Deliberate practice: The maintainer or the trainer

I was a basketball trainer, one of the legions of former players and coaches who earn an income working privately with basketball players. To some, this is evidence of an epidemic of misplaced priorities, as young players seek additional coaching and training much like a professional athlete; however, to others it offers hope to young athletes motivated to work hard and succeed. It depends on one’s perspective.

Players require tactical, technical and athletic skills; playing or practicing with a team is often insufficient because coaches lack the time and resources to tailor practice to meet the individual needs of every player. Team practices generally cater to the middle, meaning the best players are unchallenged and the worst players are left behind. Coaches have too many tactical concepts and situations to cover in limited practice time to devote sufficient time in-season to individual skill development. So, players seek trainers.

I have mixed feelings about the phenomena. On one hand, our society accepts golf and tennis pros who earn six-figure incomes. Whereas golf and tennis are individual (country club) sports, these pros teach a skill – hitting the golf or tennis ball – which is similar to shooting the basketball. On the other hand, I bemoan the loss of innocence in today’s youth; the lack of athlete-directed play in playgrounds and streets where kids can be kids and experiment and try new skills on their own, away from the critical eye of parents, trainers and coaches.

I believe there must be a balance; young players are not mini-professionals; however, those with the work ethic and aspirations to be great deserve the opportunity to elevate their skill level and maximize their potential. Unfortunately, everyone calls himself a trainer these days, and parents cannot tell between an astute trainer that takes a player to the next level and an average/poor trainer who yells a lot, was a great player, or makes players work hard.

Professional trainers fall into two main categories: basketball skill trainers and athletic skill trainers. Basketball skill trainers teach shooting, ball handling, defense, etc; athletic skill trainers train quickness, speed, strength, vertical jump, etc. Within each category, there are two sub-categories: trainers vs. maintainers.

On the court, basketball trainers teach skills and create individual skill progressions; maintainers run players through general drills with little instruction or feedback. Off the court, athletic trainers carefully craft workouts to develop a skill or skills, whereas maintainers wear out players without a scientific approach to training.

A few years ago, I ran clinics on one end of the court, and a maintainer ran clinics on the other end. He summed up the difference between us when he said, “Parents like their kids to work with me because they look tired when they finish.” I answered that I hope that parents send their kids to me because they know that they improve.

After the workout, parents gathered around the maintainer, and several coaches with children in attendance gathered around me. He was right; parents have a hard time differentiating between good and bad, but exhaustion is visible. Parents know tired, even when his methods were flawed (plyometrics at the end of a workout when players were fatigued) and dangerous (multiple players jumping onto portable bleachers); they do not necessarily know great teaching methods or logical progressions.

For beginners and average players, almost any training with or without any trainer will help a player improve. These players are not in optimal condition, so a workout to wear out the players improves their conditioning, which makes them a slightly better player. These players often have a poor skill set or are inexperienced players, so more time handling the ball or shooting makes the player slightly better.

However, for good and experienced players, maintainers merely maintain the player’s current skill level, while a good trainer offers a motivated player an opportunity to improve. A good trainer creates an environment of deliberate practice which is necessary for an experienced player to improve. According to Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson, an expert in the science of exceptional performance, it takes about 40 hours of play to reach an acceptable level. However, to improve beyond an acceptable level, simply playing is not enough; the player requires deliberate practice.

Dr. Ericsson wrote:

Involvement in the relevant sport activity, access to instruction and training and social support were necessary for the development of high levels of achievement. The main focus of deliberate practice was to explain individual differences among those individuals who had had access to all necessary training and practice opportunities.

Deliberate practice does not require an individual trainer or coach, but it is the reason a player/parent seeks a trainer. Some players invest hours to get better, but their game stagnates, resulting in frustration. Others invest less time, but manage to improve. The answer, explains Ericsson, is deliberate practice. For instance, last year, a player who I trained told me that he shot 200 shots. He was proud of himself, as he felt this showed his dedication to improvement. I asked how many he made. He did not know. Simply shooting around is not deliberate practice. In contrast, a former All-American who I trained tracked every shot he took; he had a record of every shot that he took for a year as he progressed from a 29% high school shooter to a 50% three-point shooter in college.

Repetition of the same activity is nearly always associated with increased performance under some conditions, namely when the participants are motivated, when the task is simple and appropriate strategies are used, and when immediate informative feedback is available (Ericsson).

The difference between a trainer and a maintainer is the “use of appropriate strategies” and “informative feedback.” Maintainers ensure players get plenty of repetitions and motivated players who shoot a lot will improve slightly; since players improve a little and leave workouts tired, the maintainers appear effective. However, without the use of appropriate strategies and informative feedback, using a trainer is useless. As Dr. Ericsson writes, “In the absence of adequate feedback efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.”

The appropriate strategies mean the ability to create a workout for a player to meet the player’s needs, attack his weaknesses and improve his strengths. Last year, a player worked out with me for the first time and had considerable balance issues, even from the free throw line. He had been to several other trainers, yet nobody had mentioned his balance. The appropriate strategy was not more shooting, it was first fixing the balance issues, teaching the player to bend and squat properly.

As for informative feedback, trainers must be able to see and explain the root cause of the mistake and help the player learn to feel the proper mechanics of the shot or move. When to instruct and how much to instruct is an art one learns as he spends more time coaching; however, feedback is essential to improvement.

Last summer, I watched a high DI player work out; he missed seven straight shots and after each one, made a motion with his arm like he was not following through. However, the problem was hip extension, not his follow-through. However, his maintainer made no mention of his hips. He lacked the appropriate feedback, and therefore, there was minimal improvement or efficient learning.

Dedicated and motivated players need deliberate practice, whether with a coach (best for younger and less experienced players with little kinesthetic awareness) or without a coach (possible if the player has good kinesthetic awareness, motivation and drive) to maximize their game and potential. Deliberate practice, with appropriate strategies, informative feedback and a motivated athlete separates the elite and expert performers from the pack, which is why talented players should seek trainers, not just maintainers trying to make some money.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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