Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Testing and Learning
- Crowdedness and Crumminess: The Secret to Talent Development
- Are Personal Trainers Bad for Basketball?
A Quick Word
I wrote last week about testing and learning in an academic setting, and also testing as a means of evaluating an NBA draft prospect. While these appear to have little in common, I think they reflect how we think about the learning process.
While many people have written that testing enhances learning after an article in the journal Science was published and featured in the New York Times, few explained the process. The study did not ask students to take a multiple choice exam; instead, students in the “retrieval practice condition” group read material and wrote free-form responses for 10 minutes before re-reading the passage again and writing free-form responses for an additional 10 minutes. This group was compared to groups who studied the material in 4 five-minute blocks and a group that read the material and drew concept maps. The “retrieval practice condition” group scored better on a test given one week later.
The articles suggest that these results show that students should take more tests as a means of retaining information. I see different results. The students used the information. When asked to write free-form responses, they linked ideas together and thought deeply about the material in order to write responses.
With athletic tests, players adapt to the test. According to the generalizations of this article, one might surmise that this adaptation equals learning. However, these tests only measure one aspect of overall performance. Just because one adapts to the box agility test does not ensure that he has improved his game agility performance.
In basketball, the game is the ultimate test. If we accept the premise of these articles literally, players should play more games to improve performance. However, as I said, the study did not ask students to take a standard test. Instead, they were asked to study material and write free-form responses. In a practice setting, the skills that the coach teaches are the concepts that the students studied. In my interpretation, the “free-form response” test is scrimmaging or small-sided games during practice.
Therefore, if the study transfers beyond the classroom setting, it does not suggest that players should study less (practice) and take more tests (play games), but that augmenting studying (practice concepts) with periods of free-form responses (small-sided games) is the best way to improve performance in future tests (games).
Crumminess and Crowdedness – The Solution to Talent Development
Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code, wrote a recent article titled “The Power of Crumminess” in which he references several unglamorous, but productive locations for talent development, including the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (Michael Phelps) a tin roof math class in India and a small ski academy in Vermont. He introduces an equation for talent development: Crumminess + Crowdedness = Beautiful Talent.
Coyle dismisses the traditional tale of the underdog succeeding due to hunger or will. Instead, he suggests that these unspectacular facilities inspire talent development because they provide good learning environments. As he writes:
“From the poma lift, young skiers get a catbird seat to watch the older, better skiers make turns. That physical closeness transforms the small ski hill into a rich kingdom of watching and learning, not to mention motivation. Kids on that poma lift receive the privilege of seeing up close who they might become, if they work hard.”
When I played pick-up games at parks in Los Angeles during and after college, there would be 2-3 teams waiting to play. If you lost, you went home or you sat, waited and watched a couple games. For a young, developing player, this lack of space provides a rich learning experience to learn from older, better players. Today, parents schedule appointments with a trainer at a set time, drop off their child at the appointed time and pick up the child when the session ends. This eliminates the rich learning environment.
As I read the article, I thought of the small gym in Babylon, New York where Jerry Powell develops McDonald’s All-Americans like Samantha Prahalis, Jennifer O’Neil, Bria Hartley and Bria Smith. The gym is a sauna in the summer, and there are times when 40 players are working out at the same time in the old middle school gym with two baskets and barely enough width for the three-point line in the corner.
However, Jerry’s workouts adhere to the three principles that Coyle suggests:
- Find ways to mix age groups.
- Aim to make facilities spartan and simple.
- When given the choice, invest in people over facilities.
I watched Bria Smith work out with Jerry when she was in the 8th grade. She competed against other middle schoolers, high school players like former Baylor forward Danielle Wilson and current college players. The gym is as sparse as it gets, and money goes to pay a growing staff of trainers on hand to assist with workouts and train players.
I have watched several basketball facilities open and go out of business because they invest in the facility; they believe in the “if you build it, they will come” mythology. By spending so much on the facility, they lack the resources to hire the best trainers and coaches. Instead, the best trainers are usually at a small junior high school gymnasium training players of multiple ages.
For a glimpse into the genius of Jerry Powell, check out this video:
Are Trainers Bad for Basketball?
Whenever I write about trainers, trainers respond. Trainers tend to be defensive because the industry is not established fully. Many do not understand the reason or need for basketball trainers. As a basketball trainer, I see both sides of the issue.
Parents pay for trainers to provide their son or daughter with an advantage. Typically, a parent tells me that his son’s or daughter’s coach does not practice fundamentals, so he wants a trainer for more fundamental practice. Last week, I worked with a player for the first time. We did very basic ball handling, finishing and shooting drills so I could evaluate his skill level, his learning style, his motivations and his initiative. The father said that his team never did any of the drills during practice and focused only on its offensive and defensive schemes.
First, a youth coach who does not emphasize general skill development and instead emphasizes winning and the Peak by Friday approach is not a good coach. At the high school level, I spent almost half of practice time focusing specifically on skills like passing, dribbling and lay-ups, and the rest of practice typically involved small-sided games which provided additional repetitions of these skills. Before automatically seeking a trainer, the parent should find a new team or league. Options are plentiful nowadays. Games and strategy are important, but every youth coach should emphasize the general skills first.
Second, if the player wants to improve, he will practice his individual skills on his own. With the player from last week, his father canceled our follow-up session this week because his son had not practiced on his own. I tell players and parents that one day per week with me has little to no value if the player does not practice the skills on his own or at his team practices. If a player does not practice on his own, the parent does not need a trainer because the player has not shown the intrinsic desire to be a basketball player. If he or she simply plays basketball for fun, he or she does not need a trainer. He or she needs more recreational playing experiences. Summer camps are designed for these players; summer camps are not designed for players looking to train or develop. There is a difference between training basketball and playing basketball. Everyone should play basketball; not everyone needs to train basketball.
Finally, assuming the player practices on his own and wants to train with a skills trainer, what should these trainers do?
Most trainers use block practice drills and progress from easy to difficult as the player shows improvement. This is the behavioral-training approach to coaching or training. Behavioral training leads to immediate performance improvements in practice, which is important because nobody wants to pay for a lack of improvement or an immediate decrement in performance. However, behavioral training transfers poorly to game performance.
When players engage primarily in behavioral training – with a coach or trainer – they overrate their skill development. Prior to a game or late in a season, one uses this approach to build confidence before performance. However, when learning or development is the goal – as it should be with trainers or youth coaches – strictly behavioral training is a short-term approach.
Problems arise because we overrate one’s development. If one demonstrates skill proficiency in a block-practice drill, low contextual interference environment or in a behavioral-training environment, and the skill does not translate to a high CI, random, variable environment like a game, we want an explanation.
The two easiest explanations are: (1) blame the coach; or (2) blame the player’s psychology. In girls’ basketball, we simply assume that a player is not tough enough. In boys’ basketball, we assume that the player is passive or lacks aggressiveness. We rarely look at the training or practice environment because performance improves in this environment, so it cannot be the problem.
We have a youth sports environment now where 10 year-olds need sports psychologists and college players transfer when faced with the first bit of adversity. We have college players who have played basketball on teams for a dozen years, often for multiple teams at one time, and still do not know how to play basketball.
While there are many factors that contribute to these deficiencies, a misunderstanding of learning and development is a big factor.
Several years ago, I trained a player named “Stan.” Stan looked pretty smooth in workouts and shot about 70% (on average) on a mixture of finishes, free throws, pull-up jumpers, catch-and-shoot threes and threes off of different cuts and actions during workouts. In essence, he shot 70% on game shots taken close to game speed from game spots.
In games, he did not shoot nearly this well. He struggled to create space. He played tentatively. Some blamed his coach for the coach’s system. Others said he lacked athleticism and explosiveness to create the separation. Some said he was not tough enough or lacked the mentality to be a great player. Nobody suggested that the disparity between his game and practice performances was due to the different environments and demands.
When Stan struggled to transfer his practice performance to games, his coach may have affected his performance, and he may have lacked some explosiveness. However, he also did not train in an environment that promotes the transfer of skills.
To understand learning, we must understand some basic concepts. Learning occurs within the brain, and therefore is not measurable. Instead, we infer leaning through performance. However, performance is temporary and subject to variables like fatigue, pressure, environment and more. If a player has a poor shooting performance during a game, it does not mean that his learning disappeared; the performance may be temporary and due to Ron Artest’s defense or a broken finger.
To test for learning, we test for retention and transfer. If a player learns a skill at practice on Monday, does he retain the learning in the game on Friday? Does the skill learned in a practice setting transfer to the game environment? Therefore, we do not measure learning within the activity; for instance, if I teach a player a new move, I do not measure his learning of the move five or 10 repetitions later. Instead, I measure his learning in a subsequent practice or game for retention (does he retain the learning after a period without repetitions?) and in a different environment (scrimmage, game) for transfer of the skill.
Schmidt’s schema theory predicts that successful future performance of a skill depends on the amount of movement variability the learner experiences during practices. Constant (block) practice involves one variation of a skill, while variable practice involves different variations of the skill during practice.
When I trained Stan, I used primarily constant practice. We did sets of 10 shots. When shooting pull-up jump shots from the wing, one set would be 10 made shots of the same basic move, let’s say catch, rip-through, crossover step, one-dribble pull-up. After those 10 makes, he would make two free throws in a row and then move to the next block of practice, maybe the same shot from the other side of the court.
This is a traditional, behavioral-training style of practice or training. We believe in the efficacy of this practice because players show improvement in the practice environment, so we – the coach or trainer – believe our methods are working. However, while Stan retained the skill from session to session, the skill did not transfer: the improvement that I saw in training did not transfer to improved performance in his games.
Variable practice leads to more errors in practice. To make the same shooting drill more variable, the drill could start from different spots on each repetition; the player could attack in a different direction each repetition; the player could use a different move within each repetition (maybe a step-back jumper on one and a fake-spin jumper on the next); the player could shoot from a different distance on each repetition; etc. Rather than make the exact same move and shoot the exact same shot 10 times in a row, the player varies the move and/or shot on every repetition within the set.
With the varied practice, players will miss more shots or make more mistakes on the move than if they do the same thing 10 times in a row. With constant practice, the player might make a mistake on the first repetition or two, but then the errors are eliminated. As these errors are eliminated, and the player makes more shots, we feel like the player has learned the move. MaGill writes that people involved in constant practice overrate their learning.
Think practically. Let’s say that I want to teach you basic arithmetic. I tell you that 2+2=4. The next question is 2+2. You answer four. The next question is 2+2. You answer four. At this point, there is no thinking involved. You do not have to solve the problem. You simply remember the answer from two seconds ago. Now, there are two questions: (1) If a week later I asked you what 2+2 equals, would you remember the answer? (2) Would you be able to figure out 2+4?
Contextual interference refers to the interference when performing skills and tasks in a practice context; MaGill considers contextual interference to refer to memory or performance disruptions. Rather than do the problem 2+2 three straight times, I would ask three different questions, maybe x+2=4, 4-2 and 2+3. In a sense, by solving different problems, you learn how to solve the problems; when solving 2+2 over and over again, you simply retrieve an answer from the short-term memory. The belief is that by solving different problems – by struggling with the problems, thinking about potential solutions, making errors and engaging the entire information processing system – you retain the information better and can transfer this learning to different problems.
According to MaGill, the contextual interference effect occurs when the learner benefits from high contextual-interference practice (random and variable practice) rather than performing the skills in low contextual-interference practice (blocked practice).
Therefore, when Stan struggled to show the same improved performance in games as in training, the learning effect had a detrimental effect. It may not have explained all of his issues, as performance is multi-dimensional, but our misunderstanding of learning easily leads to frustration and misconception.
Imagine a parent who sees his son shoot very well with a well-known trainer, only to perform poorly on his high school team with a new coach. Does the parent blame the well-known trainer for the performance decrement or the new high school coach? If a player performs well in training sessions or practices, but not during games, does he lose confidence? Does he blame the coach’s system?
The performance improvement during block or constant practice tricks us. We believe the immediate improvement equals learning. However, it is like cramming for a test – a student can cram all night to regurgitate some answers for a test the next day and receive a good grade, but did he learn the material? If his teacher gave him a pop-quiz in a week or changed the format of the test so he had to use the memorized facts to analyze a novel problem, would he perform as well?
How do we improve the learning environment? In practice or training, we need to understand the task demands. Basketball is an open-skill sport; the environment is constantly shifting and skills are externally paced. Free throws are a closed skill; the environment never changes – it is always a 15’ shot from the center of the court with no defensive pressure – and the shot is completely self-paced (within the 10 seconds of course). The time that one has to shoot a jump shot depends on the pass, the defense, the distance to the basket, the rate of speed and other factors.
When we engage in constant or block practice, we use conditions more akin to closed skills. We underestimate the difference in task demands between the closed and open skills.
When doing a passing drill, for instance, many use closed-skill drills. Two players stand across from each other and pass back and forth. There is no time demand, no defensive pressure, no movement, no environmental changes. However, in a game, passing is an open skill: there are many moving elements and time demands.
We assume that two-line passing drills transfer to game passing. But, realistically, they are not even remotely close to the same skill. It is like saying that solving 4-2 over and over again prepares one for long division just because one element of long division is subtraction.
In a game, what causes the errors: the technique of the pass (closed skill) or the speed of the pass, the pressure of the defense, the moving target or other similar factors? If the technique leads to the mistakes – maybe an inability to throw a wrap-around bounce pass into the post – then some closed-skill practice may be necessary; however, most mistakes are due to the speed or load stress of the game environment and practice should reflect this stress.
The problem, therefore, is not personal trainers or youth coaches. The problem is the ineffective practice or training environments that lead people to overestimate learning in environments that do not transfer well to game situations. To correct this issue, trainers and coaches need to examine the skills and meet the task demands of the game skills.
By modifying the learning environment to account for the task demands of the open-skill sport, coaches and trainers can enhance learning. While this will not solve every problem, it will alleviate some of the discord that comes when training/practice and game performances do not align and the frustration that results in parents, coaches, trainers and players from this misalignment.
High contextual environment practices are messy and feature lots of mistakes, which we often equate with poor coaching, but in the right environment, this messy practice and the mistakes provide opportunities for learning. Youth coaches and trainers ultimately should be evaluated on their players’ learning, not the aesthetics of their practice session. By encouraging mistakes in practice, trainers and coaches push their players to the edge of their abilities, which elicits adaptations to higher levels of performance, and also forces mistakes, which gives the coach and player time to fix the mistake in practice rather than failing in a game when pushed to do something novel or at a faster speed.
We believe that a coach or trainer is there to eliminate errors and by eliminating errors in practice or training, he is doing his job and the player is improving. However, a coach or trainer needs to put players in positions that constantly challenge players in practice to elicit mistakes so players learn to adjust and adapt to mistakes and correct the errors before the game. If players never face these challenging situations in practice, how will they handle them during games? If they never face adversity in their development, in a non-competitive environment, how will they learn to handle adversity later in high school, college or the pros when they finally reach a competitive level beyond their current level of skill, speed or athleticism?