Guy Massi: Differentiated Instruction, Learning Styles and Learning Disorders

Early in my career I relished the opportunity to work one-on-one with clients and athletes. It afforded me with opportunity to truly hone in on the finite details and provide the client with my undivided attention.

Okay, let’s not lie – It’s pretty darn lucrative also.

While it was the way to truly nurture the individual without distraction, diversion or duress, I still yearned for the excitement and atmosphere of the big-room, team coaching environment.

That’s what every strength coach wants. Right?

Watch what you wish for! As I began to acquire teams and operate within the big-room environment, I learned that providing “undivided attention” is an acquired skill. To generalize, within a team coaching environment, everyone is on roughly the same page, having similar levels of understanding. While performance levels definitely differ, attention-to-task and rate of learning appeared fairly equal among the majority of participants.

As I gained experience, I began to observe some rather unique and “intangible” disparities. Albeit difficult to truly categorize at first, it became highly evident that some participants were just plain different and a definite “learning curve” existed.

Yet, the beat went on. After all, there are games and championships to win!

Fast-forward a decade or so . . . you’re in a room full of athletes from various sports, performing different programs at the same time; differentiated instruction. You’ve entered the Private Athletic Performance & Fitness Training Zone (Insert creepy music here). In using this terminology, I’m referring to operational capacity other than within schools and/or institutions.

Basically, the coach within their own facility competing in the athletic performance and fitness training market. What about those Sports Performance Classes? You know, limited time frame, x amount of times per week, different ages with different developmental junctures. Of course, these can present a rather unique and equally difficult set of presentation challenges. No matter what the setting or situation, you will at some point, encounter athletes and clients who are challenged by a learning difficulty.

By definition, the word coach means; to train, prepare and instruct. I think we also need to possess keen recognition skill, and I also think most of us do. Normally, we focus on recognizing muscle imbalances or poor lifting technique, yet to what degree do we focus on recognizing and addressing potential learning differences? Now, I understand that we don’t all possess teaching degrees, but I beg to assert that we are in fact teachers within our own profession. What follows is by no means a complete guide, but I hope it serves to make you more aware of the needs of your clients and athletes.

I hope it makes you a better coach.

Part of being a coach of any kind requires that we recognize not just physical differences, but differences in how clients and athletes may acquire and retain content. (Even if it’s not among athlete populations, clients in individual or group settings may have similar situations. Age and setting are not mutually exclusive.) Most of the time, there won’t be significant degrees of learning disparity, and you can coach as usual. However, there is always the possibility and variable of having a demographic of “different learners” in a group or room. Different people learn via different paths, or what I call “learning channels.” As you begin to perfect your ability to recognize learning styles, you can then begin to implement simplified presentation modifications that will flow into practically any given mainstream setting.


Frequent “water-breaks,” bathroom trips, avoidance tactics or blank stares . . . these behaviors DO NOT always mean laziness or disrespect. Perpetual questioning does not always indicate that someone is a “brown-noser” or wise-guy. In fact, these may simply be coping mechanisms utilized by different learners to navigate the training terrain. You may have athletes who become bewildered and frustrated in the company of others who function independently and get the job done. They either struggle to get started or engage in sub-standard performance while a coach continually barks their errors at them without providing a solution strategy that they can understand.

You don’t just want someone to “get through the session.” You want them to log a set of quality work that they can add to their performance experience. It just takes a little research to understand the signs and pedigree of the most commonly encountered learning challenges such as attention deficits, visual or auditory processing delays or sensory processing disorder. However, you have to know what you’re looking at before you jump to conclusions.

Attention deficits can manifest through inattentiveness and impulsiveness . . . it’s not always just hyperactivity.

An Auditory Processing Delay is one’s inability to effectively process, translate and/or express information that has been verbally presented.

A Visual Processing Delay is one’s inability to effectively process, translate and/or express information that has been visually presented.

(One or the other? Sometimes – both!)

Probably most intriguing and most often overlooked however, is that of Sensory Processing Disorder. Persons with Sensory Processing Disorder can be oversensitive to elements within their environment. This could be general noise, music, sudden sounds, a verbose coach, etc. (Be aware of athletes that may look to bail or become overly agitated when competitive levels, training tempo or demeanor within the room suddenly change)  It could affect one or all of the senses, and some think it is not a stand-alone disorder.

My experience with Sensory Processing Disorder has not been isolated. This disorder can affect one’s proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. The young athlete who seems “clumsy,” perpetually uncoordinated or just persistently incapable of executing simple biomechanical movements may in fact be plagued by the inability to do so because they absolutely cannot stand the feeling of their socks overstretching or slipping as they flex their ankles beyond a certain degree. Maybe the sensation of their shirt collar riding up makes them nauseous enough to continually bail on a proper deadlift set-up and they rush the take-off. (Sounds strange, right? Nevertheless, be aware.)

Sensory Deficit Disorder IS NOT the excuse for everyone’s poor technique or performance shortcomings, yet is real enough to warrant your attention.

Now, back to majority reality.  Think it through before drawing a conclusion. Is a particular and glaring difference in behavior persistent or just on occasion? You also have to develop the ability to identify “normal kid behavior.” (Hint: It’s not always normal.) Remember being a kid? Especially a pubescent kid in a pseudo-social situation around the opposite sex? Sometimes the behavior can be silly or attention seeking. Ah, the awkwardness of puberty.

Nothing above justifies disrespect and disruptiveness in your gym, which is why it is so important to address, rather than ignore any issues you see.

. . . And if you’re writing exercises and instructions on a board, let’s not forget about the potential of Dyslexia.


Everyone has a preferred learning channel. Most of us don’t know it.

Some are more visual learners, auditory learners, tactile (hands on) learners, active, reflective, etc. We have to assist others to “tune in” to their most effective learning channel by facilitating proper presentation.

But, why should we care? After all, we just have a program to run.

A narrow mentality here can be disastrous. Being accused of “not making sense” or “not being able to get through” to an athlete or client can cost you that client and potentially many more. No one will be on the outside to advocate for you and counter those claims by stating that the accusation is skewed by the variable of a learning difficulty.

Being proactive can both save and make you business. Here are just a few suggested mitigation strategies:

  1. Develop a tried and true intake process. One that doesn’t just present, yet also collects underlying information from the clients or athletes. Conduct orientations and re-orientations that are both fact-giving, and fact-finding. It never hurts to revisit proper technique, biomechanics etc., as well as defining where you stand in a given cycle or progression.
  2. Just ask! In the case of Elementary or High School clients or athletes, simply make it part of the intake process for the parent. “Are there any particular physical or learning challenges that you would like to tell us about? We would like to provide accommodation to the best of our ability, and afford our athletes and clients the best training experience possible.” If they get offended and leave because you were attempting to provide the most productive training experience, then let them. Faulting someone for caring enough to make adjustments in their best interests is something they have to own. Unfortunately, there are at least eight-out-of-10 other places that will be happy not to ask, take the enrollment and tell the parent how great their kid is doing . . . no matter how lost they are. (Hey, they always leave sweating and out of breath. Something must good must be happening. Right?) In the case of college or professional athletes, once again – Just ask!
  3. Have a known protocol for yourself and staff. Either a protocol to make modification within the mainstream model, or a protocol to approach the client or athlete (and parent, as it applies) in deciding what degree of retention, regression or individualized intervention may be necessary.
  4. Refer to the appropriate “interventionist” as necessary. (i.e. primary care physician, school administrations, etc.)

In closing, I encourage you: Don’t fear!

Just the same, don’t nap on the business value of being prepared to facilitate mainstream or private differentiated instruction. No matter what your methodology or setting, always have proactive measures in place that are clear to both yourself and your staff, and eventually the identification of these learning challenges will become almost “second nature.” Possessing a better understanding of the learning challenges in your demographic will only serve to make you a better coach, and eventually raise your stock in the marketplace. Gaining a reputation for care and ability is always a good reputation to possess. At first, it may seem overwhelming to construct a parallel strategy for differentiated instruction; yet in the long run you will avoid the stress associated with having to perform unwanted damage control. Just like our sets and reps, we must always strive to develop ourselves through persistent, diligent effort (a.k.a. Hard Work).

Remember; Greatness is forged, not fabricated!

More on becoming a better coach at OTP:

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