Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: The Spiral and the Dartboard
- Evaluation and Injury Prevention
- Training Partners and Playing Time
A Quick Word
Every year, I pick something new to learn; boxing, paddle-boarding, swimming, Pilates. Last spring, I chose jiu jitsu, and due to scheduling with classes, my learning now occurs in an MMA class at the university. Beyond learning a new activity for personal growth and enjoyment, I watch and learn from the instructors in terms of how to instruct better or different ways to think about instructing, coaching and learning.
In today’s MMA class, the instructor, Bart Beattie, explained his theory of skill acquisition, which he compared to a spiral and a dart board. When introducing the skill, he wants the athlete to pick up the gross motor skill. Today, we worked on push kicks and blocking circular punches. His instruction was not detailed or precise; the objective was to learn the basic movements. In terms of the spiral, he said that each session or as the athlete progresses, the instruction becomes more technical and the skill execution more refined.
In basketball terms, using ball handling as an example, the initial instruction is not detailed – there is no sense teaching a crossover to someone who cannot control the ball. The initial objective is to get the dart on the dartboard. As long as the athlete is on the dartboard, he or she is moving in the right direction and practicing the right class of skills. When teaching ball handling, if the player dribbles the ball like a soccer ball, he or she is not on the dartboard, and therefore needs more instruction.
As the player practices, and the instruction increases, the objective is to move closer to the center of the dartboard on a consistent basis. As the basketball players grows more consistent with his or her control, the speed of execution increases and the player learns new ways to manipulate the ball – forward, backward, side-to-side, crossovers, etc. Each time the player takes a step forward, he or she receives more instruction, and the execution becomes more precise. But, at the same time, the objective returns to the gross motor skill of the movement. That is the spiral between the gross and the fine, the reduced, general instruction and the increased, more specific instruction.
For instance, when the player has demonstrated the control to move to a crossover, the instruction is increased and more precise than when the player is simply learning how to bounce the ball. However, the expectation once again returns to the gross aspect of the skill, which is now a crossover, not just dribbling. As I teach someone a crossover, I do not expect perfection initially; instead, I want the player on the dartboard in terms of the specific move. As he or she practices, the movement becomes more fine and precise, he or she reduces variability and increases consistency – the player is moving closer and closer to the center of the dart board.
The instruction and the expectations spiral. Initially, the instruction is broad and less extensive, and the expectation of the skill execution is gross, imprecise and inconsistent; however, the athlete needs to be in the right range of skill execution. As the execution grows more consistent and precise, the instruction grows more specific, and the skill continues spiraling from the general and broad to the more specific. While working with a player on a crossover initially, I simply want to see the ability to receive the dribble when changing hands. When training a college player, I may attempt to alter the body position by a degree or switch the hand placement by an inch because at the highest levels, an inch here or a degree there determines success and failure. However, there is no need to worry about degrees and inches when players are starting out with a skill – if they can barely hit the dartboard, why focus on a sophisticated technique that might improve their throw by a half-inch when they are a foot away from the bullseye?
Evaluation and Injury Prevention
Preventing or limiting injuries is one of the primary goals of strength and sports coaches. After all, if a player is injured, he or she cannot help the team. The problem is often the lack of sophisticated, practical knowledge in terms of evaluating movement that can help spot a potential injury before it becomes a reality.
I worked an elite college camp years ago and sat with the athletic trainer as she pointed out girl after girl who was at risk because of her basic movement skills. I grew frustrated when she said that the coach said there was no time to do a session on movement skills at the camp, even though the camp was playing a time-waster (Land-See-Air) at the time.
We rely heavily on volunteer or near-volunteer coaches, so we will never reach a point where coaches have the expertise of athletic trainers in these manners. However, a recent study published by Stensrud et al. (2011) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that a subjective assessment to determine poor knee control is as effective as a two-dimensional (2D) test of frontal plane knee motion. A previous study (McLean et al., 2005) identified three-dimensional motional analysis as the gold standard, but found a high correlation between 3-D and 2-D analysis. Therefore, a subjective assessment can be used to evaluate poor knee control in athletes.
The study used three tests: single-leg squat (SLS), single-leg vertical drop jump (SLVDJ) and two-leg vertical drop jump (VDJ). The SLVDJ used a 10cm box, but found poor results. The VDJ used a 30cm box jump. Interestingly, the SLS and VDJ identified different participants who showed poor knee control.
On the subjective assessment, the participants were scored 0 to 2: “The score 0 indicated (A) no significant lateral tilt of the pelvis, (B) no obvious valgus motion of the knee and (C) no medial/lateral side-to-side movements of the knee during the performance. Players rated as 1 displayed (A) some lateral tilt of the pelvis, and/or (B) the knee moving slightly into a valgus position and/or (C) some medial/lateral side-to-side movements of the knee during the performance. Players rated as 2 displayed (A) lateral tilt of the pelvis, and/or (B) the knee moving clearly into a valgus position and/or (C) clear medial/lateral side-to- side movements of the knee” (Stensrud et al., 2011; p. 590).
Based on this rating scale, a coach could use a SLS or VDJ to evaluate his or her athletes. What does it mean or what to look for?
In this video of a VDJ, look at her knees when she lands: her knees are in a clear valgus position at landing. I would rate her a 2, and she is someone who would be termed “at-risk” in my non-medical opinion.
Depending on her training history and strength, she either needs to re-learn how to jump and land, or she needs to develop more strength through her quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes or both. If she has good lower-body strength in the weight room, then she needs to learn to land properly and increase her elastic strength through plyometrics. Regardless, through the VDJ, a coach can identify her as “at-risk,” and if he or she lacks the knowledge to put together a program to correct the issues, the coach can direct her parents to a knowledgeable strength coach or physical therapist.
On the SLS, the coach watches for the same limitations. The first tell-tale sign is the athlete putting down her other foot. This shows a lack of balance and/or a lack of strength, either of which are worrying. To rule out balance, the coach could do a simple single-leg balance test – stand on one leg with the other leg raised and count how long the player can hold the position without wobbling; if the player cannot get to 20 seconds, balance is an issue. If balance is ruled out, you are looking at a strength deficiency. Also, the coach wants to monitor the knee control as the player descends. The knee should track over the foot. I have seen athletes who end up with their hip pointing the opposite direction of their knee – I don’t even know how they can get to that position! I have tried to demonstrate it, and I cannot do it. Again, if the knee moves inward into a valgus position, the athlete lacks the strength to control the movement and would be termed “at-risk.”
The study showed that different athletes failed different tests, meaning that using both tests is probably best to capture all the potential at-risk athletes. Also, the tests should give an idea of the major limitation: the SLS is primarily strength and balance, while the VDJ could be technique, strength or elastic strength.
Training Partners and Playing Time
During the playoffs, NBA analysts often spoke about Russell Westbrook and Derek Rose training together with Rob McClanaghan in Santa Monica all summer. Training with a similarly talented, similarly driven player is the best way to improve.
In my MMA class, Bart spoke about the importance of training partners. In MMA, or any martial arts discipline, it is hard to train without a partner: you cannot practice a sweep or a submission in jiu jitsu without someone to sweep or submit. Bart talked about the mutual learning curve: the more your training partner improves, the more that you will improve. Westbrook and Rose illustrate this very well.
On most teams, the training partners are one’s teammates. However, unlike in a martial arts class or even an NBA off-season training facility like McClanaghan’s, teammates do not get the same opportunities. Teammates are teammates, but also competitors for playing time. This creates opportunities or leads to dissension.
Often, coaches try to prevent dissension by giving players a role. In Swen Nater’s and Ronald Gallimore’s book about Jon Wooden, You Haven’t Taught until They’ve Learned, Nater writes about his frustration with a lack of playing time. He met with Wooden, and Wooden inspired him by telling him how valuable he was because he had to push Bill Walton in practice and help Walton improve.
The problem, usually, is that playing time (and playing time usually leads to differences in practice repetitions too) usually affects the rate at which players improve (the younger the player, the more the playing time is important for development). Let’s imagine that Rose and Westbrook were teammates, not training partners. Rose plays 40 minutes per game, leaving Westbrook with eight minutes per game. Is Westbrook going to improve at the same rate as Rose? Doubtful. He may retain the athleticism and size to push Rose in drills from a defensive perspective, but the longer the discrepancy continues, the greater the disparity in their skills will be. Fortunately, they play for different teams so each gets to start and play 40 minutes a game, so they return in the summer and continue to challenge each other.
This is the forgotten element of playing time at the youth, high school and college level. Players have a mutual learning curve in practice. The more that one’s teammates improve, the more he or she will improve. If only five players play in each game, they improve, while the other seven players stagnate. Practice scrimmages become less competitive as the discrepancy grows bigger game by game.
During my last season coaching high school basketball, every player played in every half of every game. Based on scores, we improved more than any team in our area or our league. I believe much of the improvement stemmed from competitive practices because of the mutual learning curve. We did not have big mismatches in practice. The worst players developed because they received real game time, which increased their motivation, attention and intensity at practice. Subsequently, they pushed the better players to perform better because they were playing harder, paying more attention and developing better skills.
Most people disagree with the philosophy of playing everyone. However, if players are not playing, there has to be another way to supplement their development. Wooden worked extra outside of practice with Nater so that Nater could continue to push Walton. Without the playing time, the coach has to structure some other way to enhance the players‘ development to maintain the positive mutual learning curve or everyone’s improvement stagnates (which, honestly, is what generally happens with most teams; they improve their timing, their rotations and their sets during the season, but individually, players stagnate).