Hard 2 Guard
Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Learn by Doing
- Geno Auriemma, Personal Trainers and Contextual Interference
- Learning & Testing
A Quick Word
In the fall, I asked if it was important for young players to know the rules or play by the rules when learning to play. Many suggested that basketball without rules is not basketball at all.
In my second jiujitsu class, I rolled for real. Well, I doubt my experienced partner was going 100%, but we worked live to try and get position and fight for submissions. When I told my girlfriend about the experience, I realized that I did not know the rules of jiujitsu. I have never seen true jiujitsu – just submission attempts within MMA fights. I know some of the terminology and the objectives, but not the rules and certainly not the technique. However, I managed to compete and through competing, I learned.
During class, we worked on two ways to pass the guard – that is, if I am on top and between my opponent’s legs with his legs wrapped tight around my back to control me, how can I break his legs apart and advance my position into a more attacking or threatening position. However, when we rolled, we started in an even position, on our knees facing each other with an even grip.
With some basic knowledge of submissions and knowledge of the objectives, I tried different things in a semi-live, non-competitive environment. Was I technically correct or proficient? No. Was I successful? Somewhat. Did I learn? Of course.
Can I articulate what I learned? No. My learning entered my procedural memory – I learned how to do things, but I did not acquire declarative knowledge. Coaches need declarative knowledge – we need to be able to explain how to do different skills or what to do in different situations. We have to be able to verbalize our knowledge.
Athletes need procedural knowledge. We need to be able to do something without consciously thinking about the action or verbalizing the action. In jiujitsu, there were times when we were at a stalemate, and I had time to think about a new approach. When I was stuck in his guard and could not find a way out, I had time to try to figure out a new solution. In basketball, you rarely have this time – potentially when you play away from the ball on offense or defense you have time to think and plan, accessing your declarative knowledge of situations to figure out a means of attack.
The one time that I really thought and planned, accessing my declarative knowledge and thinking about the escapes that we had learned in class before attempting my move, I got stuck in the exact submission that I tried to remind myself to avoid. I was in his guard and tried to improve my position. I knew that as I made my move, I had to bring my right elbow tight to my body or he would be able to lock on a triangle submission. I left my arm extended and got caught (imagine Chael Sonnen at the end of the Anderson Silva fight).
After that, I tried not to think. I simply tried to go with the feeling and react to his movements or engage by trying to off-balance my opponent. Without really knowing what to do, this was somewhat of a survivalist approach, but it worked to a decent extent, and I managed to end with a guillotine choke on my opponent.
As a beginner, I cannot articulate my learning. However, I surprised myself with some of my scrambles and my ability to fight off different submission attempts without any real knowledge of what I was doing. In the warm-ups, we did some basic rolls (summersaults) to learn the basic technique and to loosen up. I struggled. The rolls felt completely unnatural, and I over-thought their execution. Where do I put my head? Which hand goes where? Which way do I look? There was far too much to think about to execute smoothly.
However, during the “scrimmaging,” I found myself rolling in the same way as a natural escape maneuver. I did not plan the roll or think about the roll. The instructor had never shown the roll as a maneuver in that exact situation. I vaguely recall an MMA fighter doing something similar in a fight that I watched. However, more than anything, it was instinctual. The roll is a fairly natural movement. When I did not worry about where to put my arm, where to look, or how to cock my head, the roll was natural and simple, even with a competitor hanging onto my arm.
In basketball, we often wait until the player can make the move perfectly before moving to more of a live situation. However, sometimes the live situation facilitates the learning. Sometimes, it is the declarative knowledge or the over-thinking that gets in the way of the execution, and the live situation with the time and load stress reduces the thinking and forces the player to react instinctually. In some situations, this is a better way to learn than to learn by constant drilling until a move is perfected. The goal is the end movement, not the learning of steps. The learning of steps is a means to the end, but it is not the only means. Often, the doing is the learning, and the steps provide unnecessary hurdles.
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.
Learning and Testing
I have not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I have followed some of the angst surrounding its publication (seems more like marketing than real controversy). On her blog, Sian Beilock related one recent finding to the book and to her book, Choke.
Apparently, part of the Tiger Mother’s approach is frequent quizzing and testing. In basketball terms, the quizzes and tests would be scrimmages, small-sided games and competitive games.
In a study published last week in the journal Science, Purdue psychologists Jeff Karpicke and Janell Blunt found that the act of retrieving information (which is part and parcel with repeated testing) leads to deeper learning and understanding of science material than just studying the material. Simply put, testing can help students learn.
Can we generalize these results to basketball? Probably not. However, the study tells us something new about the brain. Previously, testing was thought of as a measurement, not a way to enhance learning. In the same way, coaches often think of scrimmages in practice as a way to measure performance or identify weaknesses, not necessarily as a means to enhance learning.
The problem is how we measure learning. If the testing simply measures the retrieval of information – essentially memorizing information and reciting the information on a test – it does not measure all the facets of learning. Learning requires improvement, consistency, stability, persistence and adaptability. If students improve their performance through frequent testing, they show improvement. However, it is debatable whether they show the other characteristics.
In sports, adaptability is the most important characteristic. When one learns a skill, he must be able to adapt the skill to different situations involving different teammates, different positions, different opponents, etc. If I only know how to use a screen within the confines of a Flex offense, I may be able to show improvement (coming off a Flex screen in better body position), consistency (eliminating gross mistakes like cutting the wrong way), stability (ability to run the Flex after running a different offense of playing defense) and persistence (running the Flex after a period of not practicing the Flex), but I have not shown the ability to adapt the learning of how to use a screen to other situations outside the Flex offense.
Frequent quizzing and testing may improve adaptability. However, it may not. It depends on the coaching. If the coaching is more authoritative and the coach wants the offense run specifically in one way, like the Flex, extra scrimmage time or games may have little to no effect on adapting this learning to different situations or contexts. However, if the coach teaches more general skills, frequent quizzing and testing (scrimmages and small-sided games) provide opportunities for learning that go beyond the drills. These situations create contextual interference and challenge players to find new responses to novel situations.
Therefore in terms of transfer to game performance, the Tiger Mother’s approach may or may not enhance learning on the basketball court. The efficacy of the frequent tests and quizzes depends greatly on the style and expectations of the coach.
If testing is beneficial, wouldn’t actual games be the best learning environment, an idea that runs counter to many of those (like me) who argue against the constant competitive season in high school basketball and for the need for periodization? Yes and no.
Real games develop some lessons. As Beilock writes:
The benefits of repeated testing may extend beyond just giving students an opportunity to recall and reorganize their knowledge…One of the best ways to ensure that people perform at their best in important and pressure-filled situations is to “close the gap between training and competition.”
Now, I view this from a learning perspective; to improve transfer from practice to game, coaches need to incorporate more contextual interference and use more variable and random training. However, as a psychologist who specializes in performance under stress, Beilock sees the improvement as resulting from familiarizing oneself with the stress. People tell students to take the SAT multiple times because the anxiety reduces with every attempt which enhances performance by allowing the brain to use its resources to solve hard problems rather than deal with the anxiety.
Playing real games assist in this manner too. Players are no longer anxious or intimidated by games because they are so plentiful. Players grow more accustomed to the pressure of game situations, game officiating and more.
However, games do not provide a good learning environment because of the performance pressure. On a test, students do not try to go beyond their knowledge level. For instance, on my tests, we are given three questions, and we choose one to answer. Nobody chooses the one with which he is the least familiar to test his knowledge or ability to perform in adverse situations. Instead, everyone answers the question which he is most confident answering.
In games, players do the same thing. If I dribble down court and two moves might work, I use the one which I have practiced the most and have the most confidence using. I do what I know I can do. However, that does not improve learning. Improving requires the elimination of errors and/or the acquisition of new behaviors. If I use a move which rarely causes me to make a mistake, and it is a move that I have used many times, I am not learning anything new.
On the other hand, if I choose to try out a new move that I have never used in a game, I may learn a new move (behavior), which illustrates improvement. However, in all likelihood, I have to make numerous mistakes before I perfect the move. In the game situation, if I make the mistake trying something new to advance my learning, my coach may take me out of the game or my teammates may grow frustrated with my experimentation.
For this reason, competitive games do not provide a good environment for learning. Playing games offers a learning experience in some respects, most specifically the handling of game pressure and game-specific situations, but not a good learning environment for the acquisition of new skills.
Practice scrimmages, pick-up games and small-sided games provide the same competitive repetitions and the frequent testing espoused by the Tiger Mother, but without the performance pressure. Therefore, a player can experiment, much like a student answering the hardest questions on the study guide as a means to prepare for the test rather than simply studying the material that he knows already. The exploration and experimentation lead to more mistakes, but also enhanced learning.