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12 Important Lessons on Employee Training From Rocky Balboa

Before we take a deep dive into the work of Sylvester Stallone and what it can teach employers about training, let’s warm up:

For over 40 years, Rocky has entertained and inspired audiences. On the surface, the movie tells the story of a past his prime boxer from Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa, who gets an unexpected shot at the championship belt. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between a movie about training for a boxing fight and training your employees.

The following will break down the iconic training montage, in 12 rounds, and pull out useful insights to remember when creating an employee training and learning program.

Round 1: Setting the Learning Foundation (with bricks in each hand)

The establishing montage scene places our hero, Rocky, running at a light jog on train tracks with bricks in each hand. This is a good scene to remind you that most of the learning for your organization will happen outside of the classroom/training sprint.

Just like Rocky isn’t training exclusively in a boxing gym, your training should create a foundation for employees to continue learning and adapting when the training session is complete. If you expect your employees to be experts after only two weeks of training in a classroom, you and your employees will be disappointed.

Round 2: Avoid Garbage Fires With the Cascading Information Theory

This admittedly strange encounter where Rocky catches an orange from an unknown person demonstrates a popular learning tactic called the cascading information theory.

In brief, this theory suggests that people learn better when they get just the amount of information they need to move on to the next, more complicated idea. That orange represents the information (nutrition) Rocky needs, and he gets it when he needs it to keep going.

Dropping an employee manual on a new hire and telling them to memorize it won’t prove as effective as providing information in small bits when they need it.

Round 3: Keep Your Learners on the Right Path With Knowledge in the World

Despite his long run, Rocky is staying on the right path. He may be tired, but luckily he doesn’t have the burden of thinking about where to go because he has a nice path along the water to follow.

This is a training concept called knowledge in the world, and it lessens the burden on your employee’s ability to memorize. By providing the information in the setting they will be working, employees don’t need to hold all the information on their head. They just need to know how to find it easily.

Round 4: Get Up to Speed With Pace Layering

Rocky is in rhythm pounding the speed bag over and over again. This is an example of a fast skill, something that can be taught and change quickly.

Pace layering is an idea that some things can be learned quickly (like hitting a speed bag) and others take more time. Slow skills like problem solving and adapting in real time will take longer to learn. It’s important in your training program to recognize and adjust the amount of time spent developing fast and slow skills.

Round 5: Count the Ways Employees Train on One Hand With Blended Learning

Rocky is now joined by his manager/trainer Mick, and some other guy who is counting as Rocky performs various kinds of one-handed and clap push ups.

In the training world, this is called blended learning. This is an effective way to mix elements and provide your learners with different strategies to teach the same thing. This can be useful because everyone learns in different ways, and mixing up your methods can improve retention and understanding.

Round 6: Avoid Taking Habituation Shots to Your Employees

We would never recommend physical violence as part of any corporate training program. However, the repeated shots Rocky takes to his body is a good lesson on the pitfalls of habituation.

This training will prepare Rocky for the real fight by getting him used to the sensory feeling of taking punches. This can be a problem when creating training materials. If you keep forcing the same style of content over and over to your learners, they will begin to ignore and not notice it. Mix up your training to prevent habituation that can lead to employees missing important material.

Round 7: Dissonance Makes Learners Sit Up and Pay Attention

The hanging sit-ups Rocky performs are a good example of an effective attention grabbing tactic.

Your employees have an idea of what to expect from a training program. By providing something completely different from their expectations, you’ll be more likely to have an impact that stays with them.

Round 8: Getting to the Meat of It

Rocky punching away at meat as part of his training is a good reminder to focus your training on just the most important information.

It’s easy to overload training programs with too much information that may not be relevant to every employee. Modular training programs that you can customize for different positions is a useful way to avoid overloading employees with information that may not be relevant.

Round 9: Practice and Feedback, The One-Two Punch of Training

This is literally the same shot that was used earlier in the montage, just extended. Can’t stress repetition enough when it comes to committing things to memory. Also, the encouragement from the counting guy saying “You’re gonna kill him!” (!Lo matarás¡ en español) is a good reminder to provide feedback to keep your employees motivated and focused on their goals.

Round 10: Learning at Their Own Pace

Rocky is out of the gym again and running, then sprinting, outside. It’s important to understand the skill level of your employees and let them learn at their own pace. Giving them the freedom to go quickly through parts they find easy, and allowing them to slow down on parts they find difficult.

As you can see Rocky was able to set his own pace to begin with and kick it into high gear when he was ready to sprint.

Round 11: Structure Practice Like the Philadelphia Art Museum

Rocky’s triumphant climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum displays a good structure for presenting information in your training program.

Employees are inundated with lots of new information, which is difficult to retain all at once. Spacing out new information, the way the stairs go up (new information) then flatten out (review) before presenting new material is a more effective way for employees to retain and recall information.

Round 12: Rewards That Make Employees Feel Like Champs

This is it. Rocky triumphantly lifts his hands in the air. No matter how his fight with Apollo Creed turns out, he can feel like a champ because he worked and saw improvements in himself.

Effective employee training happens when the employee does the training for an intrinsic reward. Just improving and learning is the reward. This requires training programs that offer creative and engaging lessons that employees enjoy.

How to Get Your Employees to Go the Distance

Everything about the Rocky training montage, from the music to the climatic running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, creates a sense of accomplishment that all managers look for their employees to experience after completing their training.

Unfortunately, effective training isn’t as easy as a montage makes it look. It cuts out the hours, days, weeks of struggle into three minutes with an awesome soundtrack. Real training for employees or fictional athletes requires continued effort and support. Too often training programs end after a couple weeks. To really get the most out of your employees, make consistent training a part of your company culture.

Try this.

Have your team create a shared document that lists areas they wish they had more training. Then hold a monthly or bi-monthly training session that goes over one of the areas brought up on the list.

What are some effective strategies your company uses to improve training? Message us on social media.


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