Differential Learning and Basketball

A BBC article titled “Cracking coaching’s final frontier” focuses on learning in sports. While many coaches pay lip service to their role as a teacher and the hardwood as a classroom, few understand learning. A Belgian soccer coach named Michel Bruyninckx calls his training “brain-centered learning” and approaches his coaching very differently than most coaches. He has developed several of Belgium’s young talents, and his methods have caught the eye of the Belgian Football Association.

He says:

“We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body…Skillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player.

“Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”

How do we improve these cognitive-perceptual skills within our typical practice sessions?

His drills start off simply but become increasingly more complicated to challenge players’ focus and maintain their concentration.

I had an associate from Germany email a couple weeks ago and ask about the three-man weave, knowing that I am not a fan. He said that in Spain, teams catch, take one dribble and use one-hand passes off the dribble in the three-man weave. This is a more interesting and challenging drill. However, my response was to ask what’s the next progression. As implied above, what do you do once the players adapt to the one-hand pass drill?

That is my real problem with the three-man weave. Once players learn the weave, what next? When I played in Sweden, our coach used three-man weave variations as warm-up drills and we did narrow weaves, wide weaves, tip-drill weaves, hand-off weaves, etc. These were warm-up drills; they were not passing drills. My coach did not believe that he was developing our passing skills; these were our conditioning drills, and he added different elements of coordination.

“You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added.

“By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available.

“Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.”

Most coaching tends to teach a skill in the same way and practice that skill over and over. For instance, teams do lay-ups drills from the same spot at the same speed before every game. Why? Last season my team practiced lay-ups from every angle; we practiced different lay-ups; we added defense; we practiced off the dribble; we practiced off the catch. Why do the same exact drill with hundreds of the same lay-up? Once the player masters the skill, the learning stops.

On twitter this weekend, one of the prominent women’s basketball writers tweeted that a couple teams and especially one great player needed more lay-up practice because one game featured several blown lay-ups. Naturally, I shook my head. First, female players really need to learn to shoot off two feet, rather than a normal one-foot lay-up, as their percentages would increase dramatically. Second, more mind-numbing lay-up drills will not improve a college player’s skills. That does not mean that a college player should never do a lay-up drill. Instead, the coach needs to add some newness to the drills – attack from different angles, shoot different shots, add defense, force the player to solve a math problem while shooting the layup: something to add novelty to the drill.

“The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake,” explained Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University, an expert in kinesiology or human movement.

This, of course, runs counter to the instincts of every coach. If you are not correcting or fixing mistakes, what is a coach to do? This coaching may not be appropriate at all age groups, as younger players definitely need to master the proper technique to improve as players. However, for beginners and as technique improves, allowing mistakes and constantly challenging players with new drills furthers the players’ learning more than doing the same drills over and over.

“Players have to take responsibility,” Schoellhorn added. “They have to be creative and take responsibility and have to find the optimal solution. It’s a whole philosophy.

When coaches answer all the questions, they take the responsibility and limit players creativity. This weekend, many people questioned the poor decision-making at the end of games in the NCAA Tournament. Some blamed AAU, some blamed lack of practice in situations and some blamed the over-competition in youth basketball which lessens the impact of a loss because there is always another game to play.

One other explanation is the lack of responsibility afforded to players. How do we expect players to make good decisions when they are never allowed to make decisions? How do players learn to think on the court when coaches stop the action to fix mistakes in practice or call timeouts to dictate the play during games?

Coaches who create novel learning environments, encourage mistakes and give players  responsibility for their learning develop better decision-makers through their more creative or novel approaches and better cognitive-perceptual skills.

One club that has adopted Professor Schoellhorn’s ideas is F.C. Barcelona, the best and most entertaining football team in the world. As you watch them play, you see their ability to read the play, make decisions and play creatively. Do you see the same in the players that you coach or train? If not, how can you change your approach to stimulate better learning and more cognitive flexibility on the court?

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

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