Coaching behaviors build from general beliefs about human nature

I learned two rules during my childhood that I will never forget: (1) Turn off the lights when you leave the room; and (2) if you’re not early, you’re late. The tweet below captures the second rule and represents a standard belief among many coaches. I think this tweet says a lot more.

Now, being early is a good thing. When players rush in right as practice starts, they may not be prepared or ready to go. Of course, why are they rushing or late? I am rarely bothered by a player arriving late because I assume that the player had to do something important that prevented her from being on time. Players had classes, one had to babysit her little brother and sister and pick them up from school, players had to rely on the athletic trainer being on time at a school that refused to pay for a full-time trainer, and more. I trusted that players wanted to be at practice, and consequently their tardiness was due to something important and/or unavoidable. The only time that tardiness irritated me was morning practices when players did not have classes or anything prior to practice, and tardiness was due to forgetting to set an alarm clock or hitting snooze too many times. However, even then, I never had much to say to the player who had to rely on her grandfather to drive her through traffic because she lived at home and did not have her own car, while the majority of players lived on the corner and rode their bikes 5 minutes to the gym.

I trust players want to be at practice; the attitude expressed in the tweet suggests a belief that players do not want to be there. In an old Harvard Business School article titled, “On managing with Bobby Knight and Coach K”, Sean Silverthorne wrote:

I don’t have a lot of rules or use a lot of punishment because I believe my players want to do their best and are self-motivated. Despite not having this arrive 15-20 minutes early policy, players often arrived 30+ minutes early and stayed after practice until the men’s team or volleyball kicked them off the court. They played shooting games or did their rehab exercises or sat and talked. No rules were needed; just high expectations, and self-motivated players.

How does a coach maintain or strengthen the players’ self-motivation? Autonomy helps. Creating more rules does not give players greater autonomy.

Learning like the YouTube Man

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports

Athletes from Kenya regularly win Olympic medals. Kenyans are known for distance running, winning events at the 2016 Olympics from the 800m to the marathon. Medaling in the javelin, however, is unexpected, but Julius Yego followed up a 2015 World Championship with a 2016 Olympic silver medal. 

Affectionately known as the “YouTube Man”, Yego learned to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos. In 5 years, he progressed from a novice to a world champion. Through trial and error and self-discovery learning, he reached the Africa Championships and 2012 Olympics. He was self-taught and did not have a coach because, as he said in an interview, everyone in Kenya is a runner. Once he reached the Olympics, he found a coach who helped him transition from elite to world champion, and his winning throw at the 2015 World Championships was the best throw in the world in over 14 years.

The Internet has changed the manner in which children learn sports skills. When I walked into the office of a sports development club near Jinja, Uganda, considered one of the poorest towns in Africa, the children crowded around a small laptop watching videos of skill development coaches ripped from YouTube. They accessed moves and drills that I never saw as a player developing pre-YouTube. 

The Internet has benefitted not only athletes in Africa who may lack access to specialist coaches, but athletes in the United States. This spring, I met a young woman who earned a basketball scholarship who had learned her post moves by watching YouTube because she was from a small town and lacked access to quality coaches. Similarly, I worked with an NCAA Division II 2-sport athlete who earned All-American honors in the javelin who said that her primary coach was YouTube. 

In his 2007 TED talk, Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University, described his “hole in the wall” experiments. He dug a hole in the wall in the slums of New Delhi and put an Internet-enabled computer into the wall and a video recorder to record what happened. Children who had no previous exposure to computers managed to learn to use a computer and teach other children. He demonstrated that children can teach themselves, much as Yego taught himself to throw the javelin. 

This self-discovery learning runs counter to the assumptions of many. Rather than give freedom to children to explore and learn through trial and error, parents are more likely to hire a private coach to instruct their child in the perfect technique. Professional athletes have private coaches, and even the “YouTube Man” needed a coach to become a world champion, so we expedite this process by hiring coaches for children at younger and younger ages. If a personal coach is important for a professional or elite athlete, imagine the benefits for an inexperienced child!

Some may imagine the possibilities for Yego had he been coached earlier in his development. The Guardian wrote about Yego’s winning throw at the 2015 World Championships: “It’s ungainly. Unorthodox. And my goodness it’s worth it, the spear flying way past the 90-meter mark! It’s a throw of 92.72, a season’s best!” A throw that is unorthodox and ungainly probably would have been changed by a coach at an earlier age, but that described the best throw in the world in the last 14 years. Did Yego need a coach at an earlier age to perfect his technique? 

Psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” Maybe Yego won the world championships because of the manner in which he learned to throw the javelin, not in spite of his lack of coaching. 

Similarly, a recent study of adolescent soccer players found that those who improved more between the ages of 11 and 13 accumulated more non-organized soccer play and organized training in other sports, but not more organized soccer practice. In a retrospective study, highly skilled adult volleyball players highlighted the value of their involvement in unstructured activities with older peers and recognized the importance for achievement. 

These results and examples appear counterintuitive to a generation that has transitioned childhood toward structured activities, but when we consider the traits and commonalities of expert performers, the need for self-discovery learning should be understood. 

In a series of papers that studied different avenues of life, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has shown that grit predicts success. Grit was defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. How does one develop this perseverance and passion?

Passion for sport and music were linked to feelings of autonomy. Factors as simple as allowing a child to choose when to practice as opposed to a parent forcing the child to practice influenced the feelings of autonomy. Typically, when a child engages in unstructured or non-organized sports or self-discovery learning, the child chooses this activity without external pressure. The child has the autonomy to pursue these activities, and consequently, engaging in these activities may increase the passion that they feel. 

Duckworth divided perseverance into perseverance with the lower case ‘p’, which is working daily to get better at something, and Perseverance with an upper case ‘P’, which is continuing in the face of adversity. Psychologist Christopher Bergland suggested changing one’s mindset to view struggle and perseverance as a path to pleasure. Of course, when a child chooses to play in an unstructured activity, such as pickup soccer, the experience is rewarding and fun, but is also a daily effort to improve. It does not take a lot of effort to persevere when one chooses to engage in the activity, and the activity is inherently fun. 

Training for Perseverance is more difficult because the adversity that one must overcome to become an elite performer often is unexpected, whether a player overcomes being cut from a team, losing a parent at a young age, a single-parent household, a major injury, or other circumstance. There is no preparation for an athlete suffering her first ACL rupture and missing an entire season or for being cut from a team. 

The ability to cope with adversity with autonomy created self-reliant and resilient athletes and separated the experts and super champions from their peers.19 Allowing children the freedom to play and learn through trial and error may be one way to create these adaptive behaviors. When children engage in free play, they solve problems beyond those within the game, as they are the referees, the team-makers, the rule creators, and more. If one faces small doses of adversity frequently in low impact environments, such as unstructured play, one may develop more resiliency for more serious situations. 

For Julius Yego, learning to throw a javelin without a coach likely was difficult. Watching videos provided only so much information, especially for a technical sport and without the benefits of a high-speed camera and/or super-slow motion footage. Many people would give up or never attempt to learn to throw the javelin in those circumstances. Through trial and error, he faced frequent adversity in low-impact situations. Because he had no coach, he problem solved. He devised solutions. He developed his autonomy and resilience. Because he chose the javelin, rather than following everyone else in Kenya into distance running, he was invested personally. He developed passion for the javelin. Ultimately, this combination of passion and perseverance developed his grit, and his grit, his learning, his practice, and his athleticism led him to sufficient success to attract an expert coach who could assist with his development from elite to world champion. 

Yego’s experience contrasts with that of many children who have private coaches and organized lessons and parental expectations that take away their autonomy and prevent the development of passion and resilience. The children become dependent on the lesson time and the coach, and they lack the internal qualities required to develop and sustain success over a period of years. 

Offseason Drills

Yesterday, as I worked out with two players, two guys worked out on the other end of the court. At one point, my players wanted to work on ball handling; we started a drill about the same time that the guys started their drill.

For our ball-handling practice, we did triple moves into jump shots or finishes. The smaller guard worked on pull-up jump shots and floaters, and the forward worked on pull-up 3s and different layups. They started from different angles and finished with different shots from different locations on each repetition. They practiced different dribble moves and combinations on each repetition.

On the other hand, they set up chairs to designate where to go. I don’t know their objective, but it looked as though they were using a ball screen (first chair), hesitating to freeze the hedging or switching defender (second chair), and making a crossover into a shot. They did the same exact move in the same direction for the same shot for the entire time.

Their practice appeared to be specific; maybe the guy uses on-ball screens in their offense and has to attack switches better. I don’t know; I am guessing at their objective based on what I saw. It’s possible that the chairs signified nothing more than a spot on the court.

Our practice was general. I like triple move drills to improve dribbling skill because it focuses on the control of the reception of the dribble. Rather than do simple drills or stationary drills to improve control, I prefer drills at close to game speed with actual game-like moves. I also prefer to finish offensive drills with a shot, as the point of any move or pass is to move closer to scoring.

I know that our practice was not game-like. It was a general dribbling drill focused on a specific aspect of dribbling: control on one’s moves.

I fear that many would view their practice as game-like because it resembled a move or a shot that one might take in a game. However, the chair provided no cues and forced no decisions. Without decisions, the drill is not game-like regardless of its specificity to a shot that one may take in a game.

When people walk into the gym, and see these two practices, most gravitate toward the other end. It looks important. It looks like something that happens in a game. The props add an element of organization. They worked at a more rapid pace.

It would be easy to conclude that we were not practicing seriously. I rarely offered feedback unless they asked a question. I choose the triple moves drill because it provides its own feedback. When they mishandle the ball, I do not have to tell them that they lost control – chasing after the ball tells them. We lost control of the ball far more than on the other end; another sign that their practice was better.

Our practice, however, was based largely, although not intentionally, around motor-learning theory. (1) The players had autonomy: They picked the drill, they chose their moves, they started when ready; (2) The task provided relevant and informative feedback; (3) The task challenged the players beyond their current level (as evidenced by mistakes); (4) Delayed feedback controlled by the learner; (5) Random, variable practice that interleaved dribbling and shooting/finishing practice and included different moves from different spots and different finishes on each repetition; (6) Repetition without repetition: We practices for 10 minutes, which provided dozens of repetitions, but they did not practice the same move or same shot twice.

The other end featured block practice and near-constant feedback (could not hear the nature of the feedback).

Despite a theoretical basis on our end, most identify block practice and more feedback as hallmarks of good practice and coaching. This is just an example of the differences between a traditional practice session and how we develop skills. The example above was roughly 10 minutes out of a much longer workout, but these occurred simultaneously and provided a nice contrast for different type of individual practice.

Motivation and skill development

When I work out individually with players, I seek their input: They decide on the skills that they need to improve, and often pick the drills. I want players to own their improvement rather than act like a robot following directions. When they know that I refuse to provide all the answers, they have to think about themselves and their skills. They have to plan their workouts. Hopefully this reflection adds to their overall development.

Today, at the end of a workout, I asked the two players to choose the final drill. One (P1) wanted to do something that she had seen in a video. The other (P2) clearly did not like the idea. 

The drill was simple; each player practiced a move against a stationary defender and attacked the basket where I half-defended their shots. Usually, I would turn the stationary defender into a live defender and play 1v1, and I could tell P2 preferred to go live. I went along with the dummy defense because (1) it was P1’s idea, and P2 was silent when we discussed what to do next; and (2) we are nursing some injuries, so at that point, I preferred a less intense drill. 

P2 got very little from the drill because she did not value the drill. P2 is an extremely intelligent player, and the only player who I have encouraged to become a coach. She often asks questions, and we have discussed my ideas. I imagine her frustration was due at least partially to playing for me, as she even ridiculed the initial instructions, saying the stationary defender was basically a cone or a chair. Her body language suggested an indifference (conversely, when we did full-speed pull-up shots, she went hard for the duration) that negated any value that she could have gleaned from the drill. 

P1 was motivated. When she made mistakes (travelled, had her shot blocked), she asked questions. She tried new things. She experimented. Despite the lack of true defense, she engaged with the activity. 

Ultimately, as much as we discuss practice design and best practices, the players’ motivation plays a greater role in improvement than our drills or instructions. P1 engaged with the drill, and P2 did not. P1 believed that the drill could help her improve, and P2 did not. P2’s attitude was not correct although her thinking aligned with mine. Ideally, regardless of whether or not a player agrees with the drill, she finds a way to take something from it. 

In this case, giving up control to the players worked for one player, but not the other, because they could not agree. In a normal situation, we would have ended with some 1v1 to engage P2, but we were pushing our time limits, and our injuries.

In Evolution of 180 Shooter: A 21st Century Guide, I attributed much of our skill and shooting development to this choice and motivation. By empowering players to make decisions and control their own practice, players are not in a hurry to leave. Almost every day, players stay after practice and shoot. I leave the gym; this is not to win points with me. They play shooting games or add some stationary ball handling because we never do stationary ball handling in practice. Often, the shooting is as much social as it is skill development. 

I do not hover. I do not correct. I may disagree with a drill or the shots they attempt, but my time is finished; this is their time. I am not going to tell them how to spend their time. Just because they stay for an extra 20 minutes does not mean that I coach for an extra 20 minutes. If they want my help, they know where I am or they can sign up on my door for an individual workout with me. I am available, but I do not want to interfere with their time, and turn their extra player-directed practice into more practice. I want them motivated to continue rather than escaping the gym quickly to avoid more. 

Sometimes, coaching does not have to be hard or complex. When players enjoy what they do, they do more of it. When they feel they are practicing for their own benefits, rather than to please a coach, they continue. 

Maybe I hit the jackpot in recruiting and found a bunch of gym rats, but I believe it is a combination. I definitely search for players who want to be in the gym, but once you have motivated players, coaches have to maintain and enhance that motivation. Small things like asking for players input or allowing players to pick a single drill give players some autonomy, and ultimately motivates the players. Skill development combines many things, but often it is the simple things, like coaching motivated players, that have the greatest effects. 

Learning from Video Games to Increase Athletic Engagement

Note: Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

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