ko te manaaki i ngā kaihākinakina | caring for New Zealand's sports community
Picture of Spideman reading a book to keep learning.

Three reasons why smart athletes keep learning

This series is based on The Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing. Now in Part 4 we explore Keep learning, me ako tonu.

See Part 1: Why sportspeople need to connect meaningfully with others, why it’s hard, and what you can do about itPart 2: ‘Greedy, selfish and self-centred’ sportspeople; and how not to be one; and also Part 3: Mindfulness: a simple practice pros use to lift their game.



1. Learning leads to winning


‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts the most.…one of the reasons it’s extremely difficult to stay at the top (is) because once you get there, it’s so easy to stop listening and learning.’

John Wooden


When you think about winning, you might think of the All Blacks. They have been the number one ranked team in the world since 2010. During this time they have won two Rugby World Cups, seven Tri-Nations/Rugby Championships and nine Bledisloe Cups. And the All Blacks have a saying, ‘When you are on top of your game, change your game’. 

A lot of people have studied the All Blacks, to try to figure out what makes them so successful. So many aspects of their culture are admirable. One of them is their culture of continuous improvement as identified by Bruce Cotterill:

They are constantly striving to improve. They come off the field after a big win and talk about the things they need to improve before they go out and play again.  They talk openly about taking the game to a new level, a level that no other team has played at. And then they achieve that lofty ambition.



Always learning, always improving

Take the first Bledisloe Cup game this year: a nice 38-13 win to the All Blacks in Sydney. Following this, coming home for the second match at Eden Park, where they haven’t lost in 24 years, what are they talking about? How to improve.

Here’s Aaron Smith:

It just starts again. We could take a lot of positives from the weekend but there were heaps of learnings and opportunities for us to get better and that’s what we’re really focusing on after a review this morning.
We just want to improve our game, get it to a standard where we want to be but I think you just have to look at our set piece attack. It was pretty average and we got nothing off that.


And Ben Smith:

We learnt from the review today that we missed quite a few opportunities. I think it’s pretty exciting this week that we can fix up quite a lot of those. I’m sure they’ll go away and do the same thing so that’s what makes the second Test so interesting.


The performance triangle

The All Blacks talk about a ‘performance triangle’, of which learning is a key part.

Assistant coach Ian Foster explains:

If you haven’t got stimulation and learning in your week, you won’t get a high quality performance. We think there’s such a clear correlation between that. And so every week: how can we change things for players who think they’re masters of something to have to go and learn something.

(From speech given at Home or Away? conference, Carey Baptist College, Auckland, 12 July 2017.)


He cites Richie McCaw as an example of someone who was always ready to learn new things.

Here’s your greatest guy, your greatest leader, and guess what the other players thought when they saw Richie working? And so that’s why we won the World Cup [in 2015], things like that.



 2. Learning leads to wellbeing


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.      

Henry Ford


However the benefits of continual learning go way beyond winning. Education also promotes mental wellbeing.

Professor Jyri Manninen surveyed 8,646 adults involved in education programmes.  He found increased motivation, social networks, quality of life, and wellbeing, as well as competency in the specific area being studied.

These participants weren’t studying for university degrees, but voluntary, informal, non-vocational courses, in subjects like stress management, creative writing and yoga. Even things as simple as learning a new recipe, visiting an art gallery or museum, or developing a hobby, have benefits for mental health and wellbeing.

Learning gives direction to people’s lives. Attending adult learning can facilitate friendships, improvements in physical health and greater social support. Education reduces the risk of developing depression, particularly in women. Learning can lead to increased self-confidence, optimism and self-esteem.



Learning outside sport

Continual learning in your sport is crucial for continued success, but so is learning in other areas outside sport. Peter Jones of The Job Network says that hobbies outside of work are the keys to your professional success

Studies show that having a creative hobby outside of work, leads to greater creativity and better attitudes at work, higher job satisfaction and less burnout.

Even sedentary hobbies like knitting and playing guitar have physical benefits such reduced blood pressure and body mass index

Learning new things through hobbies provides relief from stress, which leads to improved focus, happiness, as well as a longer life

To succeed at sport, you have to be pretty single-minded and focussed. But if sport is all you are about, you could be heading for trouble, in your relationships, your health, as well as your performance in your sport. Whatever work we do, and no matter how much we love our job, everybody needs time away from it to be their best, and to achieve long-term success and satisfaction. Learning something new is about allowing your body and mind time to recharge, making you a more balanced interesting person, and opening doors into a future world beyond sport when that time comes.



3. Learning leads to wisdom, and the wise keep learning


A wise man will hear and increase in learning,

And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel

Proverbs 1:5 


The book of Proverbs, written between the tenth and sixth centuries BC, provides insight into ancient ideas about learning, wisdom and understanding, which agree with what science tells us today.  Wisdom is personified as a woman holding long life in her right hand, and riches and honour in her left (3:16). Readers are urged to seek knowledge, understanding and wisdom ‘as silver… as hidden treasures’ (2:4).  Keep learning!


Sound good? What would you like to learn?


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Author Info

Rebecca Hawkins

Rebecca is the Communications and IT Manager for Sports Chaplaincy NZ. In her younger days she played cricket and football with great enthusiasm but very little skill. Now she spends a lot of time supporting her four sons in their sport. She especially loves scoring their cricket matches, which she insists on doing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

Comments ( 2 )

  • David

    Encouraging read Rebecca. Love the triangle. I find myself focusing on performance too often with a back up of learning. This year I’m focusing on getting the fun back into it!

    • Rebecca Hawkins

      Thanks David. I like the triangle too. Performance doesn’t exist in isolation, and that applies to many areas of life.

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