Self-discovery in youth sports development

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2015.

During my junior year of college, I assisted with a girls’ basketball team in the HoopMasters AAU program. After several months, a mother asked if I would work with her daughter on her shooting. She offered to pay me. 

This was my introduction to the world of private coaches. As a child, I had never heard of private coaches outside of tennis and golf, which made sense because they are individual sports. I knew professional teams had skill-specific coaches, such as a hitting coach in baseball or a quarterback coach in football, but I had never heard of private skill-specific coaches. The idea of using a private coach for a team sport never entered my mind until I was asked. I quickly learned that there was an industry of private coaches, and after school at almost any court in West Los Angeles, you could find players working out with their private coaches.

When I initially worked with her, I followed the path of most coaches and trainers: I did the things that I had done as a player. When I played, much of my individual practice and learning occurred in my driveway. I grew up pre-Internet, and I learned my drills at practice or at basketball camp or made up on my own. As a private coach, I started with the same drills. When she mastered these drills, I made up new drills on my own. Before our workouts, I practiced and made up new drills to challenge her. I created drills that made sense to me and overloaded her skill to force continual adaptation to the drills.

They were good drills; most of the dribbling drills are featured in my DVD Great Ball Handling Made Easy, which we produced almost a decade later. The shooting drills are featured in 180 Shooter, which I wrote more than a decade later. After working with this 10-year-old girl, I used the same drills with high-school and college players. They were solid drills.

The problem, however, is that I did the learning. I did the trial and error. I used my imagination and creativity. The player simply repeated my demonstrations.

There is some value in copying a coach or trainer; most of what I learned as a player, I learned by copying other older or better players. In Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle: And other essays on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Mark Johnson wrote, “Our teacher’s style is like an old bicycle that we borrow. We ride it around and enjoy it. We are usually too big or too small for the bike, but we still ride it because that is all we have. Eventually, we need a bike of our own – something custom. We’ll need to build our own bike.”

When she copied my moves, my style, there was some improvement. However, we were different players, beyond the age, size, and gender discrepancies. She was a forward; I was a point guard. My style may not have been the best fit for her. Rather than copying my style, she needed to develop her own style. She could not shoot exactly like me because of our individual differences: Size, strength, limb length, flexibility, mobility, endurance, and other qualities that differed between us and ultimately effect the learning and execution of a skill.

When a coach presents a demonstration, and a player attempts to copy the demonstration, the player may improve, but the demonstration provides task-relevant information to learners that can alter intention and channel their search for an appropriate movement solution (Newell & Ranganathan, 2010). Rather then exploring their own solutions, they mimic the demonstration. This “promotes efficient learning but at a cost: Children are less likely to perform irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information” (Bonawitz et al., 2010). Children who do not receive the same instructions and demonstrations are more likely to explore, and allowing people to discover for themselves what to do before being shown what to do can have later benefits for skill retention. (Hodges & Ste-Marie, 2013). As Johnson wrote, “we will borrow our Master’s bicycle, but as soon as we learn to ride, we must build a bike of our own.”

When I copied the older and better players as a child, I had to figure out through trial and error how to accomplish the task. One of my first memories in basketball is watching an NCAA Tournament game between Michigan State and Wisconsin Green Bay when Steve Smith made a game-winning three-point show for MSU. The play was designed for Smith to dribble to his left, which confused me, as he was a right-handed player. When I asked my dad that night, he said that many right-handed player preferred to shoot when moving to their left because it is easier to square to the basket. I immediately went outside and mimicked Smith’s shot for the rest of the weekend. I had only an idea – a lingering image – in my mind; I did not have a model directly in front of me. I adapted the idea into my own practice; I did not attempt to copy his shot exactly. Rather than use Smith’s shot as a demonstration, it was more of an inspiration, as were the older and better players who I watched and played against in my neighborhood.

Over the last 20 years, we have moved away from learning environments where children are inspired to learn something new through a process or trial and error, to a more adult-centered environment that depends on the expert model, demonstration, and instruction. As Mark O’Sullivan, the Sports Director for Espanyol Football in Stockholm, wrote, “Many adults believe that children can only learn in adult organized environments. What is really worrying is that children are starting to believe this.” If I had believed this as a child, I never would have spent as many hours in my front yard, and I likely never would have been as proficient with my left hand, as much of my ability and confidence was derived from my individual practice in my front yard. My practice exemplified discovery learning, which is the process by which players search for and discover relatively unique solutions to movement problems without direct instruction (Davids, 1998). Smith’s shot inspired my learning, but I searched for the solution to the movement problem without any direct instruction.

In retrospect, the mother did not need to pay me to teach her daughter to shoot. Unfortunately, she knew that her daughter was unlikely to shoot on her own. Her daughter needed additional practice to play at more competitive levels, and hiring a private coach set a time and a date for the practice. Without the appointment, the trip to the park for a child to shoot is easy to defer when schedules are busy. The appointment held the mother and daughter accountable.

When I developed my drills, I created my own style. As Johnson wrote, “So it goes with style, we may mimic our master in the beginning, but eventually we will develop something unique to use, something we’ve built. Eventually we will move and act and react in our own style.” When she copied my drills, she missed this mental practice. She did not have to figure out anything on her own.I copied and borrowed from other players, from drills at camps and practice, and from what I saw on television, but I owned my practice, and consequently my style. The mental processes of trying to figure out a move, failing, and trying something new were as important to my learning and improvement as the physical practice.

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

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