10,000 hours and coaching expertise

After Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Coyle and others popularized the research of K. Anders Ericsson et al., 10,000 has become the number that most quickly grabs one’s attention. Seemingly, everyone has heard of the 10,000-hour rule, and many see it as “The Way” or “The Answer.”

10,000 hours has been applied most often to skill development in sports or music. However, can the rule (or at least the concept behind the rule) be applied to coaching? Is coaching a skill?

Perusing articles and message boards, people appear to value experience as much as anything else when evaluating a coach. If experience is vitally important, that suggests that coaching is something learned (a skill) and not a talent or aspect of one’s personality (innate).

Therefore, if we agree that one learns to coach, it is safe to assume that the 10,000-rule applies to coaching as well as it does to shooting or any other skill (note: I do not believe that there is a magic number, and once you pass the threshold, you are a master at the skill; however, I believe in the general concept that it takes a lot of deliberate practice to develop a skill).

If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert coach, what is the best way to accumulate those hours? I recently wrote about summer camps, and my experience with the average summer-camp coach. When a young coach asks me how to improve as a coach, I recommend working summer camps. I do not believe that summer camps are the best learning environment for players. I also do not believe that a coach is going to learn much from the other coaches or even the Head Coach at the camp; if they do, it is a bonus.

Instead, I recommend coaching at camps because it is deliberate practice. Where else can a coach get so much practice in such a short amount of time? When I worked the Oklahoma University camp, it differed from many camps. We had try-outs, drafted players and had practice time with our team. I felt that I should use the practice time to develop the players’ skills, as they attended camp to improve, not to learn my fancy offense. However, I wanted to have some kind of organization. I instituted a Sacramento Kings-like mini-offense. We spent almost no time practicing the offense; instead, like with Blitz Basketball, I designed drills that practiced basic skills – lay-ups, shooting, cutting, passing, dribble hand-offs, etc – that taught the pattern of the offense. Most of the drills were two or three-person drills, and every drill focused on passing and finishing with some kind of shot, all done at a game tempo.

From a coaching standpoint, that type of practice is invaluable. I taught a very basic, stripped-down offense; created drills to teach the offense and develop skills; instructed during the practices; and provided feedback during games.

At other camps, like the Stanford University, University of Arizona and Sly Park camps where I essentially ran individual workouts at lunchtime, I taught basic skills to different players. I devised new drills and new progressions of drills. I gave feedback. I communicated with athletes. I thought about ways to help a player who did not understand the drill or understand my explanation.

At the Superstar Camp, I coached a player who was deaf. I had to change my coaching to accommodate her, and it made me more aware of my instruction and communication skills. When I coached a Nike Camp in China, none of the players spoke English, and I had to teach primarily through demonstrations, which forced me to understand the way that they saw me and be very precise with every movement.

This is the same type of deliberate practice that we preach to our players. Are there other ways to develop or to accumulate the requisite practice?

Dan Coyle also writes about the importance of staring, which I wrote about in relation to shooting. He suggested that staring provides the opportunity for mimicry, feedback and motivation.

Some coaches take this route to develop their coaching expertise. They train under a master coach and learn by watching the coach. However, is learning by watching enough?

Many assistants do very little actual coaching. I have watched Division 1 practices where the assistants barely utter a word during the entire practice or workout. They learn by watching the coach, but how far does that learning go? Is learning by staring as effective as deliberate practice?

Aspiring coaches need both. Watching a great coach or working for a great coach provides a great learning opportunity. However, nothing replaces finding one’s own voice as a coach. A college program has roughly 480 hours of practice time during a season (6 months x 4 weeks per month x 20 hours per week by rule). How much deliberate practice does an assistant coach get during those 480 hours?

In back-to-back summers, I worked between 8 and 10 camps per summer. The camps lasted between 6 hours and 12 hours per day and usually run for 4 days. That’s somewhere between 192 hours and 480 hours of deliberate practice.

Working one summer of camps provides a similar or better opportunity for deliberate practice than a season as a college assistant coach, as well as the possibility to get lucky and work a camp where I watched a great coach, such as with Rick Majerus at the University of Utah camps.

During my first two seasons as a college assistant, I coached AAU teams during the off-season (not allowed at the Division 1 level). Rather than settling for the two hours of off-season on-court time allowed by NCAA rules, I coached youth teams, ran practices, coached games, devised drills, etc. Blitz Basketball is based on the spring that I spent coaching a Hoop Masters AAU team after spending the winter as an assistant at U.C. Santa Cruz.

NCAA rules for basketball make it more difficult for assistant coaches to accumulate the deliberate practice necessary to reach expertise. In other sports, coaches are allowed to coach youth club teams, train youth players, and more. I know a D1 volleyball coach who spends his summer coaching an AVP beach volleyball team. Think of the extra hours of deliberate practice that he accumulates working with a pro team that practices 3-4 hours a day, every day or plays 2+ matches a day in a tournament. Compare that to a basketball coach confined to his office making recruiting calls and assisting with 2 hours of workouts per week.

I talked to a player last week who said that his college coach – a coach who just received a hefty pay raise and is considered a great, knowledgeable coach – did not teach. If a player made a mistake, the coach substituted the player and told the player that he made a mistake, but never offered instruction, never explained the correct response, and never devised practice drills to correct the error. The coach didn’t teach.

Is this a surprise? The coach spent his entire career at the Division 1 level. In 10 years or so as an assistant, how much deliberate practice has the coach acquired? The coach learned from a Hall of Fame-caliber mentor, so there is significant learning from the view of staring, but the coach is short on practice, especially compared to someone like the volleyball coach who spends his entire off-season coaching other athletes, continually informing his coaching through continued deliberate practice.

Is it any wonder that the coaches who are considered the best teachers are either older or untraditional? NCAA Women’s champion Gary Blair started as a high school coach and worked his way up the proverbial ladder. However, he was a head coach at each stop, meaning that he was the one accumulating the deliberate practice. University of Michigan Head Coach John Beilein worked up from the D3 to D2 to D1 level as a Head Coach. Even a famed assistant coach like St. John’s University’s Mike Dunlap has spent a great deal of time during his off-seasons coaching at camps, such as directing the Pete Newell Big Man Camp or working at Tim Grgurich’s camp in addition to head coaching stops at the D2 and D3 levels and in Australia.

If we believe that coaching is a skill (learned) and not a talent (innate), and we believe in the 10,000-hour rule for our players’ skill development, it stands to reason that we should believe in the 10,000-hour rule in terms of our development of coaching expertise, which means seeking out opportunities for deliberate practice (it also means that we need to have patience with new head coaches, as they likely are far short of the hours required to reach mastery or expertise as a coach).

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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