Skill in a Box

“Complexity translates better to simplicity, but not vice versa.” – Rafe Kelley

I am a novice to podcasts, but after being interviewed for one, I started to listen to some on my long drives to various soccer fields. Today, I listened to one hosted by Justin Goodhart with Rafe Kelley, who is featured in the video above. I listen to Goodhart’s Move Smart Podcast primarily because it is the one with the loudest volume that I can hear through my iPad speakers while roaring along the empty freeways of New Mexico.

The interview is long and interesting. The general theme is the variability and adaptability of movement. At one point, Kelley discusses the difference between being about to do handstand pushups in a gym compared to his goal of doing a handstand on the top of a tree near his house. He talked about parkour athletes (his background) and criticized some because they could do a bunch of chin-ups and handstand pushups, but could not run or jump, which he found limiting, and in a sense pointless. You can survive through life without the ability to do a chin up or handstand pushup, but making it through life without being able to run and jump is limiting.

Kelley said these guys were still in a box; of course, when I heard his comment initially, and my mind wandered to the writing of this article, I heard skill in a box. Somehow, I like the idea of a skill in a box better.

As an example, when I was young, doing the spider was the cool drill that all the kids wanted to do.

I was never very good at the spider, but I rarely invested much time in practicing the drill. I was a good ball handler during games, whereas many friends who excelled at the spider drill were not very good at dribbling during games.

The spider drill may be considered a hard or difficult drill by many, but it is a simple drill. This is a distinction rarely made in coaching. Difficult means that the drill is not easy to do; one cannot just pick up a basketball and do the spider drill. It takes practice. Some people may never be able to do it. Despite this difficulty, it is not complex. Complexity involves movement and variability. There is no movement in the spider drill; just manipulation of the ball in a stationary position. There also is no variability. It is a patterned drill; variation is a mistake in terms of the drill.

Despite rarely practicing the drill, I could do it, although not well, whereas my friends could do the drill, but were not expert ball handlers in games. Some were not even allowed to dribble during games! This is an example of the opening quote by Kelley: The complexity of the game ball handling translates to performing a simple drill better than the simple drill translates to complex environments. Put another way: If you dribble capably in a game, you can probably learn almost any drill, but just because you can do a hard drill does not mean that you can dribble capably in a game.

Complexity is more related to the constraints that appear in a game. Difficulty has nothing to do with the task constraints of a game. Drills such as the spider drill are skills in a box. They take some effort to learn, but their transfer is limited beyond the specific skill.

As Goodhart added, there is an opportunity cost to learning every movement. When a player invests the time to practice, is learning the spider drill a good investment of time? Let’s say that it takes 5 hours to learn to do the spider drill competently; could those 5 hours be spent doing something that will benefit the player more?

Kelley argued that if your singular goal is to do handstand pushups, then it is worth the opportunity cost. However, if the goal is to move better, the time that it takes to master a handstand pushup might be spent better elsewhere. Similarly, if your singular goal is to learn a cool drill to show off to friends, the opportunity cost may be worth it. However, if the goal is to be a better basketball player or a better game ball handler, there may be better uses of the time than a difficult, although simple drill. Do you want to improve your game performance or your skill in a box?

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

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