The Myth of Personal Trainers

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2015.

The play of 2014 in basketball occurred in a WNBA playoff game. The ball was passed ahead to Lindsay Whalen, the point guard for the Minnesota Lynx, on the left wing. As the defense recovered and matched up, Maya Moore sprinted down the right sideline to the basket. Whalen threw an underhanded scoop pass over a defender to Moore who caught the ball and finished a layup in one motion. While there were more athletic feats and more important shots, the sheer creativity and audacity to attempt the pass, and the skill to complete the pass, made the play stand out amongst so many others.

Whalen’s pass was not a pass that players practice, and few players would attempt such a pass. Instead, Whalen reacted to the task constraints: Her location, the defenders’ locations, Moore’s speed, and the distance to the basket. After accounting for these constraints, the underhanded lob pass was the only option to get the ball to Moore for a layup. These constraints determined the pass execution, and to her credit, she had the confidence to attempt the pass, whereas most players would have dribbled out and set up the offense.

In motor learning, skills are classified as open or closed. Open skills are externally-paced; the environment is variable and unpredictable. The timing of Whalen’s pass was dictated by Moore’s speed and the defensive pressure. She did not plan the pass ahead of time, and likely had never practiced such a pass in a similar situation. The ever-changing environment created a situation where the underhanded lob pass was required. Closed skills are self-paced; the environment is predictable and behaviors are planned. A closed skill in basketball is a free throw, as the distance to the basket is uniform on every attempt, and the shooter is able to take her time and shoot when ready.

Invasion games such as basketball, soccer, and lacrosse are open-skill sports, whereas gymnastics, golf, and track & field are closed-skill sports. Within invasion games, there are closed skills, such as a free throw or a penalty kick in soccer, but the sports are classified as open-skill sports because most of the game is variable, unpredictable, and externally-paced. Skill performance depends upon environmental, individual, and task constraints.

In youth sports, coaches often treat open skills as closed skills and ignore the task constraints. Rather than finding an open teammate and passing to that teammate under duress from an opponent, players stand across from each other and make uncontested, unstressed passes. These isolated drills focus on the technique of the pass: Thumbs down on a chest pass in basketball or the proper part of the foot to use when passing the ball in soccer. When coaches discuss skill development or fundamentals, they often refer to the closed-skill version of these skills. They emphasize the technique of the proper pass or shot, but ignore the interactions between the individual’s skill, defenders, teammates, location, ball, basket or goal, and more.

Because the discussion of skill development centers around the physical component of the skill, the decision-making component, or the perception, is ignored. Skill performance in a game depends upon the perception-action coupling: Part of completing a pass is deciding when and where to pass and what pass to use. When soccer players start in two lines and kick the ball back and forth to each other, there is no perception. When they play in a game, how are they supposed to pick out the right pass in terms of direction, velocity, touch, angle, and more?

When the discussion of fundamentals focuses solely on the action, coaches contrast practice or skill development with games. These are viewed as two separate things rather than one being an extension of the other. Detroit Pistons Head Coach Stan Van Gundy said, “We are much more interested in playing games….than we are with skill development.” This dichotomy illustrates a misunderstanding of learning, practice, and skill development, as the skill is understood to be the action with no respect for the constraints of a game. Somehow, we believe that more practice of the action will lead to better performance of the skill in the game when the perception-action coupling is required. Because decision-making and game sense are more difficult to define and teach because the process occurs unseen in the brain, we largely ignore the perception and focus on the visible, the physical action.

The emphasis on the physical has created an environment in youth sports where every player works with an individual skill trainer or private coach. We have created a perception, furthered by luminaries such as Van Gundy and more recently Kobe Bryant, that coaches, team practices, and games do not develop skills. In his promotional book, Reaching Another Level, Jordan Fliegel wrote, “Receiving private coaching is the single best way to improve performance. Full stop.”

The problem with private coaching and individual training is that the skill loses its context. Private coaches treat open skills as closed skills. There is no perception. Players do not learn the vital aspect of the skill. During the 2014 World Cup, soccer coaches repeatedly tweeted a video of Costa Rica’s goalie Keylor Navas saving tennis balls hit at him with a tennis racquet. It was suggested that this practice was a reason that he stopped a penalty kick in Costa Rica’s penalty-kick shootout victory over Greece, although nobody tweeted about the video when Costa Rica lost in a penalty-kick shootout to the Netherlands, with Navas stopping only one PK in eight attempts between the two games.

The practice looked hard and creative. People watch a goalie saving tennis balls and imagine that that practice must make saving a soccer ball easier. However, they are two different skills. There is almost no transfer between the two. Saving a tennis ball works only on the physical aspect of saving a shot, as the constraints and informational cues of a tennis ball hitting a racquet, and kicking a soccer ball are entirely different. Successful goalkeepers read the stance leg that provides cues before the ball is kicked. These cues were not present in the tennis ball drill, so it was impossible for that practice to enhance Navas’ learning of those cues.

People love to see drills such as Navas with the tennis ball, and private coaches continually create new and innovative drills to attract clients. Private coaches sell parents on the importance of their drills, and the drills look as though they practice important things, such as saving a tennis ball, when the reality is that the drills have only a small association with the game because they concentrate solely on the physical. In the recently-published The QB by Bruce Feldman, former UCLA quarterback and head coach Rick Neuheisel said that parents who hire quarterback gurus, or private coaches, are wasting money. “If you have any sales ability at all, you can make them believe they have to know what you know,” Neuheisel said.

Whalen demonstrates creativity and skill under time stress and the pressure of a playoff game. She did not learn that pass with a private coach in a gym by herself. Her ability to read the defense and anticipate her teammate, skills learned by playing against defenders and with her teammates, enabled her to make the play of the year. It was the coupling of the perception (seeing Moore, anticipating her speed, anticipating the reaction of the defender, seeing the space to drop the pass over the defender’s head) with the action (the execution of the underhanded pass) that created such a memorable play. Private coaches and individual training focus only on one aspect: The physical. Treating open skills as closed skills will not develop this ability. Skill development requires both the perception and the action, which means teammates and defenders. Games are not the opposite of skill development as Van Gundy implied; games are an extension of and an important place for skill development.

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

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