Mistakes in motor learning: The fallacy of the expert shooting coach

On another site, I saw a prominent shooting coach admonishing other coaches for failing to teach the perfect shooting technique. The expert justified his opinion by giving one example of a player who he trained who the expert wrote had gone from making 82/100 to 92/100 in one day. The expert called this measured improvement.

Motor learning, in terms of skill acquisition, is concerned with two primary concepts: Retention and transfer. Retention is the ability to retain the skill performance after a period of no practice. In sports, we generally look at day to day for retention: Do your players retain the information or the learning from one practice to the next or is every practice like starting from scratch?

I worked with a teenager once whose parents wanted him to be a good shooter. I am not sure that the player cared. We worked out once per week, and every workout, we started from scratch. He did not practice on his own. When learning a skill, you have to practice more than once per week. With this player, there was no retention. He improved through the course of a workout, but the improvements were not retained the following week. Without retention, there was no learning.

Transfer is the ability to take a skill learned in one setting and execute the skill in a different setting. In sports, we generally discuss the transfer from practice to a game. If a player shoots 92% in practice, and 92% in the game, there is perfect transfer. If a player shoots 92% in practice and 60% in the game, there is little transfer. Without transfer, there is no learning.

Shooting coaches generally do not work in an environment which taxes the transfer of a skill. Parents watch their child make dozens of shots in a row in a shooting session, but struggle in a game, and automatically blame the system or the coach. If a player fails to transfer a skill from practice to game, coaches tend to blame the player’s lack of concentration or some other mental or psychological deficiency.

Rarely does one blame the type of practice. If I had a player shoot 100 shots in a row from the same spot at the same speed, by the end of the 100, the player will have improved. The player may even retain the improvement from yesterday to today. However, in a game, does a player shoot 100 shots in a row from the same spot? This type of practice, called block practice, overestimates one’s learning.

Skills are stored in the long-term memory. When we warm-up, the skill is recalled to the short-term memory. However, the short-term memory lasts for only 20-30 seconds. If one shoots 100 consecutive shots, the player must recall the motor pattern only once from the long-term memory. In a game, however, a player may go several possessions without shooting; the player has to recall the motor pattern from the long-term memory for every shot. This is the reason that everyone should shoot free throws like Steve Nash.

Therefore, rather than measure a shooting coach’s success with a player in an artificial environment of block-practice drills, the learning must be measured in an environment where transfer is required, which is the game. If a player improves in practice, but not in the game, it does not mean that the coach’s system is wrong or that the player has a psychological problem. Often it means that the practice environment is ineffective. Random and variable practice has been shown to transfer better than block practice (see Richard Schmidt or Joan Vickers).

As for the one perfect shooting technique, does Ray Allen shoot like Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitski, Steve Nash, Ryan Anderson, or Stephen Curry?








Coaches tend to have a perfect technique in their minds, and deviation from that technique is viewed as incorrect. However, as shown above, there are different ways to shoot. There are many similarities between these expert shooters, but none shoots exactly like the others. In a study by Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University, two expert shot putters did not throw the shot exactly the same through a year of practice. Not once was the throw duplicated exactly. The implication is that even within one performer, there is not one technique – each throw differs slightly due to many influences: fatigue, pressure, wind, improvements, etc.

The shot put is a closed skill; if repetition of a closed skill differs so greatly, can we expect an open skill like shooting to be more consistent? Based on this theory, each shot is unique. Expert shooters are ones who are able to perform their technique in many different situations. In shooting, a player may be open or well-defended; he could be moving toward the basket, standing still or cutting away from the basket; he could shoot off the dribble, off a jab step, or off a pass; the ball could originate on his right or his left; a pass could be high or low; the distance of the shot may vary; the angle of the shot varies. Add to these variables the player’s fatigue, the pressure of a game, the mental component based on whether he made or missed his last shot, and more.

Since games involve great variability, practice should feature the same variability. Beginning shooters reduce variability to improve consistency of performance. As players improve, players have to be able to shoot more than a set shot (free throw). Part of the genius of Kobe Bryant is his ability to shoot from so many angles with so many releases: fade aways to each shoulder, jumping forward, step-throughs from the three-point line, etc. His shooting percentage is lower than it should be because he genuinely believes he can make any shot regardless of the defensive pressure, angle, fatigue, etc. Similarly, I have argued that Steve Nash is the NBA’s best shooter because his percentages prove his worth, but also because he shoots a wide variety of shots, as supported by the research of Kirk Goldsberry.

Improving in one day on consecutive free throws is possible; however, does it prove anything? Is there retention and transfer? Can the improved shooting transfer to different shots from different locations in a game environment? To demonstrate learning, one must see retention and transfer. As coaches, it is not about some conception of perfection, but about real results as demonstrated across games. Reggie Miller’s shot may not be technically beautiful, but it worked. Should he have changed his technique to someone else’s definition of the perfect technique?

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

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