Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Siblings, Genes & Staring
- Sport-Specific Skills vs. General, Athletic Skills
- Differential Learning and Perfect Practice
A Quick Word
During a Duke University game in the NCAA Tournament, Clark Kellogg exclaimed, “It’s in the genes!” when Duke’s Seth Curry knocked down a three-pointer. This is a common perception, as his brother Stephen was one of the best college shooters of the past decade, and his father Dell was an NBA sharp-shooter. Most people believe this statement: the evidence suggests that the Curry clan possess the shooting gene.
I generally do not believe in genetics or innate skills because as soon as someone comments about a player like Ray Allen’s, Steve Kerr’s or Stephen Curry’s innate talent, they proceed to discuss the unbelievable work ethic and time spent learning and mastering the skill. If they possess the shooting gene, why do they need to work so hard? An innate talent is something that endures or varies little, so the amount of practice should not affect this talent to a great extent.
My grandfather was in naval intelligence and spoke five languages fluently. I took 12 years of Spanish and can piece together two sentences. If my grandfather had the language gene, did it skip a generation or two? Is it a recessive gene?
Rather than attribute the Curry’s shooting to their genes, I think Seth and Stephen benefit from something else: a role model. Have you seen the commercial with Dell Curry shooting before a game in Toronto with a young Stephen Curry on the sideline while a fan from the future talks to Stephen? What kind of an advantage do you think a young Stephen gleaned from spending time on an NBA court watching NBA players all day?
Rather than genes, the Curry brothers benefited from staring, as explained in a recent article by Daniel Coyle. Coyle offers three reasons for the importance of staring in talent development:
“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.”
Seth and Stephen spent their childhoods staring at one of the best shooters in NBA history. Does that experience not account for some of their shooting skill?
Seeing their father in the NBA likely ignited their motivation and assisted with their persistence in a way that most cannot relate. When they were overlooked by recruiters, they easily could have lost some motivation or felt that they lacked the ability. However, their father provided that boost to their motivation. They knew they were good enough – they watched their father. If Dell was good enough to play in the NBA, and told them that they were good enough if they worked hard, their motivation likely increased. For a normal teenager who has never been in the same room with an NBA player, he may believe the recruiters’ opinions and question his skill level, lessening his internal motivation.
Watching their father play in the NBA provided high-quality feedback. They could compare their shooting to their father’s. They could challenge their father in shooting contests and know that beating him meant something. They could watch their father in the NBA, and his teammates, and learn from the experience. They watched their father and his teammates work out and saw the type of work necessary to make it in the NBA. Few teenagers get the opportunity to watch NBA players work out or to work out with an NBA player.
Would it make a difference for a normal teenager if he spent a day watching Kobe Bryant work out or worked out with Kevin Durant? For some, it might lead them to quit, as the requisite effort to reach an expert level would be intimidating, daunting and not worth it. But, for someone with the goals and the work ethic who only lacks the knowledge, how would that opportunity affect them? Now, imagine seeing that on a daily basis. You go one of two ways: (1) You learn from it and embrace it or (2) you see how hard it is and pursue something else. Either way, you know what it takes.
Finally, the Curry brothers mimicked their father’s shooting. They watched him shoot hundreds of thousands of shots, I imagine. If “staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains,” having a father who is an expert shooter is the best way to learn the shooting skill. What could be a better teacher than watching an excellent shooter shoot hundreds of shots every day and copying him?
Do the Curry brothers have some genetic advantages over their peers? Probably. However, the genetic advantage might be different than most assume. In “Sports Genes” from the May 17, 2010 Sports Illustrated, David Epstein writes:
“Scientific research gives us a fuller picture of how we evolved into athletes, and it suggests that some things that appear to be largely genetic (such as East African dominance of distance running) might not be, and that other things that seem entirely voluntary (such as an athlete’s will to train) might in fact have an important genetic component.”
Therefore, Seth’s and Stephen’s genetic advantage may have more more to do with their ability to concentrate on a task rather than any specific shooting gene. In addition to the right role model who provided an example to mimic, high-quality feedback and motivation, the Curry brothers may have inherited an indomitable will or high-task concentration or selective attention, and this genetic attribute may have combined with Coyle’s concept of staring to develop their shooting prowess, as opposed to some magic shooting gene that a person inherits at birth which determines his ultimate shooting skill.
Sport-Specific Skills vs. General Athletic/Movement Skills
In issue 5.9, I wrote about Jimmer Fredette and the misperceptions about his athleticism. Then, I wrote about The Jimmer’s athleticism more in depth. On twitter, someone asked what I saw to make the statements about his athleticism. The second article has a few video clips to illustrate some points, but I worked out an 8th grade girl this week, and the example might help the explanation.
The player’s mother and father emailed me and asked for shooting instruction. When we met, the father explained to me the numerous problems with her shot and gave special attention to her thumbing the ball with her weak hand. The girl was 5’1 and maybe 100 pounds.
I watched her shoot. Her shot was highly repeatable. She had some technique flaws in her shot, but nothing major. Then, I watched her shoot on the move. Finally, I moved her to the three-point line to get a sense of her range.
The father saw problems with the girl’s shooting technique. I found her issues to center on her athletic skills: (1) she’s not very strong and (2) she struggles to decelerate and stop her momentum.
Her skill level was pretty good. She was able to use either foot as a pivot foot on her first step to the basket and she could step in right-left or left-right to shoot. Many players struggle to use their non-dominant foot as a pivot foot.
Her shooting technique was good for her size. She shoots a little lower than ideal, but there is no way she’s going to shoot a pro jump shot as a 5’0, 100-pound 8th grader. Comparing her to Maya Moore is ridiculous.
However, her arm motion is consistent and straight. The problems occurred at the start and the finish. The problems at the start of her shot were athletic, and the the problems at the finish were technical (with small hands, her shooting hand starts too far to the right and she finishes with her fingers pointing to the side, not straight to the basket).
While we spent some time focused on the finish, the bigger improvement will come through better general athleticism. When she develops better leg strength and power, her shot will improve as she will start from a better position, and she will extend her range. I told her that to improve her shot, she needed to do some leg strengthening and jumping exercises, as well as some running on the sand (she lives near the beach).
As for her deceleration, part of the issue is a lack of strength and part is technique or habit. However, the problem was not her understanding of a 1-2- step; the issue was her inability to drop her hips when she stopped. Instead, she stopped with a wide stance, using the big step as a break to stop her momentum, as opposed to sitting her hips lower to absorb the force.
This is my focus for her technique work – the ability to stop. This is not a basketball-specific skill; instead, it is a general athletic skill. As I wrote in regards to Fredette, all sport-specific skills develop on top of general athletic skills: before one can shoot, one must develop skills for jumping, stopping, throwing and more.
In our youth sports culture, we are ignoring these general skills and moving directly to sports-specific applications of fundamental movement skills. Young athletes learn running mechanics while dribbling a ball or develop their jumping patterns when learning to shoot. At some point, players plateau, and many times, it is the suboptimal basic athletic skills that prevent further learning and development. In this case, it is strength and deceleration. In another player that I train, it is total body coordination and core strength – he’s simply growing too fast, and he has lost coordination of his limbs. His issue is not shooting technique; the first, biggest issue or the foundational issue is his lack of coordination, and he will struggle with that for a couple more years as he is just starting his growth spurt and his father is pretty tall, so he has a lot of room to grow.
Before trying to make children into basketball players, we have to develop their athletic skills. Fredette illustrates great athleticism through his sport-specific skill execution. However, without the athletic foundation, his shooting would not be as proficient. The two work together and complement each other, but one cannot be a skilled player without possessing the underlying athleticism to perform the skills.
Differential Learning & Perfect Practice
After writing about differential learning in issue 5.9, I read a paper titled “Applications of Systems Dynamic Principles to Technique and Strength Training,” by Dr. Schoellhorn. In the paper, he recounts a study of two elite discuss throwers which “provided strong evidence for the low probability of executing two identical movements,” (Schoellhorn, p. 73). He writes:
“Describing the final throwing phase (duration is about 200ms) by means of angles and angular velocities of the main joints (ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows) reveals constant fluctuations in the discrete (instant and range values) as well as in the continuous (time course) parameters. This means that we were not able to identify two identical movements over one year although the athletes were very advanced.”
Essentially, he took video of someone like Ray Allen and measured the kinetics and kinematics of every shot taken for an entire year and found that no two shots were identical. Every shot differed in some aspect of the angle of release, velocity of release, height of release, angle of the joints, velocity of the joints, etc.
In essence, the concept of differential learning argues that since one elite athlete cannot replicate his movement precisely even once over an entire year, why do we attempt to fit individual athletes into other people’s models?
Some people believe in an exact shooting technique based on biomechanical principles, and any deviation from this model leads to less than optimal shooting. However, is this model individualized? Is it based on individual arm length, height, muscle strength, joint stiffness, etc.? Should every player attempt to replicate Ray Allen’s shooting technique precisely? What if the player is 5’8? What if he has extra long arms? What if he has springy legs?
“If we assume that world class athletes have found their instantaneous and very individual optima, and at the same time individuality can be identified in beginners, then we encounter the problem of teaching young athletes certain sport techniques that are no more adequate for their body or do not fit their mentality when they are grown up,” (Schoellhorn, p. 75).
Drills are used generally to perfect a skill. For instance, players shoot hundreds of shots close to the basket to master the muscle memory of shooting a basketball (technically, it is a motor program stored in the brain). However, if every repetition differs, should we view drills in the same way? Rather than aim for perfect practice of these skills through these drills, is there a more effective way to practice?
When I was young, I shot well. I won some shooting contests, shot well in games, etc. Then, a coach tried to fit me into a model of what he thought a shooter should do. He tried to change my free throw technique after a tournament where I shot 90% during a season where I hit 24 straight free throws to win a free throw shooting contest at a local church. Why? Because while he thought my shot was good, he did not think it was perfect compared to the model in his head. If there is no true model, then what should we teach?
According to Schoellhorn, “The situation specific adjustment has to be learned and continuously adapted,” (Schoellhorn, p. 77). He explains with the example of a robot:
“When a neural-net controlled robot is trained to move forward in a given environment, then the robot is moving very well within the taught environment, but fails within short period of time when the environment changes. If some noise is added during the learning phase the robot is able to manage unknown environments quite satisfactorily,” (Schoellhorn, p. 77).
Rather than focus on precise replication of a skill, differential learning argues for adaptability. To promote adaptability, differential learning encourages a changing environment. The greater range of changes to the environment, the more adaptable will be the skill (theoretically).
In one sense, when players try crazy shots when warming up, these shots could be viewed as expanding the edges of the range of training and increasing the opportunities for adaptability.
The concept suggests that improvement comes not from replicating one movement over and over in the exact same way, but from adapting that movement to specific situations using the best possible solution. As an example, if the player has a small range (degrees of freedom) in his shot because he practices the same shot, the same way every day, what happens when a tall defender closes out and he cannot shoot with the same angle of release from the same height of release as practice? What happens when the player practices his shooting every day at the beginning of his workout when he is fresh, but has to shoot at the end of a double OT game when he has no legs left and cannot get the normal lift on his shot?
If one assumes constant variation in every shot attempt, he varies the drills used to develop the skill. Instead, we use a paradigm that believes the best way to improve is to eliminate all variation and replicate the same shot over and over, something that Schoellhorn’s research with shot putters suggests is unrealistic. Therefore, based on the concept of differential learning, we should concentrate less on precision when developing skills and more on adaptability and expanding the variation of the practice environment.