Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Goalkeepers and Talent Development
- SAQs and Tag
- How to Develop a Motion Offense
A Quick Word
I jumped into a twitter discussion this week between soccer coaches because I felt that the coaches were settling for obvious explanations that ultimately affect our understanding of sports and talent development. The coaches were discussing goalkeepers, and the ability of the United States to develop several world-class goalkeepers while not developing any true world-class field players.
The soccer coaches latched onto the familiar answer: children in the U.S. grow up playing hand-eye sports like basketball, baseball, football and more, so they naturally gravitate to the goalkeeper position and excel with their hand-eye coordination.
I suggested that the explanation ran deeper into the development of the players. Because of European transfer rules (work visas), U.S. players have to prove themselves with the U.S. Men’s National Team or major League Soccer before transferring to a prominent European league, like the English Premiere League. Therefore, players are essentially near their professional peaks when they finally transfer, somewhere around 26 years old.
For a goalkeeper, this is no problem, as goalkeepers mature later and maintain their peak performance for longer because it is a position that relies heavily on perceptual-cognitive skills like reading angles, anticipating movements, and choice reaction time developed through experience, while field players rely heavily on physical qualities like quickness. A goalkeeper that transfers to an English club at 26-years-old has time to learn the league, fail, rebound and perform at the highest level for a dozen years. USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard transferred to Manchester United, played well, played poorly, lost his job and transferred to Everton where he was given a second chance and has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in England. Would a field player be given that second opportunity by another club at that age?
Field players develop through the U.S. system and have an adjustment period when moving to a better league. Basketball players have an adjustment when moving from college to the NBA. However, most basketball players are 19-23 when they make the move to the NBA. They have room to develop and have yet to hit their physical peak. They can learn for a year or two and have time to play into and out of their physical peak.
A soccer player undergoes the same transition, yet he is at his physical peak. If he cannot contribute immediately upon arrival with his European club, does he have time to learn the league, develop and get a second chance? Unlikely, especially with the stigma that U.S. players lack the skills to compete at the highest levels. The stigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, while the perception of the U.S. producing great goalkeepers improves a U.S. goalkeeper’s chances to get a second look.
The U.S. is transitioning from the players who played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups to those who will play in the 2014 World Cup (hopefully). However, few of the new players have established themselves, and they are not playing in Europe (unless they have access to European passports, like Stuart Holden or Timothy Chandler, are older, like Clint Dempsey, or are playing in a smaller league like Alejandro Bedoya).
Players who are imagined to be the future of the team, like Tim Ream and Omar Gonzales, are not that young (25 and 24) anymore. At that age, they are nearing their physical peaks and should be playing at the highest levels already to prepare for the World Cup and to challenge themselves professionally. If they are unready for the best leagues at 24 years old, the question must be asked if they will ever be ready? If they transfer at 27 or 28, they may play well for a year or two, and may hold on for a while in near-top leagues like Carlos Bocanegra in France because of their understanding and intelligence which compensates for their lessening speed, but they probably missed their window to accelerate their development by playing with and against the best at a more developmental age.
However, it is much easier to attribute goalkeeper’s success to a basketball up-bringing than to examine the entire developmental system. We are similarly short-sighted in basketball development and training, as we attribute success to a simple explanation while there are many. Parents tell me that their son needs to play year-round AAU basketball at 8-years-old because that’s how LeBron James developed, ignoring the fact that he also played football in high school.
When the facts do not support their argument, however, they are irrelevant. It is much easier to attribute James’ success to his play in AAU than to imagine that football had an effect on his development or that there were other things in play.
Great players often make poor trainers or coaches because they attribute their success to their training programs, even though their success likely had more to do with their work ethic than their training. Many perpetuate poorly planned training because of their attribution of their success. If they ran five miles a day in the summer and were good at basketball, they attribute their success to the five miles per day, not the random pick up games or their effort on the court.
Talent development is never a simple answer. There are many factors involved in an athlete’s development and settling on the easy or obvious explanation often short-changes the athlete and misappropriates his or her success, oftentimes leading to the continuation of biases or poor training.
SAQs and Tag
I read an article that laid out a very conservative approach to agility training. The article focused on cutting and required eight preparatory drills before moving to a drill that incorporated a reaction to an external stimulus. When I asked why young children are allowed to play tag – a more complex and intense activity than any of the drills – but must take an 8-step approach to approximate a simulated game environment, coaches grew defensive. We have convinced ourselves that this is the appropriate approach to learning. If the complex drills are so dangerous, why are unsupervised and untrained children allowed to perform them? What is the injury rate of tag games at recess compared to training centers with this step-by-step “safe” approach?
We believe, and books like The Talent Code have reinforced the idea, that skill comes from repetition after repetition of an ideal movement. If the athletes does not perform the movement ideally, he needs to correct his movement and copy the standard to improve. This, of course, suggests that all people are the same, and each individual’s ideal movement is the standard movement, not an individual solution to the movement problem. However, in Schöllhorn’s study of discus throwers, he did not “identify two identical movements over one year, although the two athletes were very advanced” (Schöllhorn, 2000). The finding questions whether there is an ideal movement to be repeated over and over.
During early childhood, children learn more rapidly than through their whole lifespan… Furthermore, characteristics of learning at this age seem to include a large variety of movements, a small amount of repetitions and only a small tendency to follow instructions…each repetition varies the previous movements, even after numerous trials. And these variations are endless during the most effective phase of learning (Schöllhorn et al., 2010).
Therefore, children learn not through repetitive movements but exploration. This makes sense, as to say that one has learned requires the performance of new behaviors or changes to existing behaviors. If one does the same thing over and over, are new behaviors or changes to old behaviors happening? The repetitions are intended to create the motor pattern of the ideal movement. However, what if we accept the idea that there is no ideal?
The two tests for learning are retention and transfer: can the athlete perform the same skill after a period of no practice (not in successive repetitions) and can he perform the skill in different environments? If the athlete practices a cutting maneuver in isolation, can he perform the same movement against a defender in an up-coming game?
Wheeler and Sayers (2010) used a kinematic analysis to compare the foot strike in pre-planned and reactive drills and found a significant difference suggesting that the drills do not necessarily train the athlete for the game demands. Similarly, McLean et al. (2004) showed that the introduction of a static defender in cutting maneuvers significantly alters knee biomechanics. Therefore, either the demands of the game differ significantly from the training environment or the athletes do not retain or transfer the training to the game environment. Regardless, there is a breakdown in learning from the practice setting to the game because of our collective misunderstanding of learning.
A game environment provides different task constraints than most practice exercises. While we invest time and energy in drills to perfect an ideal movement, the ideal movement differs from the game movement. Rather than concentrate on the ideal, athletes should be pushed into harder, more complex, more intense exercises that are closer to the game’s complexity and intensity.
The article focused on agility in terms of cutting. Beyond tag, other ways to add complexity would be to add a second person in the drill and create a cutting situation based off the partner. Using a reaction ball is another way to make a drill more game-like because of the reaction to an unpredictable external stimulus.
Children learn complex movements through tag. Then, they sign up for sports, and coaches take care to prevent injuries by making the tasks less complex and attempting to restrain the movement to an ideal standard without accounting for individual differences. Instead, a coach should use the natural learning of the children, provide rich environments which continue this learning and save instruction for big errors. Truthfully, instruction often should come in the form of exercises that address a weakness, like exercises to strengthen weak muscles which inhibit proper transfer of forces in lateral movement. The lack of explicit understanding is not often the problem; instead, it is a weakness that inhibits the performance that needs the correction (or with older athletes, a return to their natural movements after years of coaching to some standard that does not fit with their individual differences).
- McLean SG, Lipfert SW, Van Den Bogert AJ. (2004). Effect of gender and defensive opponent on the biomechanics of sidestep cutting. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36:1008-1016.
- Schöllhorn, W.I., Beckmann, H., Janssen, D., Drepper J. (2010). Stochastic perturbations in athletics field events enhances skill acquisition. In I. Renshaw, K. Davids and G J.P. Savelsbergh (Ed.), Motor Learning in Practice. A constraints-led approach. (pp.69-82) Routledge, London.
- Schöllhorn, W. I. (2000). Applications of systems dynamic principles to technique and strength training. Acta Academiae Olympiquae estoniae, (8), 67-85.
- Wheeler, K.W. and Sayers, M.G.L. (2010). Modification of agility running technique in reaction to a defender in rugby union. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 9, 445-451.
How to Develop a Motion Offense
On a message board, a coach asked the best way to develop a motion offense for 9 and 10-year-olds. My first reaction was “Why?” As I have written previously, I do not see a reason for 9-year-olds to play 5v5 basketball for any reason other than fun. I do not believe that 5v5 basketball at that age is developmental, and there is no reason to be overly competitive. Therefore, developing an offensive system is beside the point.
However, to develop a motion offense requires two things:
- Every player needs to be able to shoot, pass, dribble and depending on the philosophy, play in the post.
- The team needs some general principles to avoid confusion.
If you have a team that lacks the ability to pass, dribble and shoot, why are you wasting time trying to create an offense? Any offense is only as good as the players playing within the offense. If players lack these skills, they need a practice environment which provides the necessary game-like repetitions to master these fundamentals. Spending time walking through a motion offense will not make players better ball handlers, passers or shooters, and ultimately the great offense will break down because of the lack of skills, not the inability to master an offensive set.
I advocate small-sided games because it creates more repetitions for each player to practice his ball handling, passing and shooting in game-like situations and enables the learning of basic tactical skills like give-and-go cuts, screens, dribble hand-offs and more, which eventually form the foundation of any motion offense. Learning these in competitive situations may take longer, but the skills will be more resilient to performance variables like pressure and fatigue, and players will retain and transfer the learning better than 5v0 practice.
Some of the coaches mentioned that they never scrimmage or they practice 5v0 to teach the offense. How do you teach players to play the game if they never play the game? During junior high school, I played for a coach who did not scrimmage in practices. However, we probably played 10 or more hours of pick-up games each week at recess, lunch and after school. We developed the feel for the game and a basic understanding in the pick-up games, and our coach cleaned up some of our fundamental errors, emphasized shooting and practiced our defensive rotations. We did not need as much scrimmaging because we played so much on our own. Since players play less in unstructured situations now, they miss these learning opportunities and consequently need a different approach. Players need to scrimmage to develop the feel for the game. Otherwise, they become robotic, only following the coach’s directions without a true understanding.
5v0 works once or twice to show something. However, it should not be a practice activity. In high school, we ran through plays 5v0 for 20 minutes every practice. When we went 5v5, we screwed up the plays, and the coach grew frustrated. Worse, we never learned the skills generally outside of our plays.
The defense changes the play. Older, experienced players can make sense of 5v0 practice because they have experience and can visualize the defense. In high school, I rarely made errors when we moved to 5v5 because I understood the play because I played so much. I visualized the defense and knew where to set a screen, how to set up the screen, etc. Many of my teammates could not make this transfer from the 5v0 to the 5v5; they could not visualize and make meaning from the 5v0 practice when presented with five defenders that altered the court and the decision-making process. Young players lack the understanding to transfer the 5v0 practice to 5v5 practice.
Last season, I never practiced 5v0 with my team of relatively new players. We went straight to small-sided games and if something went wrong, I stopped the action and showed the mistake in the context of the action. To develop the skills that we used within our offense, we started the season by playing a lot of 2v2 and 3v3. Whenever the skills became an issue, we returned to 2v2 and 3v3. I did not simplify the action by playing 5v0; I simplified the action by playing 3v3 and getting more players repetitions at game speed in a game context.
The best way to build a motion offense is to start with one skill. I start with give-and-go cuts. We practice with small-sided games focused solely on cutting. No screens allowed. Pass, cut and replace. We build from 2v2 to 3v3 to 4v4 and 5v5. Throughout, each player gets more repetitions in a game environment and the opportunity to shoot, pass and dribble. If we struggle with one of the basic fundamental skills, then I go to a drill centered on that skill, like a lay-up drill.
After we develop the idea of pass, cut and replace, I introduce a second skill like spacing off dribble penetration or screens away from the ball. Again, we practice with small-sided games.
This method allows players to develop an understanding of the general skills in the game context – that is, they learn to read the defense and make decisions, whereas in a 5v0 situation they are essentially following the coach’s directions because there is no defense to read. In 5v0, a motion offense quickly devolves into a play called “motion.” This method also increases the fundamental practice within the game context, as each player gets meaningful touches to pass, shoot or dribble against a defensive player, again learning to make decisions in a game context.
Different coaches have different approaches. This method of small-sided games is the approach that has worked for me. Developing Basketball Intelligence is a general approach to skill development using small-sided games and teaching the basic tactical skills that form the foundation of any offensive system, while Blitz Basketball is a more specific system that uses more technical drills to teach the motion of the offensive system. My approach has evolved from the Blitz Basketball style to the DBI style, but part of my evolution is coaching older players.