Learn More by Making More Mistakes

I read a quote by Piggy Lambert, John Wooden’s coach at Purdue University, that said, “The team who makes the most mistakes will win the game. Doers make mistakes, and I want doers on my team.”

Many coaches scoff at the comment or attempt to rationalize it, as everyone knows that making mistakes leads to losses. After all, a coach’s job is to limit mistakes, right? Isn’t that why the coach yells at the tall girl to pass the ball after a rebound rather than dribbling or why he runs the same play to get the same shot for his best player over and over rather than taking the chance of another player shooting?

The problem with avoiding mistakes is that players never develop. You cannot learn a skill perfectly. You have to make mistakes in the process of learning to do something new.

A new research paper by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork at UCLA published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition promotes the idea as a necessary part of learning:

People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, they showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning. It’s an idea that has obvious applications for education, but could be useful for anyone who is trying to learn new material of any kind.

Coaches tend to be in the habit of providing answers, rather than challenging players to find the answers. When I work with a new player or team, they are taken aback when I ask questions and try to get them to discover the answer rather than simply providing the answer to them.

Coaches often assume that players who make mistake after mistake are not listening. However, they may listen without processing or retaining the information. As this paper illustrates, by struggling to answer questions, rather than being told the answer, players retain more information.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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