On-air drills and negative transfer

I recorded the above video about negative transfer as a reaction to a Twitter dialogue based on the video below. After he said that he will use “anything and everything in the gym” to make the drill game-like, except defenders, and said that he wished that his garbage can had wheels, I had to respond.

The belief in these drills, and others like them, is powerful and persistent. However, how does creating an obstacle course on the court make a drill game-like? How many players play against stationary garbage cans or throw passes through hurdles? Why can’t trainers/coaches use defenders, even guided defenders, to create some game-like conditions?

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

18 thoughts on “On-air drills and negative transfer

  • It’s an example of confirmation bias. If I believe this makes people better, and I can see them make fewer mistakes, then they must be getting better.

    People think that practicing in isolation rather than holistically works so when they see someone throw a more accurate pass vs a chair and garbage can they believe they are getting better and discount arguments to the contrary. An example in a different setting is Kumon, an “education” company that proudly advertises its ‘colorful and fun worksheets’ on it’s website. Getting better at worksheets is not proof of learning that will transfer to being a better problem solver and analytic thinker just as playing vs air or inanimate objects isn’t going to transfer to a game. In those situations the student/player is going to have to adapt and think on their feet to an ever changing environment and not just solve a problem with one pre-planned solution.

    When things look nice and neat and players appear to be getting better, then any slippage becomes someone else’s fault. Well meaning people often fall for this because it confirms their belief that this trainer, tutor or system works and makes their belief even stronger. It is why when you question it or propose an option that isn’t as easily packaged into a neat product that you get so much push back.

  • Mike:
    That’s why I stopped individual training. People thought I was a genius, and when practice performance did not transfer to game performance, parents and players blamed the coach and his or her use of the player. I was a genius, and the player was practicing a lot and showing improvement against trash cans, so it had to be something else: The coach. I did not like that environment.

    In addition to confirmation bias, it is simply a misunderstanding of learning and what learning entails. The belief that retention and transfer are automatic.

  • I agree with you on people often misunderstanding learning and what learning entails. Part of this is that it is rarely, if ever taught in school. When it is it taught it is often buried under a blizzard of nonsense and bs. A book that I would recommend for anyone interested in learning is ‘Make it Stick’ by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. It is more cognitive based than motor skill but their main philosophy accentuates your point. (They use the term Massed Practice rather than Blocked Practice)

    1. Learning is deeper and more durable when it is EFFORTFUL. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today, gone tomorrow.

    2. We are POOR JUDGES of when we are learning well and when we are not. When the going is harder and slower and doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that fell more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.

    3. MASS PRACTICE of a skill or new knowledge is by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the LEAST PRODUCTIVE. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you are trying to burn into memory the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom.

    4. Trying to solve a problem BEFORE BEING TAUGHT THE SOLUTION leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

    5. The popular notion that you learn better with your PREFERRED LEARNING STYLE, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is NOT SUPPORTED BY THE EMPIRICAL RESEARCH.

    6. When you are adept at extracting the UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES OR “RULES” that differentiate types of problems, you’re more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations. This skill is better acquired through INTERLEAVED AND VARIED PRACTICE than massed practice.

  • Mike:
    That is one of the consistently most recommended books that I see, and I got nothing out of it. I felt like there was nothing in the book that I hadn’t seen in the Twitter timelines of people like Annie Murphy Paul, Mike McKay, Vern Gambetta, Stuart Armstrong, Richard Bailey, and the other 90 people who I follow. Tons of people who I resect have recommended the book, but I just felt like it reviewed the research that everyone has been talking and writing about for the last 5 years without contributing anything new of different.

    Of course, if you look at the 6 things that you mention, “good coaching” would do the opposite of all six. Number four might be the most contentious, as even people who agree with most everything else that I write (value of varied practice, contextual interference effect, need for defense to be game-like, etc) still believe that players need to be taught basic techniques first before playing. Essentially, people believe that players need the solution (this is how you shoot a layup) before being placed in an environment where shooting a layup is required.

    I would say that #2 pertains to the discussion above and in the article. We are poor judges of learning. Schmidt wrote the same thing in one of his motor learning papers. Again, this has to do with transfer and adaptability versus memorization.

  • I saw that Twitter conversation yesterday with Coach Z, and it was interesting to me because Coach Z and I had a discussion about a year ago about shooting layups. Essentially, he talked about how he believes in spending a lot of times drilling layups and finishes, while I prefer to use small-sided games. We had a pretty good conversation about the merits of both approaches.

    The reason that convo came to mind was because earlier yesterday I had a practice with my 3rd grade team and we used a 1v1 with 1 chaser drill in which the 1 offensive player is at the elbow and has to go the length of the court to try to finish against a defender waiting for him in the paint. There’s also a defender at the baseline chasing him from behind. The players had to adjust and finish based on how the defenders played them. Myself and another coach in the practice were amazed when one of our smallest players twisted his body to the right, with the defender on the left side and shot a twisting right hand reverse layup on the left side and almost made it. The next time down, he tried it again and made it. Excited by the finish, another kid decided to try it and also made it. Both of the kids who made it are only in the 2nd grade!

    It’s amazing what the kids can accomplish when faced with actual defenders and are given a task to perform on the court. Whereas the technical approach posits that kids must first master A, then B, then C, a games-based approach allows kids to try any letter of the alphabet at any given time. The only thing that remains constant is that there is always oppositional pressure and everything moves at game speed. Within that environment, kids find they have a large swath of solutions to any given problem on the court and that is more engaging, fun, and leads to more learning than playing against a trash can (even if it does have wheels)

  • Brian, I’ve been finding that problem with a lot of books lately. Could it be that the internet and twitter especially are now at a place where it’s become really hard to write a well-researched book that can be both informative and fresh?

  • Paul:
    That’s awesome. Reminds me of a story that a reader wrote to me after he played with a young team and a girl dribbled behind her back even though he wasn’t sure that she would have been able to do it by herself in a gym. I think it shows that players can do more than we think when given the opportunity and put in those positions. I wrote about this to an extent about Steph Curry; in a different environment, would Curry be Curry? The environment and the opportunities that it affords help to shape his success, just as the defense afforded the opportunity for your player to make the twisting layup that he never would have attempted in a more typical drill. And, if you asked most coaches, they’d say that shot was beyond the level of that player!

  • Paul:
    I do think Twitter and the Internet allow information to be shared and found so rapidly that it becomes more difficult to write something original. Twitter, especially, has broken down the door to original research, so we no longer have to wait for someone like Gladwell or Coyle or Pink to write a book on his interpretations of research; the research is fairly easy to access if you have the ability to read and understand an academic paper. I mean, someone like Gladwell is a journalist. That’s what journalists do. They report on findings, stories, research, etc. But, now you can speak directly with the researchers through Twitter or there are so many blogs and sites with interviews with practitioners and coaches. Or, there are TED talks…So, I do think that it is much harder to publish a non-fiction book that is really new and original. Even with my books, I’ll often tell people that all of the information, more or less, is available on the Internet somewhere. The books simply put all of the related ideas in one place and makes finding the desired information easier. You’re buying the ease of accessing information as much as the content.

  • Paul – i think you may have gotten the wrong impression of how i teach. The only dummy drills I do are for layup coordination (or any other move where I am teaching efficient footwork). Its slower at the beginning breaking it down but once they get the basic footwork, the kids learn quicker as we get into more advanced footwork. The breakdown stuff with no defense usually lasts about 10 minutes and then the kids play a ton of different 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 games for about 80 minutes at a typical workout. Here is an example of a layup progression I use with beginner kids -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQi1IsQajJY. Im in the process of compiling video of all the 1v1, 1v2, 2v2, 3v3 games Ive used over the last 25 years to teach handling pressure, scoring off the pass and dribble, etc. I hope to share that soon.

  • Thought you guys would like this clip from Phil Martelli talking about useless drills that most coaches do all the time -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_97udV-p5qI

  • Coach Z:
    It’s funny because the 3v2 drill was probably the first one that I called a Fake Fundamental out loud. I watched an u14 girls practice close to 15 years ago, and every single repetition was exactly the same, just as Martelli demonstrated it, and any repetition that differed was stopped by the coach to fix the mistake. Personally, I think a 2-point jump shot is a terrible result for the offense on a 3v2 break, but that’s what is taught and drilled. It amazed me.

  • The video you referenced about Martelli is one of his worst videos. His previous videos were pretty good. His 1v1 games video has lots of good stuff for players and coaches. He talks a lot about the impracticality of most drills used by coaches. So when his newest video came out, it really bummed me out. I personally think college coaches and their assistants are maybe the worst in the coaching world in terms of skill development. Part of it is the NCAA rules prohibiting off season development, but mostly I think its from a lack of knowledge. If all you have done is coach kids in the 18-21 range, I don’t think you have a good idea of how to build skill. Coaching kids from age 5-14 teaches you a ton about how to develop skill. How to break things down and have the proper progressions is an invaluable skill thats developed with young players.

    BTW, I once watched an NBA team run 3v2, 2v1 for 15-20 minutes with the head coach (an nba legend) walking his guys through how to defend it.

  • That’s a great Martelli clip, agree with everything you said though. 3v2/2v1 has some utility in that it teaches zone principles, defensively how to scramble, offensively how to attack gaps and create drive and dish opportunities. It is not a fast break drill, in my opinion. It’s a small-sided zone offense and defense drill with a 2v1 on the backside.

  • Coach Z:
    I agree about college coaches; the ones who I have watched recently really have no idea. Beyond time limits and limited exposure to different ages, college coaches are hired primarily for recruiting connections and abilities. Problems occur when youth and high school coaches learn from college coaches and copy what they do with children because they are the high-paid experts!

  • Paul:
    Problem is that when the coach wants scripted offense/defense, it doesn’t teach that. Again, it probably has more to do with the coaching of the drill than the specific drill, but that’s how I see it taught and instructed at least 90% of the time. I also believe, as he kind of mocks, that first person taking the ball and second player taking the first pass, as is taught everywhere, is the wrong defensive instruction, but that’s just me and my strategy.

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