Motor learning theory, basketball skill trainers, and skill development

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 5, available as a paperback or Kindle. To subscribe to the newsletter, go here

Whenever I write about trainers, trainers respond. Trainers tend to be defensive because the industry is not established fully. Many do not understand the reason or need for basketball trainers. As a basketball trainer, I see both sides of the issue.

Parents pay for trainers to provide their son or daughter with an advantage. Typically, a parent tells me that his son’s or daughter’s coach does not practice fundamentals, so he wants a trainer for more fundamental practice. Last week, I worked with a player for the first time. We did very basic ball handling, finishing and shooting drills so I could evaluate his skill level, his learning style, his motivations and his initiative. The father said that his team never did any of the drills during practice and focused only on its offensive and defensive schemes.

First, a youth coach who does not emphasize general skill development and instead emphasizes winning and the Peak by Friday approach is not a good coach. At the high school level, I spent almost half of practice time focusing specifically on skills like passing, dribbling and lay-ups, and the rest of practice typically involved small-sided games which provided additional repetitions of these skills. Before automatically seeking a trainer, the parent should find a new team or league. Options are plentiful nowadays. Games and strategy are important, but every youth coach should emphasize the general skills first.

Second, if the player wants to improve, he will practice his individual skills on his own. With the player from last week, his father canceled our follow-up session this week because his son had not practiced on his own. I tell players and parents that one day per week with me has little to no value if the player does not practice the skills on his own or at his team practices. If a player does not practice on his own, the parent does not need a trainer because the player has not shown the intrinsic desire to be a basketball player. If he or she simply plays basketball for fun, he or she does not need a trainer. He or she needs more recreational playing experiences. Summer camps are designed for these players; summer camps are not designed for players looking to train or develop. There is a difference between training basketball and playing basketball. Everyone should play basketball; not everyone needs to train basketball.

Finally, assuming the player practices on his own and wants to train with a skills trainer, what should these trainers do?

Most trainers use block practice drills and progress from easy to difficult as the player shows improvement. This is the behavioral-training approach to coaching or training. Behavioral training leads to immediate performance improvements in practice, which is important because nobody wants to pay for a lack of improvement or an immediate decrement in performance. However, behavioral training transfers poorly to game performance.

When players engage primarily in behavioral training – with a coach or trainer – they overrate their skill development. Prior to a game or late in a season, one uses this approach to build confidence before performance. However, when learning or development is the goal – as it should be with trainers or youth coaches – strictly behavioral training is a short-term approach.

Problems arise because we overrate one’s development. If one demonstrates skill proficiency in a block-practice drill, low contextual interference environment or in a behavioral-training environment, and the skill does not translate to a high CI, random, variable environment like a game, we want an explanation.

The two easiest explanations are: (1) blame the coach; or (2) blame the player’s psychology. In girls’ basketball, we simply assume that a player is not tough enough. In boys’ basketball, we assume that the player is passive or lacks aggressiveness. We rarely look at the training or practice environment because performance improves in this environment, so it cannot be the problem.

We have a youth sports environment now where 10 year-olds need sports psychologists and college players transfer when faced with the first bit of adversity. We have college players who have played basketball on teams for a dozen years, often for multiple teams at one time, and still do not know how to play basketball.

While there are many factors that contribute to these deficiencies, a misunderstanding of learning and development is a big factor.

Several years ago, I trained a player named “Stan.” Stan looked pretty smooth in workouts and shot about 70% (on average) on a mixture of finishes, free throws, pull-up jumpers, catch-and-shoot threes and threes off of different cuts and actions during workouts. In essence, he shot 70% on game shots taken close to game speed from game spots.

In games, he did not shoot nearly this well. He struggled to create space. He played tentatively. Some blamed his coach for the coach’s system. Others said he lacked athleticism and explosiveness to create the separation. Some said he was not tough enough or lacked the mentality to be a great player. Nobody suggested that the disparity between his game and practice performances was due to the different environments and demands.

When Stan struggled to transfer his practice performance to games, his coach may have affected his performance, and he may have lacked some explosiveness. However, he also did not train in an environment that promotes the transfer of skills.

To understand learning, we must understand some basic concepts. Learning occurs within the brain, and therefore is not measurable. Instead, we infer leaning through performance. However, performance is temporary and subject to variables like fatigue, pressure, environment and more. If a player has a poor shooting performance during a game, it does not mean that his learning disappeared; the performance may be temporary and due to Ron Artest’s defense or a broken finger.

To test for learning, we test for retention and transfer. If a player learns a skill at practice on Monday, does he retain the learning in the game on Friday? Does the skill learned in a practice setting transfer to the game environment? Therefore, we do not measure learning within the activity; for instance, if I teach a player a new move, I do not measure his learning of the move five or 10 repetitions later. Instead, I measure his learning in a subsequent practice or game for retention (does he retain the learning after a period without repetitions?) and in a different environment (scrimmage, game) for transfer of the skill.

Schmidt’s schema theory predicts that successful future performance of a skill depends on the amount of movement variability the learner experiences during practices. Constant (block) practice involves one variation of a skill, while variable practice involves different variations of the skill during practice.

When I trained Stan, I used primarily constant practice. We did sets of 10 shots. When shooting pull-up jump shots from the wing, one set would be 10 made shots of the same basic move, let’s say catch, rip-through, crossover step, one-dribble pull-up. After those 10 makes, he would make two free throws in a row and then move to the next block of practice, maybe the same shot from the other side of the court.

This is a traditional, behavioral-training style of practice or training. We believe in the efficacy of this practice because players show improvement in the practice environment, so we – the coach or trainer – believe our methods are working. However, while Stan retained the skill from session to session, the skill did not transfer: the improvement that I saw in training did not transfer to improved performance in his games.

Variable practice leads to more errors in practice. To make the same shooting drill more variable, the drill could start from different spots on each repetition; the player could attack in a different direction each repetition; the player could use a different move within each repetition (maybe a step-back jumper on one and a fake-spin jumper on the next); the player could shoot from a different distance on each repetition; etc. Rather than make the exact same move and shoot the exact same shot 10 times in a row, the player varies the move and/or shot on every repetition within the set.

With the varied practice, players will miss more shots or make more mistakes on the move than if they do the same thing 10 times in a row. With constant practice, the player might make a mistake on the first repetition or two, but then the errors are eliminated. As these errors are eliminated, and the player makes more shots, we feel like the player has learned the move. MaGill writes that people involved in constant practice overrate their learning.

Think practically. Let’s say that I want to teach you basic arithmetic. I tell you that 2+2=4. The next question is 2+2. You answer four. The next question is 2+2. You answer four. At this point, there is no thinking involved. You do not have to solve the problem. You simply remember the answer from two seconds ago. Now, there are two questions: (1) If a week later I asked you what 2+2 equals, would you remember the answer? (2) Would you be able to figure out 2+4?

Contextual interference refers to the interference when performing skills and tasks in a practice context; MaGill considers contextual interference to refer to memory or performance disruptions. Rather than do the problem 2+2 three straight times, I would ask three different questions, maybe x+2=4, 4-2 and 2+3. In a sense, by solving different problems, you learn how to solve the problems; when solving 2+2 over and over again, you simply retrieve an answer from the short-term memory. The belief is that by solving different problems – by struggling with the problems, thinking about potential solutions, making errors and engaging the entire information processing system – you retain the information better and can transfer this learning to different problems.

According to MaGill, the contextual interference effect occurs when the learner benefits from high contextual-interference practice (random and variable practice) rather than performing the skills in low contextual-interference practice (blocked practice).

Therefore, when Stan struggled to show the same improved performance in games as in training, the learning effect had a detrimental effect. It may not have explained all of his issues, as performance is multi-dimensional, but our misunderstanding of learning easily leads to frustration and misconception.

Imagine a parent who sees his son shoot very well with a well-known trainer, only to perform poorly on his high school team with a new coach. Does the parent blame the well-known trainer for the performance decrement or the new high school coach? If a player performs well in training sessions or practices, but not during games, does he lose confidence? Does he blame the coach’s system?

The performance improvement during block or constant practice tricks us. We believe the immediate improvement equals learning. However, it is like cramming for a test – a student can cram all night to regurgitate some answers for a test the next day and receive a good grade, but did he learn the material? If his teacher gave him a pop-quiz in a week or changed the format of the test so he had to use the memorized facts to analyze a novel problem, would he perform as well?

How do we improve the learning environment? In practice or training, we need to understand the task demands. Basketball is an open-skill sport; the environment is constantly shifting and skills are externally paced. Free throws are a closed skill; the environment never changes – it is always a 15’ shot from the center of the court with no defensive pressure – and the shot is completely self-paced (within the 10 seconds of course). The time that one has to shoot a jump shot depends on the pass, the defense, the distance to the basket, the rate of speed and other factors.

When we engage in constant or block practice, we use conditions more akin to closed skills. We underestimate the difference in task demands between the closed and open skills.

When doing a passing drill, for instance, many use closed-skill drills. Two players stand across from each other and pass back and forth. There is no time demand, no defensive pressure, no movement, no environmental changes. However, in a game, passing is an open skill: there are many moving elements and time demands.

We assume that two-line passing drills transfer to game passing. But, realistically, they are not even remotely close to the same skill. It is like saying that solving 4-2 over and over again prepares one for long division just because one element of long division is subtraction.

In a game, what causes the errors: the technique of the pass (closed skill) or the speed of the pass, the pressure of the defense, the moving target or other similar factors? If the technique leads to the mistakes – maybe an inability to throw a wrap-around bounce pass into the post – then some closed-skill practice may be necessary; however, most mistakes are due to the speed or load stress of the game environment and practice should reflect this stress.

The problem, therefore, is not personal trainers or youth coaches. The problem is the ineffective practice or training environments that lead people to overestimate learning in environments that do not transfer well to game situations. To correct this issue, trainers and coaches need to examine the skills and meet the task demands of the game skills.

By modifying the learning environment to account for the task demands of the open-skill sport, coaches and trainers can enhance learning. While this will not solve every problem, it will alleviate some of the discord that comes when training/practice and game performances do not align and the frustration that results in parents, coaches, trainers and players from this misalignment.

High contextual environment practices are messy and feature lots of mistakes, which we often equate with poor coaching, but in the right environment, this messy practice and the mistakes provide opportunities for learning. Youth coaches and trainers ultimately should be evaluated on their players’ learning, not the aesthetics of their practice session. By encouraging mistakes in practice, trainers and coaches push their players to the edge of their abilities, which elicits adaptations to higher levels of performance, and also forces mistakes, which gives the coach and player time to fix the mistake in practice rather than failing in a game when pushed to do something novel or at a faster speed.

We believe that a coach or trainer is there to eliminate errors and by eliminating errors in practice or training, he is doing his job and the player is improving. However, a coach or trainer needs to put players in positions that constantly challenge players in practice to elicit mistakes so players learn to adjust and adapt to mistakes and correct the errors before the game. If players never face these challenging situations in practice, how will they handle them during games? If they never face adversity in their development, in a non-competitive environment, how will they learn to handle adversity later in high school, college or the pros when they finally reach a competitive level beyond their current level of skill, speed or athleticism?

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

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5 Responses to “Motor learning theory, basketball skill trainers, and skill development”

  1. Kelin says:

    This is a really good read but I would like to know more from Brian as to what does a training session look like for him? Does it differ depending on the age of the player? I work a lot with elementary age players and I try to build their skill, build their confidence in the skill, and their IQ by explaining why and where a skill can be used. However I would like to get better at what I do, especially with my own son so I would love a little more clarification. Thanks

    I meant to post this under THIS article not the other one…..

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    Well, I do not do a lot of individual training anymore. I don’t believe in it. It is appropriate for some things, and some players, in small doses for specific reasons, but too many players rely on it. I much prefer practice time with a team of players to play 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4 to practice skills in the game context.

    As for what it looks like, it depends. It’s individual. It depends on the purpose (one-day clinic vs team practice).

    However, because of some interest lately, I plan to write a player’s version of The 21st Century Basketball Practice in the up-coming months, time permitting. That will cover more of an individual approach to skill development.

  3. Kelin says:

    Thanks Brian for the response…..I read ALOT of your articles and have read Crossover at minimum 5 times. Outside of being a trainer here in Indy, I am a school admin and former teacher so I am really interested in using how kids learn naturally and in school and doing the same things on the court. I have been steering parents to finding more balance in their kids game play…..and pursue more 3 on 3 type of games. Had a dad/coach tell me his 4th grader is playing 75 games this spring or summer…insane. I have started to organize my own 3 v 3 pick up games since tourneys are so hard to find here in Indy. Keep up the good work…

  4. BrianMcCormick says:

    Thanks for reading. Appreciate it.

    Good stuff. If you are on Twitter, two follows who I could recommend for learning are Richard Bailey and Mark Upton. Brilliant. Also, off the top of my head, Nick Levett (spelling may be off) works for the English FA and has some great tweets too. Honestly, if you go through the people who I follow (@brianmccormick), there are a lot of good learning-related follows.

    I am trying to arrange some meetings with people to expand and improve the Playmakers Basketball Development League concept to turn it into a more recognized brand to help people like yourself provide better alternatives to the norm and to generate more business for those people. Hopefully in the near future I will have some news.

  5. […] is because shooting in basketball is a predominantly open skill. In open skills “movements must be controlled in a strict relationship with a changing […]

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