Changing the instruction to foster understanding

Last spring, when I took a jiujitsu class, one of the first moves that we learned was an americana. For some reason, I never quite got the submission. I knew cognitively how and when to try the submission, and I had numerous opportunities to try it, but I always made a mistake in its execution. My procedural knowledge was lacking. When given time to think about it in a non-competitive setting, I could explain the hold, but when I needed to put that knowledge into practice in a time-stressed, competitive environment, the knowledge escaped me.

Today, in my MMA class, my instructor managed to solve my problem in less than five minutes. Rather than explaining the move in detail, he said simply, “Grab his watch; then grab your watch.” (Essentially, in a side control position with me on top chest-to-chest and our bodies perpendicular, I take my top hand and grab his wrist on the far side of his body and pin the wrist to the ground. Then I take my other arm, run it under his arm and grab my wrist. Apply some pressure, and tap). The simplified language made so much sense and made the move so much easier to learn. In a matter of minutes, I was assisting my partner on a move that I failed to learn in four months of classes.

Oftentimes, when a player makes a mistake or cannot figure out a solution, the coach assumes the player’s struggle is due to the player’s lack of ability or lack of trying or not paying attention. Instead, a subtle tweak to the instruction can help the player learn. As John Wooden said, “You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.” If a player struggles with a move or a concept, find a simpler explanation. Use picture words or analogies. Frame the instruction in terms of something the player understands already. Adding more complexity or lengthening the instruction is often the opposite of what the player needs. Simplify. Create a picture. Change the instruction to help the player rather than placing blame.

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

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