Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Executing Proper Footwork
- Dwight Howard’s Free Throw Shooting
- What is Learning?
A Quick Word
I played volleyball today. It is easy to tell the volleyball players from the basketball players who play volleyball by watching people’s approach to hit. Most right-handed basketball players primarily stop with a left-right stop; however, a right-handed outside hitter stops right-left on his approach to hit a volleyball. When basketball players play volleyball, this left-right habit carries over and often makes guys who should be outstanding hitters average because they hit with their arm and not with their entire body working together as one unit.
Ironically, the only time basketball players appear to stop right-left naturally is when they approach to dunk. I saw this clip tweeted by True Hoop. Watch the first two dunks; that approach would be the same approach as a right-handed outside hitter.
Now, when I initially instruct players to stop right-left on a lay-up attempt, they have all kinds of difficulty because they have been trained and practiced the left-right stop for so long. They struggle to change their footwork.
This is where conscious thinking and cognitive effort affect skill development. In a game environment, one does not want to think consciously about his actions. It takes too long. However, when re-learning a skill, the player must invest cognitive effort to overwrite his learned behavior.
Now, why would a right-handed player want to stop right-left? First, it sets up “The Rondo.”
Second, a right-left stop keeps the shoulders parallel to the baseline, not the basket, allowing the player to protect the ball from the defender better. It is the same reason that a right-handed hitter stops with his left foot forward, so he can use the force from his rotating torso to power his swing, rather than relying solely on his arm (it’s also the basic throwing motion to step with your contralateral foot).
From a young age, we should teach players to use both feet just as we teach them to use both hands. The ambidexterity of the feet is overlooked in development, but in many ways, it complements the ambidexterity of the hands. Players who can stop on either foot have an advantage over other players and are more difficult to guard, just like players who can use either hand.
Dwight Howard’s Free Throw Shooting
There has been renewed discussion of Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting recently, so I decided to re-post an article about his free throw shooting from May of 2009.
Earlier this season, Doug Collins and Kevin Harlan tried to explain, and make excuses for, Dwight Howard’s inability to shoot 60% from the free throw line, as they mentioned Patrick Ewing’s frustration. Collins blamed Howard’s weight lifting, while Harlan blamed his size.
I never believed either of these excuses. Dirk Nowitski is as tall as Howard and he shoots 90% from the free throw line. Yao Ming is much taller than Howard and shoots 80% + from the line. As for lifting weights, I am not sure there is an NBA player who does not lift weights. I know Kobe Bryant lifts heavy weights and he usually ends the season around 80% from the line.
Instead, Howard has a problem with his form. More to the point, he has a problem with his consistency. In the first video, with Team USA, Howard’s mechanics look pretty good.
He has a little hitch as he brings the ball to his set point, but it’s not the shot of a 50% free throw shooter (of course, it’s not the shot of a 90% free throw shooter either). In the following video, there is a difference:
In the second clip, which is somewhat tough to see, Howard has a tendency to rotate his shoulder and then extend his elbow. He raises his arm as high as it goes, and then extends his elbow. When shooting like this, he eliminates most of the vertical force and flings the ball at the basket with his elbow extension. When I work with kids who shoot like this, I tell them they are “shooting darts,” as it is a similar motion to throwing darts.
To fix the problem, he needs his elbow extension to account for some of the vertical motion. Basically, he needs to eliminate the hitch at the top. However, even with such a high set point, he should make sure that his elbow moves higher as he extends his elbow rather than remaining at the same height as the elbow extends to the basket.
Also, with such a big player, I would use a wider stance. I worked with a high school player who made less than 30% of his free throws as a freshman. As a sophomore, he shot 60%. We worked on the same two things: a wider stance and more vertical push. He had a high release like Howard, and when he shot the ball up, then out, (like shooting out of a telephone booth) he improved his shooting percentages. And, he did so even while lifting weights religiously (he plays college football).
Howard’s form is not terrible. He takes his time. He has good hand placement. He relaxes. However, rather than rotating the shoulder and extending the elbow as one continuous motion, he rotates the shoulder, pauses and then extends the elbow. In this motion, he loses the vertical energy and shoots the ball at the basket. If he creates a more seamless transition between the shoulder rotation and elbow extension, he will shoot the ball with more arc and shoot with a softer shot, leading to more success.
What is Learning?
Trainers and coaches are in the business of teaching and performance. In order to teach, someone must learn. I tire of coaches who blast their players in the media and say foolish things like “We went over it in practice” as if talking about something is the same thing as learning it. A coach’s job is to create conditions that enhance learning. Unfortunately, I feel many people misunderstood the very idea of learning. Therefore, what is learning?
Our most colloquial term referring to motor performance is “muscle memory.” However, while this term is accepted generally and practically, learning occurs in the brain. When we talk about “muscle memory,” we are referring to motor programs stored in our procedural long-term memory. Since learning occurs in the brain, we cannot see learning. Instead, we infer learning based on performance.
Learning requires improvement, consistency, stability, persistence and adaptability. Performance is temporary. Kobe Bryant shoots 7/25 on one night and 14/19 on the next night. Did he learn better shooting technique in between the two games because his shooting performance improved? If he shot 6/21 in the next game, would that indicate forgetting?
No. His performance varies due to performance variables: fatigue, defense, shot selection, time constraints, travel, pressure, etc. His technique – his motor programs – do not change from game to game; his skill is learned. However, his performance of these skills varies due to external and internal factors.
This is an important concept. How does a coach react to performance? The coach’s reaction or instruction can become a performance variable and affect performance positively and negatively. Of course, the coach’s instruction is also a learning variable, as the instructions affect the player’s learning.
One measure of learning is adaptability from situation to situation. I have written previously about this concept in terms of movement away from the ball and used Vern Gambetta’s idea of adapted vs. adaptable. An adapted player learns his offensive set and can execute the set as if following a set of instructions; an adaptable player learns the skills and adapts those skills to different situations. When I played, I adapted to the pattern of the Flex offense in junior high school; however, I did not learn how to use a down screen generally, just within the context of the offense. Therefore, my skill was not adaptable to different situations.
A coach’s approach and instructions affect the player’s adaptability. When coaches limit players, they affect their adaptability. When coaches use only block drills, they affect their adaptability. For instance, if a player learns a chest pass in a typical two-line drill with no defense, is that skill adaptable to different situations? Will he use the skill in a game situation when pressured by a defender?
We assume that skills transfer; we assume that because a player can make an unguarded two-hand chest pass to a stationary target, he will be able to pass off the dribble to a moving target while defended. These assumptions account for many breakdowns in skill execution and coaching. If the player adapts and executes the pass in a game under time stress, then he has learned the skill. However, if his skill is useless to him because of the load or time constraints, he has not learned. He is able to perform the skill only under certain situations.
Assuming a high school varsity player has learned his shooting skills, how should a coach react to a mistake? Many coaches and parents immediately yell at a player who misses a free throw to use more legs. However, this type of instruction interrupts the skill execution. A varsity player has learned the shooting technique – he may need to improve, but his technique is consistent, stable, persistent and adaptable: he shoots the same way every time. If his technique changes on one shot because of fatigue or balance or defense, he quickly returns to his technique and does not change permanently; his technique persists over a period of time; and he can shoot in different gyms against different defenders.
When the coach tells the player to bend his legs, the player changes from an automatic processing to a controlled processing. The conscious overtakes the subconscious execution. In a time-stressed task, this leads to err because it takes too long to think consciously and make a decision. In a skill like shooting a free throw, the conscious thinking diverts the player’s attention from the rim (external) to the bend of the knees (internal). The player becomes more acutely aware of his body and tries to control the shot, which often leads to sub-optimal performance.
When I shoot free throws, and allow my mind to wander, I hit 20, 30 in a row. However, as soon as I realize that I am shooting well, and try to analyze the shot to feel something or to learn something to share with the players who I train, I inevitably miss because my conscious mind controls the action. By thinking about other things, I divert my conscious mind away from the task and allow the subconscious to control the process. Since the skill is well-learned, the subconscious leads to make after make.
A poor performance may illustrate the need for additional learning; for instance, a player may need different practice to adapt the chest pass to game situations, especially in the half court. Therefore, the poor performance illustrates a limitation in the player’s learning, and a coach can use a different type of practice, a more random, varied practice, to enhance the player’s transfer of learning to the game, or the adaptability of his skill.
However, in other instances, a bad game is a bad game. If I am usually a 90% free throw shooter, and I make 5/10 in a game, the worst thing that I can do is change my free throw shooting because of the one poor performance. Performance is temporary. If I have learned the skill well, my skill is stable and that one game is not going to alter my performance moving forward. Instead, as long as my mind does not interfere (affect my confidence and attention), I would expect to shoot 90% in the next game.
Learning is relatively permanent and requires practice (of course, learning can be negative, as one can acquire a skill at a below-optimal level). Observation of skill execution must differentiate between a poor performance (temporary), an unlearned skill (and therefore inconsistent in its execution) and a skill learned with less than optimal technique. Practice should be aimed at establishing the correct technique and making the skill more consistent, more stabile, and adaptable.