Learning from players about their own learning

This is one example of a common theme from coaches and trainers who believe in a certain way to develop players and fundamentals. Hardly anyone would question the statement or the philosophy; of course players need to practice layups, and we have been told repeatedly that “repetition is the mother of all learning.”

At some point, however, should we listen to the children? Is there a chance that the children know better? After all, if the children are bored, are they learning and improving? And, if they are not learning and improving, what is the purpose behind a repetitive drill?

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The picture above is from a presentation on skill development. The paper by Torrents and Balague (2006) found that children learn rapidly, with variety, without many repetitions, and with minimal following of directions.

Compare their descriptions of learning with the tweet. The coach is advocating a lack of variety, a large number of repetitions, and a desire for players to follow directions. Also, it is implied that this learning is not rapid, as one expects that a coach/trainer would not repeat the same thing over and over after it has been mastered.

Who is correct? Do children need to learn to do large number of repetitions of repetitive tasks? Do coaches need to design practices and drills that fit with the way that children learn?

A repetitive layup drill as described is an example of constant block practice: Players practice one version of one skill.

Now, for beginners, constant block practice is recommended because a beginner needs some basic idea of the skill; there are hundreds of ways to throw the ball up and into the basket, but time has shown only a few of these hundreds of potential executions to be reliably effective. Instructions, demonstrations, and constant block practice helps the beginner identify the basic skill executions that are most effective.

However, constant block practice often is not the best practice to promote retention and transfer. Retention is the ability to retain learning from one day to the next, whereas transfer is the ability to perform the learned skill in a different environment; for our concerns, transfer generally means to perform the learned skill in a competitive environment or to take improvements in practice to games.

Random variable practice has been shown to improve retention and transfer. Random variable practice incorporates several skills and different executions of the skill; obviously, this makes the practice more like the environment of a game.

In a game, one does not shoot 20 right-hand layups in a row. Instead, a player shoots a layup, then plays defense, runs the court, passes, dribbles, plays defense again, and then potentially shoots another layup, although it is likely different than the previous layup in some way: angle, defensive pressure, speed, execution (one foot or two foot), etc.

Incidentally, the realities of the game fit more closely with the ways that children learn. Incorporating different skills and different executions of skills increases the variety of movements and decreases the repetitions of specific movements, and makes following specific instructions more difficult.

Therefore, how should we proceed? Is it our job as a coach to teach players to do things that they do not like? Do we need players to embrace tedious, repetitive tasks? Is that imposing an adult mindset or an adult learning model onto children? Is our goal to teach the children to do a skill (layups) or to teach children to accept an adult way of learning (minimize variety, increase repetitions)? Is there a reason children learn new things quickly?

Coaches embrace repetitions. This is how we have taught for years. However, it is not how we have always learned. We used to learn on the playgrounds and playing around with fathers or siblings. We were introduced to sports in playful environments, and when we joined teams, coaches refined those skills. Now, children often are exposed to sports and skills for the first time when they join a team. Does that change how we coach?

Before I joined a team, I could do a layup. I honestly do not remember learning a layup, but I know we started to play basketball on the playground in 2nd grade and could not join a team until 5th grade. I also know that in our practices in 5th or 6th grade, we had to make 20 right-handed layups and 20 left-handed layups in a row as a team.

This was not teaching layups. We could make layups. This was creating a challenge, learning to concentrate, and making layups with a small amount of pressure.

How did I learn to make a layup before joining a team in 5th grade? Probably by watching others, practicing in my front yard, playing at recess and lunch, and more. It was not through drills or by following directions.

Is that the best way? Should we use repetitions to quicken the learning process? Or, do these drills and repetitions actually lengthen the learning process because children do not learn when they lack motivation due to boredom?

Rather than doing things our adult way, when should we learn from the behaviors and motivations of the children?

The Competitive Cauldron

More information about the competitive cauldron is available in The 21st Century Basketball Practice, which is available as a paperback and a Kindle. Also, below are three older articles that introduce the concept and its use in my practices with high-school players.

Planning a practice with the competitive cauldron

Why is the coach always right?

Tracking wins and losses in practice

Maybe it’s the drills

As I refereed a college soccer game last weekend, I heard a coach speaking to his bench:

(Paraphrased from memory) “How many bad passes have we made? How many simple balls have we not controlled? When we do these basic drills and you look at me, this is why.” Read more

The Value of 3v3

I coached a high-school varsity girls basketball team this season that was a varsity team in name only. There were more absolute beginners on the team — girls who had not played any sport on an organized team — than players with basketball experience. There was not a single player who played on a high school basketball team last season.  Read more

Monotony, pickup games, and free play

My newest book, 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development, features a chapter on pickup games and a section on free play. I argue that these environments are ideal for skill development, and I use examples from my development, as well as research, to make my point. Of course, most basketball people (such as Stan Van Gundy and Kobe Bryant) argue against games for skill development, and many people view the number of games during the developmental years as the problem with skill development in the United States.  Read more

Coaching Frosh Basketball – Week 11

Last Wednesday, my professor in my Motivation Theory course asked me why my players play basketball. I did not have a definitive answer. They are fairly typical freshmen, trying to fit in at a new school, make friends, and expend energy. I don’t know that any of the guys are Basketball Players. I think that they like basketball and like being on a team and like walking around school in their basketball gear.  Read more

Playing Time: Why Do You Deserve to Play?

After my last game, several players looked dejected. We have no shot clock, and games fly. I play 14 players per game while remaining somewhat competitive. It is hard. I know players are not playing as much as they want. They are not playing as much as I want them to play. But when a team holds the ball for 90 seconds running the Flex and refusing to shoot anything but a lay-up, the time moves pretty quickly.  Read more

Video-game positives for youth development

Parents, teachers and coaches blame video games for most of society’s ills. This is lazy. Rather than blame video games, we should learn from video-game makers: Obviously, they are doing something right! Read more

Steve Jobs, CEOs and Basketball Coaches

In 2009, I asked if CEOS and basketball coaches were similar. I cited an article by Stanford professor Bob Sutton who wrote:

Jeff Pfeffer published a paper in 1977 in the Academy of Management Review showing that leader’s actions rarely account for more than 10% of the variation in organizational performance, and often, account for much less. Read more

Impressions of Coaching

I am in the midst of teaching “Introduction to Coaching” as an online course this summer. I started the class by showing this video. I thought some of the responses to the video are revealing, as they are the impressions of college students who are not too far removed from their playing days. Read more

Next Page »

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →