Khan Academy as a Way to Change Athlete Development

There are four takeaways for me:

1. The knowledge map that he creates is essentially what we tried to do with the Train for Hoops program four years ago. Academics are suited for the program because you complete the assignments online and the computer program assesses your performance automatically and uses the algorithm to design the next assignment. In basketball, players had to track and input their own performance. As coaches and parents told me over and over, that is too much work for a player.

It is not ideal. However, it begs the question: if you’re not prepared to spend an extra 10 minutes writing down your performance during your workout and transcribing it to a computer online to generate a progressive workout program, how serious are you about your improvement? If you go through a workout without tracking your progress by any measure – whether video analysis, outcome totals, time – how do you know that you are improving? How do you know that your effort is leading somewhere?

2. “The paradigm is that once you get 10 in a row, it forwards you into more and more advanced modules.” Is that how we progress players? Khan calls this a “System of Mastery.” School is not like this. When you take a math class in school, you do Chapter 1, you do the homework and you take a test. You are evaluated on the test, which becomes your grade, and you move to chapter 2. This creates gaps in your knowledge. If you scored an 80% on the Chapter 1 test, that means you did not master 20% of the material. In most cases, the material builds, so you have a 20% hole in your foundation for chapter 2.

Youth sport is more like the traditional educational system. A child signs up for an u8 basketball team. His responsible coach teaches him the basic fundamentals. However, he does not master all the skills. The next season, he signs up for u9 with gaps in his skills that may or may not be corrected. If the u8 player never learns to jump stop properly, and the u9 coach assumes all the players know how to jump stop, the player may progress to u10s not knowing how to jump stop. He may not be called for travels every time in the games because the officials have a lot of leeway with u8s and u9s, so he and his parents may not even see the gaps in his development. At u10, all of a sudden, he doesn’t play much because he constantly gets called for traveling or because he’s terribly off-balance when he shoots. He gets discouraged and quits, and it stems from the lack of focus on skill mastery when he was 8. He moved to the next level because of age, not mastery, and he lacked the foundation to build skills. Some players progress on and on with a gap in their skill level or general fundamental movement skills until high school. A player may be fast enough to hide his inability to dribble with his left hand, a skill that should be mastered at a young age. Eventually, that gap in his skills will prevent him from progressing.

How can we create leagues that are based more on mastery of skills for promotion than age or size?

3. At around 11:20, he shows data from the Los Altos School District. “Over and over, five days in, there is a group that’s raced ahead and a group that’s fallen behind.” Once those children who have fallen behind get past the one concept, they race ahead. The implication is that classes are often grouped by a snapshot of ability; similarly, teams are picked based on a snapshot of ability. However, a player may be stuck on one concept or move, and once they master that move or concept, they race ahead. If they are cut because of that snapshot, they may never master that move or concept because they have been weeded out of the competitive stream, and they likely quit.

4. When he shows the data of the Los Altos School District, he says about the green color (children who are proficient in a concept) and the red color (children who are struggling with a concept), “Even better, let me get one of the green kids to intervene and be the first line of attack and tutor their peer.” What a great way to enhance both students’ learning while also keeping the students at somewhat of a similar level! Teaching the concept to a peer will enhance the student’s understanding and retention of the material.

Similarly, reader Josh Littlejohn put his players in charge of the team for a game to see how they would react to a lack of a coach. It is an interesting example of an athlete-centered environment.

The Khan Academy illustrates a fundamental shift in the way that we organize the classroom. Is it possible that similar concepts can re-organize the sports development environment?

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

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