It takes time for a young professional sports team to learn how to win together. It’s even harder during a pandemic.
That’s what makes the Carolina Panthers—and their partnership to power their learning with a Silicon Valley start-up, Learn to Win—notable.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in an era of remote teaching and learning across the country, attention has focused on how schools have shifted their approaches.
But it isn’t just schools that rely on learning for the success of their students. All organizations do.
For places where employees don’t spend hours looking at screens each day and yet learning is critical to success, the transition has been tricky. This is why the Carolina Panthers present a compelling case study.
NFL teams tend to spend their offseason on the field. Players memorize playbooks. They run drills, lift weights, and practice the hundreds of plays they will run the next season.
Yet when the pandemic hit, NFL teams couldn’t assemble in the same way as they had. The traditional routines went out the window. The Carolina Panthers were in a particularly deep hole heading into the season.
They had an all-new coaching staff. Matt Rhule was named head coach in January of 2020 after seven years as a collegiate head coach. He and his philosophy were unknown to the team’s players. The offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, was also new and unknown. Ditto with Phil Snow, the defensive coordinator.
“It’s challenging enough to learn and teach an entirely new offense within a matter of months,” DJ Mangas, a Panthers coaching assistant, said. “Keep in mind that it’s not just the players that need to learn the offense. It’s important that the coaches learn all of the intricacies first in order to teach the offense at a high level. Practice and in-person meetings are the two most valuable tools football coaches have to teach an offense. Without both of those in the offseason, it presented an entirely new challenge that forced us to get creative.”
On top of installing all-new playbooks, the Panthers had a much younger roster than the team had previously. The defense returned only four starters from the prior season. And they had a new player at the most important position on the field, quarterback, in Teddy Bridgewater, who had spent the prior two seasons as a backup in New Orleans. The limited-time to work together thanks to COVID-19 posed a big challenge.
The solution the Panthers devised wasn’t the traditional one of just studying and memorizing voluminous playbooks coupled with endless Zoom calls. They instead turned to an education startup called Learn to Win.
Learn to Win is one of the pioneers in mobile learning, as it uses the principles of sound instructional design to transform training material that’s critical to an organization’s success into content that allows people to learn faster and more effectively. Think learning that looks like Duolingo in which learners are answering questions as they consume content every few seconds, not drawn-out videos from a MOOC or YouTube.
I first met Learn to Win’s founder, Andrew Powell, when he was the student-body president at UNC-Chapel Hill working on transforming classes at the college into blended-learning programs, and then kept an eye on his career as he graduated and traveled to Mauritius to work for African Leadership University.
“At UNC and ALU, I saw the power of active learning,” Powell told me. “I spent years working with professors to transform their classes from passive lecture classes to active learning experiences, and the results were incredible in terms of improved learning. The idea for Learn to Win was to take those proven techniques, build them into a software product, and bring active learning to all the places where performance matters most.”
Powell’s vision was that using the science of learning, his app could help athletes learn mission-critical plays and tactics far faster. Learn to Win has also found early traction outside athletics to support the training of key military personnel.
The Carolina Panthers are one of Learn to Win’s initial clients, where the app has caught fire. The Panthers used the app to build over 2,000 learning modules that covered every play, concept, and technique the players would need to know in easy-to-understand, interactive lessons.
No more nights poring over staid and static playbooks. Instead, the app has turned the material into active-learning experiences—which research shows support improved learning—that meet learners where they are with personalized content for their distinct learning needs.
And it seems it has helped.
“In the offseason, the quizzes on Learn To Win enhanced our ability as coaches to correct what our players didn’t fully grasp within the offense,” Mangas said. It also gave us the ability to create a competitive environment amongst the players. Learn To Win has been applied throughout the season by several coaches to correct practice mistakes and teach the weekly game plan to our players.”
Despite low expectations for the team in training camp, the Panthers have surprised. They got out to a smoother start than many would have expected. Despite their 4-9 record, they hold a signature win over the Arizona Cardinals, and they’ve been within striking distance of winning every game they’ve played with the exception of two losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As ESPN staff writer David Newton wrote after a Panthers victory over the Atlanta Falcons, “Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is playing lights-out, smart, mistake-free football, finding ways to get the ball into the hands of playmakers as efficiently as anyone in the NFL.”
Injuries have perhaps been the biggest thing to hold them back, with their Pro Bowl running back (and avid Learn to Win user) Christian McCaffrey having played only three games and Bridgewater suffering a right knee injury in Week 10.
The lessons from the year go beyond the Panthers’ results on the field—and beyond the NFL.
Success often depends on how well organizations train—and retrain—their biggest asset: their people. Leveraging technology to create active learning experiences that meet learners where they are—with personalized content for their learning needs—holds significant promise to advance that objective.