Basketball Trainers, Camps and Staring

A friend called and said that one of my articles had upset a trainer who is bashing me to other people now as a result. I want to be clear – I believe training and trainers are better for player development than attending camps or clinics.

One-time events, whether a camp or clinic, have four roles: (1) they are fun (which is why most are marketed toward recreational players); (2) they provide new and different competition (exposure camps) against which one can measure himself; (3) they provide an opportunity for a player to pick up one or two things to take away and practice deliberately on his own; and (4) they may motivate players to practice more after the conclusion of the camp.

Camps and clinics typically fall short because they attempt to be all things to all players. A one-day clinic or even a week-long general camp does not provide sufficient deliberate practice to master a new skill. Instead, the player is served better by a trainer who can provide feedback on a weekly basis and monitor the player’s progress.

The camp might teach the greatest things in the world, but the player must practice beyond the end of the camp to master these skills, and if there is no feedback or correction, he may not remember the skill precisely or remember the right progression of drills to develop the skill.

A trainer’s weekly or bi-weekly workout offers the same four things, though not always to all players or in all sessions. The trainer has more individual flexibility than a camp. Most importantly, the trainer provides a long-term improvement environment, while the camp is essentially a short-term plan or quick fix.

That being said, many trainers overestimate their importance in the talent development picture. In fact, in many cases, their greatest impact on players is the trainer’s marketing – the players learn by watching and playing against other good players. People talk about the famed summer runs at the Men’s Gym on the campus of UCLA. There is a guy who is in charge of putting players on teams and keeping the riff-raff off the court, but he doesn’t market himself as a name trainer. He does not tell everyone that he trains all of the players in attendance. However, for some trainers, their role differs little from that of the guy who unlocks the Men’s Gym and picks teams.

In many of these training environments, players learn by watching as much as they do from the drills or instruction of the trainer. The time between drills, games or repetitions gives them an opportunity to watch other players, often more skilled or more talented, and learn from their practice habits and techniques.

In “Stare to Win,” Daniel Coyle writes:

If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time they spend staring.

I’m not talking about merely looking. I’m talking about active staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.

Why does staring work? An article in Discover titled “The Brain Why Athletes Are Geniuses” by Carl Zimmer offers one explanation:

Predicting the outcome of a task seems to involve the same brain areas that the athlete develops in practice…Salvatore Aglioti of Sapienza University assembled a group of people, some of whom were professional basketball players, and scanned their brains as they watched movies of other players taking free throws. Some of the movies stopped before the ball left the player’s hands; others stopped just after the ball’s release. The subjects then had to predict whether it went through the hoop or not. The pros in the group showed a lot of activity in those regions of the brain that control hand and arm muscles, but in the non-athletes those regions were relatively quiet. It seems that the basketball players were mentally reenacting the free throws in their minds, using their expertise to guess how the players in the movies would perform.

As players watch their fellow workout partners, their brains continue to work and to learn. The learning does not occur only through their actions, but by watching the actions of others, especially those who are more skilled.

Coyle offers three reasons for the importance of this staring:

First, mimicry. Staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains — far more efficient than trying to learn through the keyhole of words.

Second, high-quality feedback. Active staring gives us a way to measure our performance against those who are better than us.

Third, igniting motivation. Staring is the royal road to passion, because it’s the main way we link our identities with other people.

I see this phenomena in college basketball. There are players who people believe never should have received a scholarship at a certain school, but excel anyway, or players who people believe should have gone to a much bigger school, but they fit in fine at a lower level. I have seen this so often that I believe the difference between levels is much less than many people think.

As an example, I watched an NAIA team a few years ago. The team had a freshman point guard who I felt could play Division 1 – I thought she would have been a middle of the pack point guard in the Big West Conference, at minimum. Theoretically, a player who should start at a Division 1 program should dominate at the NAIA-II level, right? She didn’t dominate. As a freshman, she did not even start. Eventually, she was an all-league player.

Around the same time, a friend contacted me and asked me to recommend a player to this NAIA program. The player instead walked on at a Pac-10 program. As a walk-on, she eventually earned minutes and played reasonably well – she became a rotation player in the Pac-10.

What happened? Were the evaluators that far off? Is the coaching that much better? Talent-wise, the NAIA player was better: she was quicker, had a better handle and was naturally a better shooter. The Pac10 player may have had better practice habits and was slightly taller (fwiw, both players are of Asian descent, which usually leads to many overlooking their talent).

I submit that the coaches did not misevaluate, nor did one receive significantly better coaching than the other (as fate would have it, their coaches are now on the same staff). Instead, the Pac10 player was surrounded by better players. She practiced against better players. She played against better players. She watched tape of better players. She watched better players from the bench every game. The environment conspired to enhance her talent level. She was forced to stretch her perceptions of what she could do on the court, especially if she wanted to play.

If you flip-flopped the players, I think the same thing would have happened. I do not think that the Pac10 player would have moved to the NAIA team and dropped 30 points per game. Out of high school, she would have fit in well with her college teams and been a very good player at that level. Similarly, the NAIA player would not have been overwhelmed in the Pac10 and likely would have earned some minutes in the rotation.

The difference was the mimicry, motivation and feedback. Seeing better players, copying better players and rising to the challenge of the better players enhanced the one player’s skills so she could play in the Pac10 while the similarly talented player was a pretty good player at a competitive level at least 4-5 levels removed from the Pac10.

Trainers who mix talented players with younger or less talented players have the same effect. Their training may or may not be good, but the environment gives the players an opportunity to learn through mimicry, feedback and motivation. Training with a “skills trainer” has replaced pick-up games at the park in the development process, but the effect of the practice and the staring is the same. The lesser player can copy the moves of a better player and imprint those moves on his memory. The staring provides immediate feedback as one compares his skills to another. Finally, watching a great player in close proximity motivates one that he can reach the same level, especially if he copies the work ethic displayed by the more elite player.

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