Practice Design for Decision-Making Skills

Mark Upton from Australia posted the video above on Twitter and asked: “Skill Acquisition ‘theory into practice’ challenge: this activity is labelled as ‘decision making’. True/false? Why?”

I will be honest; I don’t know what sport these players are practicing. Based on the drill, and its description as a decision-making drill, I assume the game involves a player rotating in a circle and bumping an oblong ball to stationary, undefended targets. I don’t know what the objective of this game would be; possibly time.

If the game involves defense or moving targets, as in any invasion game, I don’t see how this drill taxes decision-making. One could make a small argument that he is training his choice reaction time, but this argument would be refuted easily if the game actually involves defenders, moving targets, and any kind of movement by the passer, as any invasion game would require faster skill performance than that demonstrated in the drill.

Through the wonders of youtube and twitter, I see many problems like this. Coaches or trainers sell a drill as practicing something that appears to be important for game performance (add dribbling drills with tennis balls, two-ball drills, etc. to this list), but the environment in which it is practiced means the transfer of the practice is nebulous at best. There is a giant disconnect between motor learning theories, and the manner in which these coaches attempt to develop skills.

The drill in the video does not appear to be a bad drill in and of itself. There is some coordination involved. It appears as though he is practicing a passing skill which I imagine is important for the sport. There is some hand-eye coordination and visual tracking practice. Therefore, I am not saying that it is a bad drill or something similar should never be practiced. Similarly, doing dribbling drills while tossing a tennis ball – or something similar – are not bad drills; they practice coordination among other things. They do not, however, practice decision making.

If you want to practice decision making, players have to make decisions. In basketball, that means figuring out who is open and passing them the ball or deciding whether to attack with the dribble or who to defend. These skills cannot be practiced in isolation without the help of video. To practice these skills, the environment must be similar to the game environment – moving defenders, moving targets, multiple options to defend.

To improve as coaches, we have to know what we are training. If the goal is to train visual tracking skills or hand-eye coordination, great. However, if the goal is to train decision-making skills, there is a problem.

Unfortunately, the problem identifies itself in a game when players make bad decisions. The coach then blames the players because the coach has been doing these neat decision-making drills he or she found on the Internet from expert coaches or trainers. If the coach spends practice time doing drills labeled as decision-making drills, and the players do not improve their game decision making, many coaches blame the players. I saw it happen all season.

Instead, what about the practice? If the learning does not transfer from practice to a game, is there learning? No. Transfer is a prerequisite to learning from a motor learning standpoint; without transfer (and retention, as one could argue that it is not the transfer from practice to game but the retention from one day to the next), there is no learning. Rather than blame the players, why not find drills which transfer better from practice to games? It’s not the players’ fault; it’s the coach’s misunderstanding of basic motor learning principles that leads to an emphasis on ineffective drills.

Is this decision-making practice? Not for an invasion game.

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

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