression in that sport slows down naturally. But with some slight variations, we can enhance the progress by making mistakes and thus triggering the brain. It will give the mind and the body new ways of solving problems. The brain can make connections between various sports, similar to a network of computers; the more connections are made, the easier the solving capability becomes.

To make these lessons useful for anyone who wants to learn and apply, we´re going to look at how differential learning can be made effective by understanding two factors related to it:

  • The fundamental movements &

  • The co-ordination abilities

Fundamental movements

Let's start by understanding what is fundamental movement. Fundamental movements are the movements your body uses in any sport, and every sport has overlapping basic movements which can be trained in another sport. Eventually, these fundamental movements become complex movements. Complex movements are two or more fundamental moves combined into one big exercise.

List of fundamental movements:

Let’s take the example of basic training:

When you combine two movements, i.e., initiating and walking, followed by kicking and turning. This is what the movement will look like -

  • you stand still and make a sprint toward a placed soccer ball

  • Now you kick the soccer ball toward the target

  • and then you run back to your starting point

  • Make sure you don’t stop moving until you kick the ball

Simple right? All these fundamental moves can be made differently by changing the content, the process, the product, and the learning environment. Which will probably result in the athlete making a mistake. Now let’s modify the above example by adding a bit of differential learning -

  • The still player is going to run toward a Rugby ball from a point

  • The player makes a quick turn to kick the ball in another direction

  • Add a defending person in the direction where the ball has to be shot

  • and then run toward the next point.

We´ve changed the content by changing the sport, the kind of ball used, the process by first having to turn before shooting, and the learning environment by adding a defending player. You could also change the product by making the player receive a ball instead of kicking it.

The changes in the exercise goal are made to let the athlete fail and learn to adjust to the new situation instead of practicing the perfect shot over and over again. This will make new connections in the brain to support the main goal.

Co-ordination abilities

Let’s understand what co-ordination ability is by using the example of balancing. You play the sport of Rugby; the ability to not fall down while dodging players or the ability to stop someone by tackling without getting run over is important in the sport of Rugby. Now let's think of another sport where this ability is even more important, Judo!

The sport of Judo can teach a Rugby player how to use their own body to create more balance which will definitely help in bettering the sport of Rugby. But don’t you think that training harder in one sport and its related movements make you better in the sport you are training?

The answer:

Not necessary; you have gained more balancing abilities through Judo, which your competitors lack. You now have new techniques and connections in the brain that they don’t, which will make you the surprising factor in a game. For example, using the dive roll technique from the sport of Judo can help you to manage opposition tackles in Rugby. To understand, watch the video - (starting at 1:40s)

But I don’t know anything about Judo; how will I teach them?

Try having guest lessons with a Judo instructor, or take some lessons yourself. There are a lot of options for learning Judo or any other ancillary sport, don’t limit yourself to just one way of training. It is very important to discover everyone’s special talent; remember, no person is the same. Using ‘differential learning’ can be done inside and outside of your training. As a coach, you can let your athletes impress friends and themselves by practicing a handstand at home or during free time at training. By practicing this, they will achieve more core strength and balance, or give them specific games to play at home with friends. There are a lot of ways to let your athletes use it by themselves as soon as you find their motivation.

Finally, try getting partners in sports, primary schools, high schools, different sports clubs, or anything you can think of. Use their Physical education classes to introduce your sport or to widen your views. Make use of collaboration with different sports clubs to have an exchange of athletes. Be creative and think big, and don´t forget to have fun.

About the author

Daniel Seroo is a qualified sports instructor. He has a history with multiple different sports, used to coach a snowboard team and is a physical education teacher in the Netherlands. His biggest interest right now is to get as many people as possible to enjoy sports and making it more fun by taking away the harsh environment.

About Simply Sport

Simply Sport is a sports policy research & development organization based out of India. Simply Sport’s vision is to promote sports as an effective tool for the development of the nation. It focuses on policy research, grassroots development and the use of technology in sports. To subscribe to Simply Sports Newsletters, Research & Articles, please write to You can follow Simply Sport on the Twitter handle @_SimplySport for more sports-related content.



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