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?

Brute Force Development

I watched a typical workout with a well-respected trainer and two high-school players. Everything made sense; the players worked hard; the trainer was engaged. However, I don’t know or couldn’t see a purpose other than “getting better.” This, to me, is brute force development: Doing something so many times that inevitably through the force of will there has to be some improvement.

From my vantage point and my biases, one player had numerous flaws in his shot. I am not one to advocate for a ton of technical work, breakdowns or a singular ideal technique, but when a player airballs as many as he makes, there is a problem. Rather than identify a problem and design drills to correct the problem, the approach appeared to be to shoot more.

I have texted many of my incoming players this summer to ask about their offseason goals. They nearly always give a general answer. “I want to improve my shooting.” Great, how do you want to improve your shooting? What specifically do you want to improve? Answers vary; I want to shoot quicker, extend my range, or I just want to get better. The players who want to extend their range or shoot quicker are on the right track, provided that they design exercises that focus on these aspects of their shot. The players who just want to get better are unlikely to make much progress; they do not have a plan. They are relying on brute force.

This is not uncommon. We have a society that believes that improvement comes from doing more; reps, and reps, and reps. However, if you shoot poorly now, and rely on shooting more in the same way, how is that going to lead to improvement?

Now, in yesterday’s workout, maybe the focus was not shooting, as almost every shot was after a move. This could have been “game-like training” for the moves and shots that these players shoot during games. However, how is it game-like if there is no defense and the players follow the coach’s directions: dribble here, make this move, get to this spot, and shoot.

Okay, well, it was not really game-like practice, but they were practicing their ball-handling. Again, how? By doing more of the same? When they lacked control on the reception of their crossover, but did nothing specific to improve this control, how are they going to improve? Again, the hope that if we do this one thing enough we will force improvement.

Brute force development works in some instances, otherwise nobody would continue to go to these well-paid trainers who rely on brute force methods. For most, it requires a lot of repetitions, which also helps the trainer, as the player must return to the trainer over ($$) and over ($$).

This method is not skill development. It is how many view skill development, but simply relying on doing the same thing more is not developing a skill. It is maintaining or solidifying a skill; if one performs this skill at an expert level, solidifying the skill at this level may lead to small improvements. However, if one performs at a sub-elite level, why solidify or automate the skill at this level? Why automate a shot that airballs as often as it goes in?

I work with two players who are non-shooters. We alternate between drills that perturb their current skill to force changes and drills that focus on the specific changes and drills that challenge accuracy and drills that they enjoy/competitive drills.

From the outside, the purpose may not be apparent. However, whereas our workouts may appear disorganized and less intense (which they are), I have a very specific goal for each player, and each drill fits this goal: One player is changing from a flat-footed set shot to a jump shot and one is changing from a two-motion shot to a one-motion shot. The drills are attempts to perturb their former techniques and assist with the coordination of their new techniques. The goal is to improve their shooting, but these are the specific ways in which we hope to accomplish this goal. It is not brute force development, but specific skill development.

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

Stephen Curry and Shooting Drills

When I coached in Denmark, we had an 18-year-old player from Bulgaria who never shot the same shot twice. During shooting drills, he practiced trying to draw a foul on three-pointers or he shot the ball as high as possible or as straight as possible. He appeared never to take his shooting practice seriously.  Of course, Stephen Curry does the same thing: Read more

Game shots from game spots at game speeds

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