Are you teaching or instructing your basketball players and team?

As a follow-up to this week’s article on the difference between education and training, I saw a post by math professor Kevin Devlin on the difference between instructing and teaching

Devlin describes instruction as:

“primarily one-directional, from an instructor (we should not use the word teacher here) to the student. Education in the instruction mode proceeds along the lines: first provide information, then give an opportunity to practice, then test.”

In contrast, teaching is

“unlike instruction, which is essentially unidirectional and provides no guarantee of learning that which is ostensibly being ‘taught,’ teaching (the real kind) is bi-directional. In fact, you can’t separate real teaching from learning. They are simply two perspectives of the same human interactive process. From the teacher’s perspective it is teaching, from the student’s perspective it is learning.”

Devlin suggests that many people do well in an instruction setting though they may not understand or learn the material:

Many students do learn to do well in this system. Some of the ones who do well actually learn what the course is supposed to be about, though others (and I suspect most) simply learn how to pass the course tests. Case in point: I got straight A’s on all my high school calculus courses (“freshman calculus” in US terms), but only when I was a doctoral student in mathematics faced with running problem sessions for math undergraduates did I actually start to understand calculus. At school I had merely learned how to pass the tests. At graduate school, five years later, I finally learned calculus, by way of trying to teach it.

Academics and athletics differ in many things. However, there is a parallel. When I was in 5th and 6th grade, my team ran the Flex. we practiced the Flex. I could run the Flex. I learned “what the offense was supposed to be about”. However, I did not learn the skills within the offense, namely reading screens. We ran from point A to point B because that is what we were instructed to do. That’s how “we passed the test,” so to speak, to ensure playing time. Years later, primarily when playing pick-up games, I learned how to read and use a screen.

When coaches instruct in a unidimensional manner, there is no guarantee of learning. I have recounted these two stories before, but they explain the point:

I watched a girls’ varsity game during a summer showcase event. One team ran the same play every time down the court. After two to three possessions, the defense knew what was coming. They stopped defending, and played the play. First, they got  a lay-up for a steal. Next, they had two players running to steal the point to wing entry pass. While two players ran to steal the pass, the point guard never took her eyes off the intended receiver, and the post player left alone under the basket never turned to look for a pass: she was too busy going to set the next screen in the play. The team was so focused on running its play that it forced passes that became turnovers rather than doing something different, and easier, that would have created an immediate lay-up.

I ran a clinic one time. I always tell players to ask questions if they do not understand. At the end of the clinic, I got on this group a little bit because they made mistakes, but never asked questions. They were a pretty good varsity team and several of their players had worked out with me previously, so I was aware of their ability. I told them that they had to ask questions if they did not understand something, and I said something about their coach being willing to answer questions. A couple players snickered. I let it go and ended my rant. Afterward, I asked an assistant why the girls had laughed. The head coach had a rule that they were not allowed to ask questions; they had to go to an assistant at a break and write down their question, and the assistants evaluated whether or not to bother the head coach with the question.

How do either of these examples illustrate teaching? What are these players learning? These coaches are interested in obedient players who follow their orders, not players who understand the game and make plays. Unfortunately, while these two examples may be extremes, they also are far too reflective of common coaching procedures.

What is the goal? Is a coach there to instruct or to teach? Are players there to follow directions or to learn? Are successful teams the ones with the most order and structure or the ones with the players who can think the game? Is the goal of coaching to get players “to pass the test” or to enhance their playing abilities by helping them learn?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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