Learning tricks or improving game performance

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2014.

My 18-year-old back-up point guard approached me after a workout and asked about a Youtube video that he had seen. He said that he watched a basketball trainer do a drill where he combined different ball-handling moves like a crossover dribble or a spin move with picking up and setting down cones. He asked if I could show him how to do the drill, and if I thought the drill would help him.

Could I find the drill, teach myself to do it, and teach him? Very likely. Ten years ago, I used the And1 Mix-Tapes in the same way. I watched the videos, taught myself a couple of the tricks, and used the tricks to motivate players to spend more time practicing basic skills with the promise that they could experiment with the tricks for the last five minutes. Whereas the tricks were not moves that one could use in a game, the value was the increased motivation, and the confidence earned by learning to do something new and challenging.

Ten years ago, however, I was a different coach, and I was using the tricks with a different population, younger players at a basketball camp. My point guard plays for a senior men’s team. With a finite amount of time in the gym each week, does learning this drill warrant the investment of time in terms of the expected improvement in game performance? Unlikely.

Before searching Youtube to find the video, I imagined that the drill was an example of what the InnovateFC blog called pseudocoaching: “PseudoCoaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learning and any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is that very little learning is taking place.”

In this case, the practice may look challenging, and players may look as though they are learning an important skill, but the practice likely does not transfer to game performance. I want to enhance the motivation and confidence of my player, but is investing time in a drill that does not transfer to game performance the best way?

Skill acquisition specialist Mark Upton touched on this subject in a blog titled, “Practice Design – Progression and Challenges.” Upton wrote that he had seen several examples of skill progressions being based on doing a “skill quicker, more accurately, and/or executing a greater number of repetitions without an error.” This seems logical: aren’t coaches always seeking players who make fewer errors or are quicker with the ball? Upton wrote, “The reality is players are getting better at performing in THAT activity.” Naturally, we expect that players who practice a skill improve their performance of that skill. His emphasis, however, is that THAT skill is not the same skill that the player performs in a game.

Using the example of the player dribbling and picking up cones, practicing that skill will improve THAT skill. In the game, however, the challenge differs. In a game, the player must make moves against a defensive player and turn his dribble into a pass or shot. In basketball, this means accounting for nine other players; in soccer, lacrosse, or rugby, one may have to account for even more players, which adds to the complexity of the skill. Picking up a cone when dribbling increases the task complexity for that skill (dribbling in place), but the increase in complexity in a game is a much different stimulus. As Upton wrote, “If this activity bears little resemblance to the situations in a match where the skill may be used, then performance in those MATCH situations is not being enhanced.”

My point guard dribbles the ball competently. In many situations, coaches or players wait until a player is error-free before adding complexity to a skill. Instead, Upton suggested that once there is a relative level of success (he suggested 60-70%), “the objective is not to get to 100% or do it quicker.” Instead, he offered three suggestions for increasing the challenge once a certain minimum threshold was met: (1) add a defender(s); (2) create more variability; and (3) incorporate other skills (random practice). With my point guard, this could mean playing 1v1 or 1v2; dribbling in different situations with different forms of movement (forward, backward, shuffling) and different starting points (standing still, catching on the move and dribbling); and ending the dribble with a shot or pass. These challenges represent tasks that are more similar to game situations.

My point guard does not struggle with his dribbling moves in games. Instead, his mistakes occur after his move when he has to pass or make a shot. Between his quickness and his dribbling ability, he often finds himself in the paint. In these positions, he often is unable to finish a shot because he lacks size and strength compared to the interior defenders of other teams, and he often makes poor decisions when passing the ball. His time would be invested more appropriately if he attacked these weaknesses.

According to A. Mark Williams of Liverpool’s John Moores University, “Game reading skills are amenable to practice and instruction and such training should be fundamental to the talent development process.” The best approach to improving these game-reading skills is to practice in drills or scrimmages that are very similar to games or impose the same demands as games. Incidentally, my conversation with the player occurred after a practice session in which we did a drill focused on finding an open player when dribbling against a defensive player toward the basket, the exact skill that he needs to improve. He found the drill uninteresting because it is one that we have done previously.

In an article titled, “Learning Football Skills Effectively: Challenging Traditions,” Williams noted this very discrepancy: “There is an important balance here between fostering positive performance effects on the one hand, so that the learner continues to be motivated to practice, and encouraging effective learning on the other.” His comment pertained to the difference between a low contextual interference (CI) practice when a player practices one skill repeatedly compared to a high CI practice when the player practices a variety of skills in a random order. In a low CI environment, there are immediate practice improvements, which tend to be motivating, whereas high CI environments tend to lead to more mistakes and slower apparent progress. However, high CI practice environments transfer better to game performances than do low CI environments.

Practicing a stationary dribbling drill and picking up cones may be challenging, but it is a low CI environment. The player is performing one skill (dribbling) over and over. He may improve at this skill (make fewer errors, get quicker), but the transfer of that skill to a game is likely minimal. The practice drill with the player dribbling against pressure and finding an open teammate may not have provided the same apparent immediate improvements, but the transfer to a game is likely to be higher.

As Williams noted, however, there is a balance. As a coach or parent, we have to maintain the athlete’s enthusiasm for the practice. With the proliferation of trainers and Youtube videos, there are many examples of fun and interesting ways to manipulate a ball, regardless of sport (search “kickalicious” or “dude perfect” to see football kicking exploits or trick shots from various sports). If these videos motivate a player to practice more or to stay physically active, they have a positive effect. However, in terms of performance improvement, when you have a finite amount of time, you have to chose the activities that offer the greatest opportunity to improve game performance.

 By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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