Deliberate Play and Old-School Development

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.26. Now available in Kindle and paperback. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Basketball has split down the middle. Trainers and those who believe there are too many “meaningless” games, and players should spend their entire offseason doing drills represent one side. On the other side stands the status quo, an environment of weekend tournaments for 52 weeks a year, often with one practice for every three to five games. The old-school approach is forgotten: nobody combines workouts with open gym runs or pick-up games at the park. Regardless of whether a coach or trainer is pro-training or pro-games, he or she favors a coach-centered, structured environment.The popularization of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice has fueled the pro-training side. The 10,000-hour studies involved a specific skill such as playing the violin. The game in these studies is chess. Is learning to play the violin more like learning to play basketball or learning to shoot a basketball? Chess, as a game, is more like basketball, as each has perceptual and cognitive demands, but basketball involves motor skills beyond those of chess; nobody loses in chess because of his dexterity when moving his pawn. Basketball is not better or worse than playing the violin or chess; it is different, and one cannot generalize the studies to basketball. The 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice teach coaches, trainers, players, and parents something about the development process, but they cannot explain its entirety.

Jean Cote coined the term deliberate play as an alternative to or an extension of deliberate practice as it relates to game play. Deliberate play refers to involvement in unstructured, play-oriented situations (Cote & Hay, 2002). Deliberate play is more like the development environment when I was young, the old-school approach. We played basketball for years before we played on a team or had a coach. We played at recess from 1st to 4th grade before we joined a team in 5th grade. In 5th grade, we played 20 games. When the season ended, we played baseball and continued our recess games of basketball. We did not have trainers, spring AAU, or weekend tournaments. We engaged in deliberate play.

In high school, we had a six-week summer program. In the spring and fall, we played open gym and lifted weights. We played in a spring league with different teammates, no practices, and one game per Saturday. After our games, we often went to the park and played pick-up games. We never had a “skill workout.” We did not do ball-handling drills. We did not do form shooting for 45 minutes. We never conditioned in the offseason; certainly not with a formal plan. We engaged in deliberate play.

I started a clinic with a group of 8th graders last week. I was never a great player, but none was as skilled as I was in 8th grade. I had played in only 60-65 organized basketball games by 8th grade, about the same number that many 3rd graders will play this year. I had never worked with a shooting coach, gone to a training session, or seen a basketball DVD. I went to one week of summer camp each summer. Otherwise, my improvement was shooting in my front yard, playing at recess, playing half-court games near my house, or playing at the park against a mix of teenagers and adults.

Greco, Memmert and Morales (2010) studied the difference in tactical performance improvement in 18 60-minute sessions of deliberate play versus traditional basketball practice in 10 to 12-year-olds. The deliberate play group played small-sided games and advantage/disadvantage games, whereas the traditional group engaged in a more typical practice which included a “large amount of structured game exercises with exact guidelines…and more isolated activities of skill training (e.g. dribbling, passing)” (Greco et al. 2010; p.851).

Whereas the traditional group showed no improvement, the deliberate play group showed significant improvement in tactical intelligence and tactical creativity. Tactical intelligence referred to the ability to find the ideal solution to a given problem and is referred to as tactical decision-making or game skill. Tactical creativity referred to varying, rare, and flexible decisions in different situations. Tactical intelligence was knowing where to pass the ball, when or where to drive, and when to shoot: good decision making. Tactical creativity referred to the special plays: instead of seeing the obvious open player, the player created a better opportunity for a different player. These skills developed through deliberate play in 18 weeks, but not traditional practices.

Greco et al. (2010) noted that motor skill development was not measured, and one could surmise that the traditional practice led to improved shooting or dribbling. However, they cited Magill (1998) who found that implicit learning (i.e. deliberate play) improved motor skill execution as well or better than explicit instruction (i.e. traditional practice). Greco et al. (2010) discounted the likelihood of greater improvement in motor skill execution by the traditional group, although it was not measured.

If AAU games are “meaningless,” they may provide an environment of deliberate play. More than likely, they feature the same structured activities of the regular season or more competitive games, similar to the traditional-practice approach. Training sessions may provide deliberate play. More than likely, they do not, as trainers charging upwards of $30/hour for a group workout cannot stand by idly and watch players play, even when it is best for their development.

Nobody profits from deliberate play, and few market or promote the idea. Every trainer loves the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice because it validates their profession and enhances their marketing — players need more practice with a trainer to reach the 10,000 hours. Cote’s studies suggested that in expert performers, deliberate play as youngsters counted toward their 10,000 hours: deliberate play is an integral part of the expert performer’s development.

Deliberate practice and coaching are important aspects in a player’s development. For many young players, the missing element is deliberate play. Deliberate play provides players with more repetitions in game-like situations than games or training/practice as well as more implicit learning.

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

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