Creating the Right Environment for Learning

by on September 2, 2012
in Athlete Learning

In Cross Over, and my other writing, I have argued that the year-round competitive system does not provide time for development. Competitive games are not conducive to development because games are performance-oriented, not development-oriented. 

In “The Importance of Play for Motor Learning,” Todd Hargrove wrote:

Play is by definition fun and voluntary, so animals only play when they are not under any form of survival stress. Animals brought into a new environment will generally not start playing until they scope out the area pretty well and make sure the coast is clear. (I have seen my four year old do this at playgrounds repeatedly.) Learning is essentially an investment in the future, and brains are programmed to make that investment only when things are looking pretty squared away in the present. By contrast, if you are under some form of stress that threatens survival, the brain is not primed to learn or play.

Think about the different survival stresses of the high-school season: Making the team, earning playing time, winning games, league, play-offs, and more. Once the high-school season ends, players try out for club teams, have to earn playing time all over again, and then play in front of college coaches attempting to secure a scholarship. With this type of year-round stress, are players ever in an optimal learning environment? When does the survival stress subside and the play begin?

I spent more of my time as a child and teenager in play-like environments. I played pick-up games at the park, at a local gym, and in my front yard. I played in spring and summer leagues without any real coaching. These environments were optimal learning environments because they were fun and voluntary. There were no immediate threats to making the team or earning playing time, so I was able to invest in learning. I tried new moves. I tried new shots. If I failed in a game, I practiced on my own. Because I determined my practice, it was a more play-like environment than going to a trainer to work out and do the trainer’s drills. I was secure. I was playing. I was primed to learn.

As Hargrove continues:

As a practical matter, this means that if you approach your practice for a sport or other activity with an overly serious mindset that creates stress, you are activating a brain pattern that is not conducive to learning.

How many coaches go out of their way to create an overly serious mindset towards practice? Is this mindset enhancing their learning? Coaches purposely induce stress, then do not understand why the players fail to learn. Is it the environment?

wrote a couple years ago about the values of playing everyone in every game. This could be an additional benefit. If players know that they will play, they may feel more secure in the present, priming their brain to learn. By enhancing their learning, they are more likely to improve, and therefore earn or deserve the playing time. It becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: believing that everyone should play creates an environment where everyone improves and performs as if everyone should play.

If play is essential for motor learning, how should we organize practices? How should we train young athletes? I ran a workout last week for a coach with college players. I played team tag and advantage 1v1 interspersed with some shooting drills. The workout was more active, and based on their comments, more fun than their normal workouts. Did they improve more? Who knows? It was one workout, so there was really no opportunity for a marked improvement. However, is there a likelihood that players would improve more in an environment that is more active and more fun? Are players likely to practice harder if they enjoy the activities?

Are players reaching the varsity high school and college levels with a poor sense of how to play the game, despite playing more competitive games than I dreamt of playing, because they do not engage in enough play?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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