The Messy Learning Process

Coaches often strive for orderly, clean, well-structured practices. However, real learning is often messy. Learning requires mistakes. Practice cannot be perfect if there is to be learning.

In Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 5, I wrote about pattern recognition. A comment mentioned an effective team’s collective pattern recognition. In Jeff Carlisle’s article on U.S. Soccer’s Bob Bradley, he captures some of these ideas:

“Literally, you can almost see the wheels spinning, the lightbulb going on,” U.S. assistant coach Jesse Marsch said. “At the beginning of the week, what looked like a bunch of guys running around, now it starts to look a little more like soccer in terms of the movements and connections and ideas. They’re starting to grasp it, and now it’s just every day reinforcing it, raising the level, making it a little bit more intense, trying to simulate what Saturday will look like…”

If U.S. Men’s National Team performers – professional players – look “like a bunch of guys running around,” what should we expect from youth players? However, if the coach immediately corrals the “running around” and over-structures the practice environment, the players do not go through the process of grasping, reinforcing, raising the intensity and simulating a game environment.

Without the time to go through this learning process, players will not learn these important skills:

“The sessions are very high-paced, and [Bradley] has been sending home messages — movement off the ball, once you give it, you keep moving to find new angles,” Gonzalez said. “And he relates a lot back to Barcelona, just watching them play, how their midfield is always moving around and they always find ways out of pressure. I think that’s been one of the main things.”

In soccer, everyone wants to play like Barca because of their success and crowd-pleasing style of play. In basketball, many coaches prefer to play a more open, less structured, player-friendly style. However, playing this style does not happen overnight. Teams and players must practice in this style, which means allowing players to make and learn from mistakes in practice and using more scrimmage time as opposed to strictly drills. To develop this style of play, players need to practice in this way with the coach’s feedback to improve various skill executions to improve performance.

Below is video from a recent clinic with an example of a messy drill (Dribble Tag) replacing a clean drill (straight-line drills):

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

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