Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: The Beginner’s Mind
- Decision Training
- Paul Scholes and Expert Performance
A Quick Word
Earlier this summer, I worked with a college player on his free throw shooting. After we concluded our sessions, his coach emailed and asked for my feedback on working with the player.
The player is very analytical. When coaches have players who really think the game like this, we tend to believe that the player can handle more information. However, such a player sometimes needs less information. The more that this player was exposed to instruction, the more he thought about the things that could go wrong. He suffered from paralysis by analysis.
After our first or second session, I realized that adding instruction inhibited his performance. Despite his intelligence and analytical nature, I reduced the complexity of my instruction. I treated him almost like a beginner, and I tried to paint pictures rather than use more verbal explanations – “finish tall”, “shoot out of a phone booth”, etc. rather than involving more precise verbal explanations. To improve, he needed to quiet his mind, and more instruction complicated matters.
When training players, it is not always the obvious answer. For a player with a great understanding, adding more things to think about may not be the best approach, especially if the player tends to think too much already. Coaching requires finding the best solution for the individual player not using what generally works or makes sense logically.
Motor learning is concerned with the retention and transfer of learning. Retention is the ability to reproduce the skill after a period of no practice, while transfer is the ability to use the skill in new situations (Vickers, 2007). Coaches are concerned with the same thing. When a coach teaches a skill at practice, his goal is for the players to retain the skill and reproduce the skill in the next practice. More importantly, the coach hopes that the players transfer the skill to game performance.
Traditional coaching uses a behavioral approach. During behavioral training, “positive gains occur immediately,” (Vickers, 2007; p. 163). When a player practices a lay-up over and over, his performance improves. After a couple attempts, he makes more shots. This leads the player and coach to believe that he is mastering the skill (Vickers, 2007). However, in the next practice, the player misses again; in a game, the player misses his lay-up attempts. When this occurs, the coach blames the player: he demonstrates his ability to make a lay-up in practice after numerous repetitions, so he must not be concentrating during subsequent practices or games.
In this type of behavioral practice, there is little cognitive effort. The coach sets up the starting point of the drill and explains exactly how to complete the drill. In a game, the constraints change. The player moves at a faster speed; he has to adjust for defense; he moves at a different angle; and he has to decide which type of lay-up to use. For experienced players (coaches), these decisions are second nature. For a young player trying to master the physical aspects of making a lay-up, these cognitive aspects add to the demands of the shot and often lead to misses. Also, these constraints require greater body control due to the proximity of a defender and the speed, and a young, beginning player often lacks this body control, compounding the difficulty of a simple shot.
When a player misses lay-ups in the game, the coach spends more time engaging in the same type of lay-up practice at the next practice. However, this practice is ineffective. If it failed to lead to retention and transfer originally, is more of the same the answer?
Decision Training is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Behavioral Training. Decision Training incorporates hard-first instruction, competition-like drills and reduced, delayed feedback (Vickers, 2007). Based on the coaching course that I recently taught, Decision Training is also misunderstood.
I use a Decision-Training style of coaching. I coached in this manner before I had heard of Joan Vickers and her research, so my explanation will be my interpretation of the style, not a true explanation of Vickers‘ research.
Using the example of lay-ups, rather than start with the typical pre-game lay-up drill (three-quarter speed at a 45-degree angle from the three-point line), I start with a game that creates numerous lay-up opportunities, like 2v2 Rugby. I use this time to evaluate our performance. If we miss lay-ups, I evaluate the reasons for our misses. With true beginners, I break down the skill to the very beginning and start with a one-step lay-up, a two-step lay-up, a three-step one-dribble lay-up and so on.
However, for most players, the problem is not a lack of exposure to a lay-up or a lack of declarative understanding of how to execute the skill. Instead, there is a specific error causing the misses. If the presence of the defender appears to affect the players‘ concentration, I move to a drill that incorporates a defender, like a lay-up drill with a chaser. This increases the speed of the drill and creates constraints similar to the game environment, but the drill ensures multiple repetitions for every player. After practice in such a drill, I return to a game form to see if there is any improvement.
To me, Decision Training does not mean only hard-first drills. Also, hard-first is relative: the hard-first is in juxtaposition to the typical simple to complex progression. In the Behavioral-Training style, there is often the idea that players must master all the skills before playing in a game. However, that is not how most people learn. I played basketball for several years on the playground before I joined a team or attended a camp or practice. We played before we knew the proper techniques, and our play helped us discover solutions to problems without coach interference. In Behavioral Training, players often become reliant on the coach for his feedback and problem solving as they lack this exploratory learning or self-discovery.
A hard drill for a young player might be a speed lay-up with a chaser, which may not be a hard drill for a college player. While this practices essentially the same skill as a pre-game lay-up, the added constraints increase the intensity and force more cognitive effort, ultimately resulting in slower initial improvements (more missed shots than a pre-game lay-up drill), but greater retention and transfer (Vickers, 2007). The hard-first is not in relation to the coach or a good player; instead, the drills start slightly beyond the players’ current skill level, and there is variation between simple and complex rather than the linear progression.
The DT style does not mean that all drills are competition-like or hard or that there is never any feedback. Instead, with the DT style, the coach gives the player the opportunity to learn from a mistake before offering feedback. If a player misses one lay-up, he may have missed the shot for a variety of reasons: maybe he was distracted or fatigued or released the ball incorrectly. This miss does not mean that the player lost the understanding of how to make a lay-up. A miss does not mean that he requires a re-explanation; he may need a little more concentration or a change in his target. If the coach immediately re-instructs, the player spends more time listening to the coach than practicing lay-ups, and the coach takes away the player’s role and responsibility in the learning process. The discovery and exploration that occurs through a more difficult drill or a game-like situation with less feedback may provide a greater learning environment.
These ideas are even more important when learning more complex skills, like running a 3v2 fast-break. Many 3v2 drills appear scripted: the players do the exact same thing on every repetition. In a game, the execution differs. Rather than following the coach’s directions, the players have to react to an open, complex environment. The defenders can react in multiple ways; one’s teammates can react in multiple ways; the potential reactions change for every potential action made by the defense. There are too many variables to script the break in a game. If players do not practice in these open conditions, their practice improvement is unlikely to transfer to game performance because the constraints differ. They are unprepared for the game constraints. They essentially practice a different skill in practice than the one that they face in the games.
Using a DT style is not easier. Instead, a DT style requires an ability to evaluate and problem solve. In a Behavioral-Training style, the coach plans practice and sticks to the practice regardless of performance. Drills build from simple to complex, typically focusing on one skill at a time and eventually concluding with a scrimmage where the skills are combined. With a DT style, the coach has a plan for practice. However, he constantly evaluates and adjusts that plan. Teaching and training sessions flow from the competitive drills and are based on the evaluation of the performance. The drills are used to solve a problem from the specific competition; they are not pre-planned drills based on general ideas of the way that the team should play. Rather than plan a lay-up drill in advance, the lay-up drill addresses a specific deficiency illuminated by the game performance. This requires the ability to evaluate the cause of the mistake and to create a drill to address the mistake. This is not easier coaching; this coaching is more evolved.
Paul Scholes and Expert Performance
Dan Peterson profiled Paul Scholes recently in an article that asked, “Why are great soccer players so rare?” Peterson cites University of Queensland researchers who conducted two studies into soccer performance.
In the first, the researchers found no correlation between maximal athletic performance and skill. “Our studies suggest that skill is just as important, if not more important, than athletic ability in determining performance of complex traits, such as performance on the football field”. In the second study, the researchers saw no correlation between skill tests and on-field performance. The researchers suggested more practice conditions in game-like drills as opposed to skill drills to develop expert soccer performance.
Since basketball and soccer involve similar combinations of athletic, tactical and technical skills, it is reasonable to assume the same for basketball. Skill is as important as athletic abilities for performance, but performance in isolated skill tests – full-court speed dribble, dribbling through cones, passes completed in a minute, etc. – has little correlation to game performance.
Therefore, performance is determined, to a large degree, by the skills that are more difficult to measure: choice reaction time, anticipation, ability to read an opponent, decision making, court vision, court awareness and more. These skills are not developed through isolated drills, but experience in game situations. Improved technical skill enhances these skills, as confidence dribbling the ball under pressure enables a player to attend to the whole court rather than the defender. However, this confidence and dribbling ability is not enough; it is a part of the overall skill, but ultimately the expert players possess the perceptual-cognitive skills to use their athleticism and technical skill to make appropriate, accurate and quick decisions which lead to success.