How the Science of Learning Explains Superbowl Victory

Sports is sometimes a great crucible for life lessons. Players learn teamwork, the benefits of hard work and practice, and how to act in times of success and failure.

Learning professionals can learn a lot from sports as well. The 2015 Superbowl is a case in point.


With 27 seconds to go, the Seattle Seahawks were on the New England Patriots one yard line. Only one more yard to go for victory. They called a pass play, rather controversial in the court of public opinion, but not a bad call according to statisticians.

The Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, thought he had a touchdown. “I thought it was going to be a touchdown when I threw it.” Unfortunately for Wilson and the Seahawks, Malcolm Butler, a Patriots rookie cornerback, was prepared.

This is where the science of learning comes in. Butler was prepared for a number of reasons–many having to do with the science of learning. For an explanation of the 12 most important learning factors, you can review my work on the Decisive Dozen.

  1. Butler, despite being a rookie, had played a lot of football before. He had a lot of prior knowledge, which enable him to quickly learn what to do.
  2. He was given tools and resources to help him learn. He got a playbook, he was able to view videotape of Seahawks' plays, he was surrounded by experienced players and coaches, he was motivated and encouraged.
  3. He was given feedback on his performance–but not just general feedback, very specific feedback on what to do.
  4. He got many practice opportunities to refine his knowledge and performance.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, Butler was prompted to make a link between a particular situation and a particular action to take.

Here's the formation prior to the interception. Notice on the bottom of the image that the receivers for Seattle are "stacked" two deep–that is, one is lined up on the line of scrimmage, one is behind the other.



Here is what Butler saw just as the play was getting started.

What Butler Saw

Here's what Butler said:

“I saw Wilson looking over there. He kept his head still and just looked over there, so that gave me a clue. And the stacked receivers; I just knew they were going to throw. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. I just beat him to the point and caught the ball.”

In a separate interview he restated what he saw:

“I remembered the formation they were in, two receivers stacked, I just knew they were going to [a] pick route.”

From a science of learning perspective, what Butler did was link a particular SITUATION (two receivers stacked) with a particular ACTION he was supposed to take (move first to where the ball would be thrown). It's this cognitive linking that was so crucial to the Superbowl victory–and to human performance more generally.

While we human beings like to think of ourselves as proactive–and we are sometimes–most of our moment-to-moment actions are triggered by environmental cues. SITUATION-ACTION! It's the way the world works. When we are served food on smaller plates, we eat less–because the small plates make the food look bigger, triggering us to feel full more quickly. When we drive on a narrow street, we drive more slowly. When we see someone dressed in a suit, we think more highly of that person than if they were dressed shabbily. We can't help ourselves. What's more, these reactions are largely automatic, unintended, subconsciously triggered. Indeed, notice Butler's first quote. He wasn't sure what made him react as he did.

In the Decisive Dozen, I refer to this phenomenon as "Context Alignment." The notion is that the learning situation ought to mimic or simulate the anticipated performance situation. Others have similar notions about the importance of context, including Bransford's transfer-appropriate processing, Tulving's encoding-specificity, and Smith's context-dependent memory.

Indeed, recently a meta-analysis (a study of many studies) by Gollwitzer and Sheeran  found that "implementation intentions"–what I prefer to call "triggers"–had profound effects, often improving performance compliance by twice as much as having people set a goal to accomplish something. That is, creating a cognitive link between SITUATION and ACTION was often twice as potent as prompting people to have a goal to take a particular action.

Butler was successful because he had a trigger linking the SITUATION of stacked receivers with the ACTION of bolting to the point where the ball would be thrown.


Listen to football players talk and you'll know that the best teams understand this phenomenon deeply. They talk about "picking up the keys," which is really a way of saying noticing what situation they're in on the field. Once they understand the situation, then they know what action to take. Moreover, if they can automate the situation-action link–through repeated practice–they can take actions more quickly, which can make all the difference!!

Here's how Butler talks about his preparation. When asked in an interview, "You said you knew that play was coming. How did you know that play was coming?" Butler said:

"Preparation in the [fan?] room, looking over my play book, looking over their plays, studying my opponent. I got beat on it at practice … last week, and Bill [Coach of New England Patriots] told me I got to be on it. And what I did wrong at practice I gave ground instead of just planting and going. And during game time I just put my foot in the ground, broke on the ball and beat him to the point."

For those of us working in the learning field, we should use this truth regarding the human cognitive architecture to design our learning programs.

  1. Don't just teach content.
  2. Give them tools to help them link situations and actions.
  3. Give your learners realistic practice, that is practice set in real-world situations.
  4. Give them feedback, then give them additional practice.
  5. Continually emphasize the noticing of situations, and the actions to be taken.
  6. Provide varied practice situations, without hints, to simulate real-world conditions.
  7. For critical situations, give additional practice to automate your learners' responses.
  8. Collect Lombardi Trophy or similar…

As a resident of New England, I have to add one more nugget of wisdom…





Go Patriots!



Sources of Football Information, Images, Videos:

  1. Reuters
  2. NBC
  3. Boston Globe
  4. New York Times