Geno Auriemma, Personal Trainers & Contextual Interference

After UConn humiliated Duke University, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma took the opportunity to blast personal trainers (incidentally, on the same day, I wrote about Geno Auriemma and Bri Hartley’s personal trainer in an article). Auriemma said:

“A lot of these kids growing up, you know what happens now? They all have personal trainers…You’ve got kids not worth (anything) and they have a personal trainer. They all have trainers, and none of them know how to play, because they are always working by themselves how to play, how to jab, how to jab step, how to cross over, how to shoot.

“Then you put them in five-on-five and somebody punches them in the face and they stop playing.”

Many people, including prominent coaches, trainers and academies featured in publications like the New York Times, have reacted to the current system which features too much competition and gone too far the other way. Individual training is their answer to the fundamental quandary.

Skills learned in drills with low contextual interference improve immediate performance, but fail to transfer to game performance. Trainers specialize in low CI environments. Players and parents see immediate improvements and believe in the efficacy of the training. The public buys into the training and believes in the fundamental practice because the players practice basic skills like shooting and ball handling.

Trainers, however, do not have to worry about game performance. If a player underperforms in the game compared to his performance in training, the trainer can criticize the coach or blame the player or simply assure the player that he needs more time in his training sessions to master the skills. I have never heard a trainer explain the lack of transfer because of the low CI in his sessions.

I have reduced the skill training that I do significantly because I do not believe in its efficacy. I had a mother ask me several times about training her daughter on her post moves, and I continually told her that she needed to find another player so they could train together. The girl’s problem was not the lack of moves or poor footwork. In 1v0 drills, she was fine. Her problem was playing against a defender and reading situations. More 1v0 practice was not going to alleviate these problems.

Training is not inherently bad. But, it is not the sole answer either. It seems like parents hire personal trainers because players will not practice or train on their own. If players will not train on their own, do they have the mentality to be great? Can a trainer improve a player’s game without that desire?

For training to have a greater impact, trainers need more contextual interference. The drills need to be more game-like. That does not mean simply taking shots from the same spots that one shoots in games. Adding variability or randomness to training adds contextual interference. For instance, rather than taking 10 straight shots from the same spot, mix up the spots or switch between skills.

Of course, adding defense or playing in more competitive situations adds contextual interference and makes the practice more game-like. In my post example, I wanted two players to work together to work on more game-like moves so the training transferred better to the game.

You do not train for the sake of training; the purpose of training is to improve game performance. Many trainers seem to focus on training for the sake of training. Players like the training because the trainers emphasize success, so players leave feeling good about themselves and their performance. When they play a game, maybe their opponent is better than them or they do not play much or they miss a bunch of shots, and they leave the game feeling worse than when they leave training. They feel like their trainer helps them more because they perform well in training, and not as well in the games. However, training is a learning environment, not a performance environment. Training should induce mistakes to create more learning opportunities, rather than waiting to learn the lessons in the middle of a competitive game.

I agree with Auriemma’s point that players do not know how to play. It is evident in the lack of point guards, lack of post moves and poor transition decision-making. These skills require lots of practice in high CI environments. Dribbling up and down the court does not make one a point guard, regardless of the number of fancy drills that one can do or the number of youtube videos he downloads. Playing in the post requires feeling and reading the defense, which one cannot practice in isolation.

Players practice their technical skills, but they have a poor playing I.Q. or game awareness. Their skill development transfers poorly because the environment of a game differs from that of practice. His boxing analogy is appropriate: punching the heavy bag does not prepare you to spar with an opponent. You may learn better punching technique, but that technique changes when someone else is punching you in the face. If you do not spar, you are not ready to spar or fight for real. Drills alone are not enough. Individual practice is not enough. Trainers who do not incorporate higher levels of contextual interference – trainers who do not involve the equivalent of sparring in their sessions – fail their clients, as Auriemma said.

To read the rest of Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.4, go here.
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