Double-Edge Sword of Demonstrations and Instructions

During my presentation, one question focused on the timing of block practice and random practice. In a traditional coaching methodology, coaches start with the block practice with lots of instruction and feedback and isolated drills. Once players show improvement, the coach adds a new element or puts the skill into a scrimmage. The decision-training style of coaching starts with competition-like drills and “hard-first instruction.”

When I trained players, I used the block practice method and realized that it was ineffective. When I demonstrated a move, players attempted to copy my move. I was an average player – my goal is to help players become better than me, not to make a bunch of copycats. The instructions and demonstrations from the beginning and the traditional block practice approach, created an imitation mindset as opposed to an exploratory mindset.

A recent article by Bonawitz et al. (2010) in Cognition titled “The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery,” found that “Preschoolers in the pedagogical condition focused almost exclusively on the target function; by contrast, children in the other conditions explored broadly.” Rather than explore different solutions, and possibly make mistakes, the students followed the instruction. Bonawitz et al. (2010) concluded that “pedagogy promotes efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information.”

On the court, block practice promotes efficiency. If I set out to practice dribbling, and I do straight-line dribbling drills, the practice is efficient and players make few mistakes. However, if I start with a game of tag (below), the practice gets messy. There is less efficiency; it looks more disorganized.

In tag, players solve  the problem of getting past the person who is “It.” In a straight-line dribbling drill, the player solves the problem of one specific move at a time; if I offer a demonstration, then the player focuses on solving the problem of imitating my movement, not discovering the best way to position his hands or coordinate the movement to accomplish the goal of the move.

Block practice is not wrong. Efficiency can be good. However, the decision-training approach presents the problem and allows players to explore and discover first, and when there is an issue or a constant mistake, block practice is a means to correct the problem efficiently. Next, return to more competition-like drills to assess the learning.

The timing of the methods of instruction – block vs random, variable – matters depending on your goals as a coach for the player’s development. Because I want players to explore and discover their own solutions rather than imitating me, I use the random, variable drills first and supplement those drills with the occasional block practice when necessary.

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

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