Players overcoming their coaches

On a thread about the poor play of lower-level teams on a message forum, I saw this comment that was posted by “Bball Coach”:

My lower level coaches are told to focus on defensive footwork and slides, make sure they can make lay-ups and can dribble full speed with either hand. Then we throw them on the court and they forget everything because the girls dont have much game experience. About the last 3-4 games of the season the girls are comfortable enough to actually do what they are taught at practice.

This answer perfectly encapsulates the idea of “fake fundamentals” and epitomized what I feel is poor coaching and a poor understanding of learning.

In motor learning, transfer is concerned with the ability to perform a skill in a novel situation. It is a prerequisite for learning. If a player practices something in practice, and does not transfer the skill to a game, there is no transfer. Therefore, there is no learning. If players continually do not transfer practice lessons into games, a coach should examine the practice.

The other readers and posters on this board accepted this coach’s comments as if they were commonplace. Of course lower-level teams should work on lay-ups and defensive slides. That is common sense. Is it?

I coach a lower-level team, and we certainly work on lay-ups. However, we have a defender in every lay-up drill. We do not do drills that look like pre-game lay-up drills. Instead, we do drills like a chaser lay-up that puts more pressure on the offensive player and increases the intensity of the drill.

As for defensive slides, need I say more. Do you learn to play defense while defending air? We have not done a defensive slide drill. We work on various forms of lateral movement during our warm-ups and conditioning. We use the Mirror Drill to make this more competitive.

Then, we play defense. We play 1v1. We play 1v1 in transition. We play 1v1 off a closeout. Why? Because defense is a perceptual-cognitive skill as much as it is a motor skill. Doing defensive slides across the court practices the motor component; however, it does not practice the perceptual-cognitive elements. How can a player perform in a game environment if they have not practiced the game skill?

Rather than criticize the players for their inability to transfer the practice to the games, why not change the practices? Why not incorporate more random and variable practice that more closely mimics the game than relying on more traditional blocked practice? A study by Starkes (2000) that interviewed expert athletes suggested that young athletes spend more time in less relevant activities and less time in more relevant activities. These experts believed that scrimmages and tactical drills were more relevant activities. A Ford, Yates and Williams (2010) study found that players spend less than a third of practice time in more relevant playing-form activities. This also helps to explain a Leek and colleagues study (2011) that found that youth athletes spend less than 50% of practice time in moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Doing these fake fundamentals make the coach look like he or she knows what he or she is doing, as they are organized and traditional. It looks like the players are engaged in activities that will improve their performance. However, the coach admits that this approach fails to improve performance, yet the approach continues.

The coach appears confident that it’s the players’ fault that the lower-levels are less skilled and unable to transfer their learning. However, he points out his or her deficiencies: the players lack game experience, so they need more practice in game situations. Doing drills does not prepare them for the game environment. This is a perfect example of traditional coaching that is accepted by most as good coaching, yet it completely fails the athlete.

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