Errors, Ideals, and the Unorthodox

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

Adults see errors when we watch children play sports. Their skill performance differs from our mental models, which are based on our own experiences or our images of expert performers. When we see a young basketball player with an awkward-looking shot or a baseball player with a funky delivery on the pitching mound, we see mistakes and a need to correct. 

The tendency is to change the individual techniques to match our ideal or mental model. In an ESPN article about Don Bradman, one of the best batsman in cricket history, Jon Hotten wrote, “Bradman developed in childhood an unorthodox but entirely natural way of controlling the bouncing ball. As he made his way in the professional game, attempts were made to change his method, to ‘correct’ his grip and his backlift, but he resisted them. [Dr. Tim] Noakes’ research with groups of young cricketers in Cape Town has confirmed that those who are un-coached tend towards Bradman’s technique naturally. It is only when conventional coaching takes over that their methods become altered.” Are coaches correct to alter the natural technique to a more conventional style of batting?

When I worked a basketball camp for a perennial top 10 NCAA basketball program, the coaches taught the campers a certain method of footwork when shooting. During a break, I watched the university’s best player work out. His footwork differed from their instruction. I asked his teammate about the differences, and he answered, “Oh, that’s Blake. He’s the best shooter in the nation so they let him do whatever he wants.” In my head, I thought, “Why correct young players who shoot like their best shooter?” What makes one technique more correct than another? Why attempt to fit every player into a single ideal technique?

In Human Movement: An Integrated Approach, Joseph Higgins described this as the “ideal form myth”, and wrote that “continued focus upon the ideal form at high levels omits or loses important individualistic aspects of the skill.” Technique is not absolute; individual technique depends on individuals and the environment in which they perform. The shooter excelled with non-ideal technique from his coach’s perspective; fortunately, the coach did not change him, but we spent hours changing youth players to fit the coach’s model.

Higgins explained that there are 3 categories of constraints that contribute to skill performance: Biomechanical, morphological, and environmental. Biomechanical constraints are similar between performers; a shooter overcomes gravity to shoot the ball 10 feet in the air. Every shooter overcomes the same biomechanical constraints, and each technique has some commonalities, even the outliers or those with the awkward-looking shots. 

Morphological constraints include anatomical and perceptual factors. These factors create the greatest differences in techniques between performers. Children cannot shoot with the same technique as Stephen Curry because they have different bodies: Different size, strength, limb lengths, coordination, rhythm, and timing. Young players need techniques that fit their anatomy.

Environmental constraints create the greatest differences within a performer. Individual techniques vary due to temporal or spatial components. The speed of movement prior to the shot, the proximity of defenders, the accuracy of a pass, and more affect the organization of one’s technique. The spatial and temporal constraints change the technique. 

Each player has different morphological constraints, and each performance features different environmental constraints. The ideal technique may not fit a certain individual’s morphology, and the ideal may not be possible under all conditions. In This is Not a Textbook, legendary track and field coach Kelvin Giles wrote, “World-record holders don’t show us ‘perfection’ in technique. They simply show us how their bodies have adapted to the challenges. Better to learn from the way they found the adaptation rather than what they found.” 

In his portrait of Curry for ESPN the Magazine, Dave Fleming wrote about Curry’s grandfather’s hoop where he learned to shoot: “The soft wings of the backboard had more give than a fence gate. The thick steel rim offered no absolution; only shots placed perfectly in the middle of the cylinder passed through. The institutional green metal breaker box just behind the hoop gave off a constant static hum that lured a shooter’s focus away from the target. And the splintery wooden utility pole wasn’t squared to a single landmark — not the white ranch-style house, not the driveway, not the Blue Ridge mountains to the south of the creek to the north. So every shot required instant, expert recalibration.” He adapted to the environment through play and trial and error, as opposed to following a strict model. Later, as he approached the end of high school, his father helped him to change his shot to shoot faster against bigger and better competition, but the roots of his shot, and his adaptability, are derived from his grandfather’s hoop. 

Players do not need to eschew the gym for a hoop on a splintery wooden utility pole, but as Giles suggested, we should learn from the approach rather than trying to mimic the shot’s specifics. I once trained two 9-year-olds, Kevin and Pete. Kevin’s father insisted that he shoot with ideal, adult technique. He lacked size and strength, and this adult technique with the ball starting above his eyes limited Kevin to shots within 15 feet. Pete shot from a lower starting position to generate more strength, and shot 3-pointers comfortably. Kevin’s father believed that Pete had a poor shot because of its low starting point, but Pete was a more accurate shooter who made a wider range of shots.

Pete found his own technique that worked for his morphological constraints and under many different environmental constraints, whereas Kevin’s father focused on an ideal form that was unattainable for a short, slight 9-year-old. Like Curry, as Pete matured, he adjusted his technique to fit his new morphology; he grew taller and stronger. He moved his shot to a slightly higher starting point. His shot did not look like Curry’s, but he followed the same basic path of experimentation and adaptation to find success in different environments. He eventually changed his technique when the new morphology and environmental constraints enabled and demanded adjustments to maintain success. 

Pete’s initial technique worked for him when he was 9, and he played on a basket that was too high and with a ball that was too big for him to shoot with an adult technique. Rather than discourage individual technique and learning through trial and error, he adapted a technique that worked for him at that age, size, and strength level. His technique was not wrong, although it did not look the same as an adult technique. It was correct for him under those constraints at that age.  

Every technique has some consistencies because the biomechanical constraints are the same for each player; put the ball in the basket 10 feet in the air from various distances on the court. Every player’s technique has some variance because no two players are created exactly the same, and therefore each player solves the problem in different ways. Within an individual, no two repetitions are the same because environmental conditions change from repetition to repetition: The defense, distance to the basket, and movement speed and direction change on each shot. 

Young athletes solve movement problems and organize their movements based on the morphological, environmental, and biomechanical constraints. When this technique varies from the coach’s mental model, the technique is not necessarily wrong. It may be the athlete’s current solution to the problem, which may change with maturity or it could be an individual style that works for a certain player and allows him or her to excel. Before changing a player’s technique to fit an adult’s mental model, acknowledge the brilliance of the body to solve movement problems, and remember that athletes such as Bradman excelled despite nonconventional technique. A child is not an adult, and expecting one to have the same technique as an adult is setting up the child for failure, as with Kevin’s father and his unrealistic expectations. 

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.

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