Coaching Basketball Based on the Way Children Learn Naturally

The above video is about the effect of technology on learning in remote, impoverished areas of India, which would seem to have very little commonality with children in the United States learning to play basketball. However, the title “Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves” caught my attention, as I am interested in how children learn.

While the video is fairly specific to a few educational and technological outcomes, there are two general take-aways that would appear to transfer to different situations and learning goals, including basketball.

First, children are able to learn without any adult instruction provided that there is a group. Nearly a decade ago, after watching a number of high school teams underperform due to the over-coaching of their coaches, I wrote that many of the teams would be better if their coach came to practice, left a ball at center court, and left the gym. Obviously, the masses were aghast. However, how would the learning change if players were self-directed and worked as a group as opposed to following the coach’s directions every day? Would players practice set plays all practice? Would they develop better skills? Would they have more fun? Later, I posted on another message forum for coaches that coaches should teach the game in a way that would make their players successful in pick-up games. Coaches called me names. However, the point was that coaches should teach players adaptable skills, not just specific systems, so a player can fit with different teammates, play different positions, execute varied skills, and generally know how to play the game.

When I was young, I twice signed up for leagues and managed to be put on the leftover’s team. One was a weekly league where we played on Saturdays during my sophomore year, and the league never assigned us a coach. I think we told them that my dad would come and coach us, but we coached ourselves. Despite a lack of coaching and superstars, we lost in the semi-finals to the eventual champions. We were the 3rd or 4th best team out of 20 or so teams in the league with only one player who ever made so much as 2nd team all-league as a varsity player or even started for a good high school program (the team we lost to, as a comparison, had three players who started for a section championship team). The other league was a summer league after my freshman year of high school where we played four games per week for six weeks. We were given a coach, but he was there to substitute. We never practiced or ran plays or had any kind of organization. We lost our first three games after being slapped together at the last minute and went undefeated the rest of the way. Our best player was a marginal starter for one of the worst high-school programs in the area.

These were two of my favorite experiences as a player. I learned more in the summer league than I did during my entire freshmen season with a coach. The teams excelled because we did not look over our shoulders when we made a mistake or missed a shot. We had good camaraderie, especially in the weekly league where we substituted ourselves in and out of the games. Our lack of coaching did not hinder our performance, but may have enhanced it. The spring and summer leagues obviously differed from a real season in terms of competitiveness, practice time, preparation, and more, but I do think the results reflected the effectiveness of less coaching.

In Sugata Mitra’s talk, he says that “learning is a self-organizing system.” My teams were essentially self-organizing systems as we helped each other without any type of top-down instruction or rules. Mitra added that children learn in groups when the adult interference was removed. These are important ideas for learning, teaching, and coaching.

Is this our approach as coaches? Do we give players the opportunity to learn on their own or to help their peers with their learning? Most of my moves and shots I learned from an older player or by watching better players. While I had some terrific coaches, their coaching tended to be team-oriented, not individual-oriented. I learned to dribble through my legs because the kid that I looked up to dribbled through his legs so I watched him and learned by trial-and-error. I learned a hook shot because my neighbor would beat me in H-O-R-S-E by using a hook shot. I learned a floater by playing with older, bigger players and getting some instruction from a high-school senior who I played against at our local court when I was in 8th grade. I learned to run a pick-and-roll in pick-up games; I never played for a coach who used pick-and-rolls.

If this learning takes place, and this is a very real way that children learn, do we embrace this type of learning? In our basketball system now, where players are engaged constantly in structured environments with trainers, off-season teams, competitive teams, etc., is there time for this type of self-organizing learning through mimicry and peer learning or is learning almost entirely top-down instruction?

Mitra concludes with the argument for “an educational technology and pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected and self-organized.” This idea is not generalizable to sports because of the differences between technology and the classroom and the basketball court. However, we can create learning environments for players that feature the last four: fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected and self-organized.

This environment would encourage mistakes and exploration rather than trying to minimize mistakes and limit options. The coaching would be minimal rather than dominating the entire culture. Children would be encouraged to work together and help each other as occurs in the real world outside adult-initiated environments. The learning would be self-organized: The players would create the goals and the practice. There would not be an end-goal of XYZ must happen. Learning would occur because the players found something to be important and engaging and they would find ways to become better at it.

This type of environment is likely far-fetched, as adults are hesitant to relinquish any control over environments like education and athletics. However, how can a coach embrace these ideas within his or her team? How can coaches embrace the way that children learn rather than imposing the instruction upon the players?

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