The multiple dimensions of an ideal learning environment

Most people view learning as accumulation of knowledge. This can be part of the learning process, but rich learning environments offer so much more. I was reminded of this when listening to last week’s episode of the GAINcast. GAIN is a community I have been lucky to be a part of over the past decade. GAIN is an event, but as mentioned on the podcast, it is also a network and a community where people will reach out to each other year-round to share ideas, ask questions, provide suggestions and recommendations, etc. To me, it is one of the best examples of what an ideal learning environment can look like.

More than just accumulating of knowledge

First time GAIN attendees will often say that their first experience at Rice was like “drinking water from a fire hose.” Days are packed with learning opportunities and no time is wasted during the activities. This feeling of being overwhelmed with new information is akin to the dominant view in learning, which is that of the accumulation of knowledge.1 An attendee will expect, during lectures for example, to obtain information or content that is highly coaching and/or sport specific. This type of knowledge is considered as professional knowledge and form the foundation for “what to coach.”2

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However, upon returning to GAIN every other year and being an active member of the network, you start to realize that it is more than the accumulation of knowledge. As an example, during the morning sessions, it is inevitable that coach Jim Radcliffe will walk us through his plyometric progressions that he uses with the student-athletes at the University of Oregon. I remember a few years ago Bill Knowles presenting during a lecture and a morning session about his own application of the Frans Bosch concepts. Same with Gary Winkler and many others that would bring their own understanding and application to content from the previous years. Why then present similar information from one year to the next? Because it is about learning as a network of ideas and feelings that changes your cognitive structure.3 From your first time at GAIN to your next time attending the event, your cognitive structure will have changed. Chances are that you might take a different look at the same topic from a previous or connect the dots between what you hear a faculty, or another attendee say and what you have experienced in your own professional practice.

Why people keep coming back

From a professional development perspective, there is no doubt that attending the five-day annual event is something very special. We all gather in Houston, on the beautiful campus of Rice University, to learn from the best, from an impressive list of faculty members and attendees from all over the world. The days are a mix of lectures, hands-on practical sessions, case studies and a host of other learning opportunities. But what makes GAIN so special might not actually take place only in the classroom.

Aside from the high-quality content, it is indeed the people that make GAIN special as they help take the environment to the next levels of learning. The interactions before, during and after the sessions. The sharing of meals and gatherings at Valhalla once the day is over for a few hours to discuss all sorts of things not necessarily training or coaching related. These moments of discussions with the other attendees during the five days at GAIN are examples of unmediated learning situations4 and are often seen by coaches as an important contributor to their professional development in comparison with mediated learning situations such as coaching certification programs.

The interactions that take place at GAIN and via the network can align with the social constructivist approach to learning where we learn from and alongside other people in all our social relationships.5 Viewed from this perspective, learning is a collaborative, interactive process where knowledge is effectively co-constructed with both outside (lectures, practical sessions, mediated content, discussions with others) and inside (reflections about your coaching, identifying gaps and opportunities for continuous improvement) influences. The power of the GAIN network at its best!

An experience like no other

I can recall my first time at GAIN in 2012 and experiencing that feeling of “drinking from a fire hose”, especially when we had four presentations by Frans Bosch scheduled in five days! Over the years, I was still amazed about the quality of the presentations, the attendees, the faculty, and the overall organization. Hence why I came back every year between 2012 and 2019. Then came the event that we all know, and GAIN transitioned online for two years until 2022 when it was possible to gather at Rice again. The 2022 edition represented social learning at its best because I realized that what I had missed from those two years during the pandemic were the people of GAIN and why they make for the strength of the GAIN network!


  1. Rynne, S. B., & Mallett, C. J. (2014). Coaches’ learning and sustainability in high performance sport. Reflective Practice, 15(1), 1–15.
  2. Côté, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An Integrative Definition of Coaching Effectiveness and Expertise. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 4(3), 307–323.
  3. Moon, J. A. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. (Routledge Falmer, ed.). London, UK.
  4. Werthner, P., & Trudel, P. (2006). A New Theoretical Perspective for Understanding How Coaches Learn to Coach. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 198–212.
  5. Stoszkowski, J., & Collins, D. (2014). Communities of practice, social learning and networks: Exploiting the social side of coach development. Sport, Education and Society, 19(6), 773–788.