How to Design Engagement (and Avoid the Problem of Empty-Calorie Fun)



Do the Academy Awards give an Oscar for Most Inspiring 40-Second Video? Because I’d like to nominate the above video, from coach Trevor Ragan of Championship Basketball School. Suggested title: “Super-Psyched Little Dude.”

This kid is not merely excited. He is super duper excited, in a way that is both focused and contagious. A psychologist would say that he is deeply engaged. As Trevor writes, this engagement fuels a subsequent rocket-launch of learning and improvement. As it usually does.

Engagement is perhaps the most important, yet least-understood element of the talent-development process. Where does it come from? Why does it happen in some learners and not in others?  How do you sustain it?

The biggest problem, I think, lies in the way we think about engagement. Because real engagement is easily confused with its far-less-productive twin: mere fun. That confusion — which is like confusing lightning with a lightning bug — lies at the core of some of our barriers to effective learning.

We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.

So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:

  • 1) Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach.   Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
  • 2) Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
  • 3) Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
  • 4) Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
  • 5) Do the minimum: The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.

That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.

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11 Responses to “How to Design Engagement (and Avoid the Problem of Empty-Calorie Fun)”

  1. Tyler says:

    Reminds me of the teaching advice:
    Be a Guide on the side rather a Sage on stage.

  2. Rich Kent says:

    Dan, I wonder whether number 5’s “Do the minimum” will be taken wrongly by novice teaching or coaching practitioners. Over the long haul, the ability to “keep things moving” in a classroom or on the practice field is complex and challenging. Effective classroom teachers and coaches understand that their lessons need a wide range of teaching strategies and learning activities to address the various learners involved. During effective practices/lessons we might talk some, listen more, play a lot, ask questions, try-out answers, and write… It just never ends. As always, Dan, a smart focus and engaging topic. Thanks!

  3. djcoyle says:

    That’s a terrific point, Rich. You put it perfectly. Thanks very much.

  4. Repetition + FULL engagement + Accurate Feedback is what we use as one of our equations of deliberate practice. The full engagement piece is always the piece that gets tricky for block golf practicers. They get engaged with out proper/real context. It becomes repetition that leads to false confidence or skills maladapted to the context of play/performance on the golf course in competition. We support the players we coach to learn to evaluate their engagement with clear intention, awareness and honesty. Deep full engagement is always better than lots of mindless repetition!
    Thanks for all your great work Dan!

  5. John says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I love your blog. It is extremely insightful.

    I was watching this documentary about the extraordinary success of Kenyan long-distance runners and the same ingredients for talent development you talk about in your book were present. It was almost verbatim. From the the observant coach, to the harsh conditions that propel athletes, to the deliberate practice, every one of those elements was present.

    I urge you watch this documentary. You are going to love it. The documentary already has 55,000 views.


  6. Adrian says:

    Thank you Daniel

    I love the way your posts send me down a path of discovery and further learning ….b y way of the “links” in your fantastic ‘champion basketball school’

    Thank you very much and happy new year to you and your family from England.

    All the best Adrian

  7. Timothy says:

    I appreciate your insight into engagement in the skills or talent development process. This little boy in the video snippet is my son, Luka. Since he was very young, his energy level has been nearly unstoppable. His attention to finite details of an action or skill (often sports related)is uncanny (hitting an overhead pitched baseball at 2, understanding the nuances of football play-calling and defensive set-ups by 6) and has pushed him beyond his inherent talent level.
    As a parent it is challenging at times. It often seems that he is a 20 year old ram-rod charger trapped in an 8 year old body. For example, this winter it has been common for him to ice skate/play hockey for 5 hours and go directly to a 90 minute swim team practice followed by a hour of recreational swimming that involves diving practice and playing water basketball. This repertoire is his desire. As parents I feel we have to pull in the reigns on his itinerary for his own good. Channeling his energy, or as I refer to it, “using his powers for good,not evil” is our responsibility as parents. I will follow your writing with interest from now on.

  8. djcoyle says:

    Timothy, Thanks so much for sharing that. Luka sounds amazing – and it sounds like you have a wonderful understanding of the dynamic. Which sounds incredibly exhausting and incredibly fulfilling. Are you familiar with Ellen Winner’s phrase: “The rage to master”?

  9. Timothy says:

    I am not familiar with that phrase. He is definitely the most “dynamic” of our three children, though all are pretty awesome in their interests. Luka just stands out in the crowd. In my limited view of children, a rare blend of attributes for a young boy. Thanks again!

  10. djcoyle says:

    Dr. Winner wrote it to describe prodigies she encounters — they have the “rage to master” tasks that sets them apart. Sounds like you and Luka could relate!

  11. Timothy says:

    Thanks for the concept link! Luka definitely has that characteristic working for him, which explains a lot of his drive and seeming peculiarities of his habits. What tends to spread him out is his desire to be involved at that level with many pursuits. Interestingly, my mother has had that with the piano since a very early age, and has achieved great things through her life in defiance of the odds and challenges that were presented to her along the way.

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