Perfect practice and nonlinear learning

Learning is nonlinear. We know this intuitively, and we see this on a daily basis, but we often get terms and concepts confused. Consequently, we see learning described as a learning curve:

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The three-person weave, drills, and progressions

People love the three-person weave. Since publishing Fake Fundamentals and Fake Fundamentals: Volume 2, that is my major takeaway. I argued against 20 drills and teaching points that are pervasive in basketball at every level, and the only one that angers people is the three-person weave.  Read more

The evolution of basketball, play, and practice

Kobe Bryant’s comments earlier this season about the lack of skill development in American players highlighted the angst felt by many who are involved with basketball in the United States. Whether right or wrong, basketball has changed over the last generation. I find it hard to argue that the U.S. cannot produce skilled players anymore when I watch NBA games with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and others, but when I watch recruiting videos of 18 and 19 year-old non-elite players from the U.S. and Europe, I find myself favoring the European players (Of course, part of the argument that is missing is that I am comparing players who play for the junior national teams in their home countries to players who would be ranked well outside the top 250 players in the United States).  Read more

The Spiraling Learning Process: Practicing on the Edge

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2012.

Learning spirals. We tend to view learning as a linear process: An athlete practices and gets incrementally better at performing the skill. The view is captured by coachisms like “perfect practice makes perfect.” The goal of practice, however, is improvement, not perfection, and these differ. Read more

Scrimmages and Offensive Instruction in Practice

A coach emailed a question regarding Blitz Basketball and my use of scrimmages to teach my basic offensive sets and defensive strategy.

I do not spend practice working 5v0 or walking through defensive rotations in a typical shell drill. I scrimmage, and after a player is finished, I use the play to teach a concept if something needs to be corrected. I generally do not stop the action in the middle of the play.

As I answered his question, I realized the philosophy behind my coaching style. I do not expect perfect execution in a game. Many coaches do. Many coaches want their players to execute the play exactly as they draw it on the blackboard. I think the game is messy and unpredictable. I believe that my team’s success depends on the players’ ability to adjust and adapt during the play and to make the best decision.

If I stop the action in practice when a play becomes messy, how do the players learn to adjust and adapt? In a game, I can use a timeout here and there when the play gets messy, but I do not have enough timeouts to use to control every possession or prevent every mistake. Therefore, at some point, the players have to fend for themselves. However, if they never get the opportunity to adjust to their mistakes and make decisions to adjust to the new reality, how can I expect them to make good decisions in a game?

An old adage is that you have to practice perfectly because there will be game slippage. If you practice perfectly, the adage goes, you will perform at 70-80% in the game due to the slippage. However, if you practice at 70-80% at practice, the game slippage will result in a performance closer to 50%.

What if the adage is only half-true? What if the game slippage occurs because the players do not learn to adjust and adapt to new situations during their perfect practice? What if there is little to no game slippage when practice is imperfect and players have to make decisions constantly and then receive feedback after the play about other options or better possibilities?

My practices often looked disorganized this season, and our game performance was sloppy at times because we looked so disorganized. However, we honestly had very little to no game slippage. We generally performed better against our opponents than we did against each other. Skills that we rarely executed correctly in practice scrimmages (traps on the press, pick-and-rolls on offense) suddenly happened over and over in games.

Some of our success was a talent differential, as we played teams whose starters were not as good as our players off the bench. However, we played teams with equal or more talent, size and speed, and executed as well against them as we did in practice. Our performances were not perfect, but I do not expect perfection. I have yet to see a team play perfectly.

Therefore, to maximize performance, do we strive for perfection in practice so we perform close to perfection after the normal game slippage or do we practice at something less than perfect, but eliminate most of the normal game slippage?

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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