Skill Development

Coaching is teaching, and one measure of coaching effectiveness is the players’ learning: their ability to transfer the coach’s instructions and demonstrations into performance.

Three Stages of Skill Acquisition
According to Fitts’ Stage Theory of Motor Learning, we go through three distinct phases when learning a skill: Cognitive, Associative and Autonomous. These sequential stages illustrate the process of skill acquisition.

Cognitive Stage
The Cognitive Stage is the initial stage. In this stage, athletes:

  • Struggle to make sense of language and translate it into action.
  • Think rather than act.
  • Cannot differentiate between the feel of the correct execution and the incorrect execution.
  • Lack body awareness.
  • Need the coach to be the primary source of feedback.

During this stage, skill execution is:

  • Inconsistent
  • Awkward
  • Slow
  • Requiring great effort
  • Unnatural

After a clinic, I worked with an 8th grader who was new to the game. I demonstrated a couple basic moves. She struggled to translate the demonstrations into performance. After several repetitions, I played “teaching speed” defense (I reacted to the offensive player and applied gentle pressure based on her success and understanding). With a defender present, she thought too much.

Rather than giving her time and space to learn, her school coach grew frustrated. After a couple mistakes, he yelled at her. The skills were not very difficult, but they were new.

The coach saw the moves as easy due to his experience and could not relate to the difficulty of the learning process. The player’s mistakes were not an indictment of her ability, but a part of the learning process. The player developed a fear of failure and never maximized her talent.

The answer to skill acquisition is typically more repetitions. However, if the player is in the Cognitive Stage, he must concentrate on each repetition and receive frequent feedback to develop consistency. If he practices with a lack of concentration, his execution remains inconsistent. Quality matters more than the quantity. In a sense, there is such a thing as too much practice if the player lacks the concentration required to focus on consistent skill execution.

Associative Stage
There is no defining line between the stages. The progress is gradual and individual. As players execute more consistently, they naturally transition to the Associative Stage. In this stage, skill execution is:

  • More consistent.
  • Not yet automatic.
  • Requiring full concentration.
  • More fluid.

In this stage, players feel the difference between the incorrect and correct execution, but cannot always explain the difference. They know they made a mistake, but they are not sure of their mistake. They rely on the coach for feedback, but start to develop the ability to self-correct and make their own adjustments. The execution starts to feel more natural, and they make sense of instructions more quickly.

The questioning method is more appropriate once players reach this stage, as players start to self-correct, and the questions help players move in this direction rather than relying too heavily on the coach.

Autonomous Stage
As the player improves and skill execution becomes more consistent and requires less thinking, the player moves to the Autonomous Stage. In this Stage, skill execution:

  • Requires little to no thinking.
  • Is automatic.
  • Is consistent.
  • Is habitual.

Once the player reaches the Autonomous Stage, thinking hurts the skill execution. Thinking distracts his attention away from the external skill performance.

Practice makes permanent. If the player practiced and developed with a flawed technique, he must re-start the skill acquisition process. The only way to change a habit is to concentrate fully on making a change.

Assuming that the player developed with proper skill execution, thinking interferes with the automatic processing. When shooting, your body learned to shoot through thousands of repetitions with full concentration and feedback. Now, if you think about your shooting technique as you shoot, you interfere with the body’s execution.

You do not think about walking: you walk. When you think about it, you lose coordination for a moment as you make sure your hands and feet are properly synced and you think about your foot strike and you try to change your gait to take a longer step or a shorter step or to land on the ball of your foot not your heel. At this point, you do not think about shooting: you shoot.

Your concentration moves from the internal – monitoring the skill execution – to the external – focusing your eyes on the target and quieting your inner voice to allow your body to flow.

Teaching Skills
When teaching a new skill or drill, use the IDEA method of instruction.

  • Introduce. Put the drill or skill in game context. If introducing a new dribble move, use a defender and show the actual move in a game context. For a protect dribble, show the players how to use the move to evade a trap.
  • Demonstrate. After introducing the move, demonstrate the move without the defense. Use cues to direct their attention to the important points. For instance, point out that the ball is by your back foot when you use the protect dribble and that your eyes see the entire court.
  • Explain. Use verbal explanations to teach the proper skill execution. “Get low in a stance and pound the ball. Use the off-arm to protect the ball.”
  • Attend. As players execute the move, give feedback where necessary and appropriate. Use individual feedback where possible; however, if the whole group makes the same mistake, stop the action and re-demonstrate and re-explain to confirm that the players understand. Continue with the drill and give each player individual feedback.

Basketball Skill Breakdown
This course breaks down the basic basketball skills into three sections: Athletic Skills, Tactical Skills and Technical Skills. The skills are interdependent. While you may want to jump straight to shooting technique, without the ability to bend and squat properly (athletic skills), players will struggle with their balance and ultimately their shooting technique.

Basketball is a simple game that is made more complex because coaches feel they have so much to teach before the first game that they ignore the basics or teach several things concurrently.

When teaching something new, isolate the skill. With young players, do not teach more than one thing at a time. For instance, when working on ball handling and lay-ups, separate the skills: teach the lay-ups separately and teach basic ball handling separately.

Once the players have learned the basics, combine the skills to train them and increase the repetitions. There are a lot of skills to teach, but players do not have to know everything to play in a game.