A critique of coaches and the misunderstanding of learning

Last week, a friend attended a college basketball practice. As he watched, and grew frustrated by what he witnessed, he sent me a series of texts. The texts began:

The poor skill level in WBB is sickening.

I should mention that he watched the practice of a program with many highly-rated players that likely will be a top-25 team this season. To provide some context, my friend played and coached college basketball and has trained at least two All-Americans. I value his insight.

I agree about the skill level in women’s basketball (and men’s to a lesser degree). Most people involved with women’s basketball turn a blind eye to the regression of skills in the game because the elite of the elite – Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Brittany Griner, Diana Taurasi – are as skilled and far more athletic than players of previous generations. The elite 10-15 players is not the problem; the problem is the mean – the average college player or team or high school team. The problem is general participation, as I have been told that high schools with great traditions and/or 4000 students enrolled do not field junior varsity teams anymore. Many if not all of the great AAU programs in southern California from 10-15 years ago (BTR, Monterey Park Heat, Hoop Masters, SGV, ARC Sharks, etc.), and their great coaches, are no longer there. It seems that everyone wants to concentrate on the 14-18 year olds, but few want to coach the 8-12 year-olds (I no longer live there, so this is based on conversations with several coaches and former program directors from the area).

Moving on to the practice…

Can’t execute a basic high-low.

As a coach who likes to use posts and who values the high-low entry, this is discouraging to me. I also have an affinity for at least one of the post players in question and believe she is a future WNBA player, so hearing of this inability is disappointing.

It’s basic stuff. Simple.

Of course, if players are not taught the basics, are they simple? If players do not learn the basics at a young age, are the basics really basic? Imagine learning a foreign language. If you are immersed in the language as a young child, it is easy to learn; if you start in school as a young child, the basics are fairly basic; if you try to pick up a language for the first time as an adult, even the basics can overwhelm. This is the importance of good coaches with youth players. All the skills that go into a high-low – pivots, sealing, overhead pass, etc. – should be learned and mastered far before a player enters college. However, in our rush to stardom, do we teach the basics? When a high-school has 10 practices from the start of tryouts until the first game, are the basics emphasized? When players hop, skip, and jump from team to team as youth players looking to find better coaching, more games, more exposure, trips to nationals, or whatever, are the basics emphasized? If not then, when?

It’s really hard to watch. They applaud each other when they complete 5 on 0’s correctly.

I am not a fan of the 5 on 0 practice, but that criticism is equally valid of men’s basketball as it is of women’s. I have watched a couple men’s college basketball practices this fall, and they use 5v0 practice for nearly half of the practice time.

I don’t understand the purpose, and I think it reflects an entirely different philosophy of coaching and learning than mine. To me, when a coach runs 5v0 plays over and over, stopping the action for mistakes and starting at the beginning, it reflects a desire for control. The coach believes that perfection is possible. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable. The belief, I suppose, is that if the team is perfect 5v0, it will be prepared for defense and game situations.

My philosophy is different. I don’t believe in perfect. I believe that games represent chaos. Rather than attempt to control chaos, like a coach who runs a lot of sets and stops practice for each and every mistake, I prefer to give players an opportunity to learn to play in chaos. When a player makes a mistake, rather than stopping the action to correct the mistake for the player, I want to see how the team responds. How does the team adapt to a mistake? Therefore, I want to create situations where mistakes occur rather than creating situations aimed at perfection. I don’t care how many times players run a play perfectly against no defense, once there are defenders, the play changes. To me, that means that the 5v0 practice has almost no carryover to the 5v5 situation because it is an entirely new skill. In 5v0, there are no defenders to read; it is essentially following directions. The ability to follow directions is not the same as the ability to think creatively and abstractly and solve problems in a time-stressed environment. Therefore, why waste valuable practice time doing something that does not develop skills or prepare players for game situations?

I see coaches over-focusing on scouting too.

This is the Peak by Friday mentality. As a coach who has to win (i.e. college coach) and who recruits underdeveloped players who lack some basic skills, the common approach is to ignore the underdeveloped skills and attempt to win through schemes. Teaching a college player a new shooting technique or how to read the defense or some other skill is believed to be more difficult than creating a gimmick defense to take a better team out of its rhythm. Possibly more important, the media and fans notice the scheming; the media and fans do not notice the practice time devoted to improving footwork. Therefore, the great coaches are those with the great schemes. I’ll never forget the publicity that Rick Majerus received for going Triangle and 2 against Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. Plenty of websites are devoted to Vance Walberg’s dribble-drive-motion offense, but the fancy vocabulary and terminology is not what made Walberg a championship coach. However, that is how he became semi-famous and is probably why he is in the NBA now. We notice the schemes and the complexity, but we miss the basics that underlie these schemes. Majerus and Walberg are two of the best fundamental teachers that I have met. I watched Walberg’s teams practice and play and thought some of the DDM stuff was neat, and I took a couple notes, but I was impressed with his dedication to details. I still remember watching him teach his players how to line up for a free throw and how to line up for a jump ball – not because he was putting in a fancy jump ball play, but because there was a right way to do things, and he emphasized the details, like the famous story of John Wooden and the socks. Majerus might know more about teaching basketball than anyone on this planet, and it has nothing to do with Triangle and 2s. His attention to detail on screens, block outs, etc. is virtually unparalleled. Sure, Walberg and Majerus scouted. When I coached professionally, I game-planned for every opponent. However, Majerus and Walberg taught the basics first; I spent 75% of my time on basic fundamentals like passing, shooting, and pivoting, and less than 25% on scouting and preparing specifically for opponents (We ran seven plays the entire season, and we played man defense about 90% of the time; we made the play-offs, with a team that the National Team coach said had no talent).

Scouting has its place, especially at the competitive level like college. However, focusing on scouting before players have mastered basic skills is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Unfortunately, in many ways, the college coaches feel compelled to coach in this way because the high school coaches approach the game in the same manner, meaning high school players are focused on competition and winning the next game by any means necessary rather than mastering the basics before focusing on winning.

Continuing on:

Way too much talking by coaches. They literally stop after EVERY play to speak their mind.

Many coaches do this. At the college level, assistants try to prove their worth by having a lot to say. Players stop listening. Their eyes wander. They tune out the coaches. The coach wonders why the players aren’t paying attention: It’s because you talk too much!

When I coached in Ireland, I watched a youth coach take nearly 10 minutes to describe a drill that lasted for about five minutes. At that point, I made a personal rule: The description of the drill cannot last longer than its execution. Why do I do simple things? Because I want players to focus on the skill – shooting – not the drill – running here, there and everywhere. Why do I only do a few drills? Because I want players to remember the drills and start immediately rather than explaining drills every single practice. I want my explanations to be about skill performance or correcting mistakes, not explaining new drills.

The longer that I coach, the less I talk. I know heaps more about everything than I did 10-15 years ago, but I talk less. Why? It’s not important what I know. It’s not about me. It’s about what the players can do in a game. While I am talking, they are not learning. This is the misunderstanding of learning. Learning occurs in the doing, not in the explanation. If I take one minute to explain, and give players nine minutes to practice, they are going to be better off than if I talked for five minutes and gave them five minutes to practice. Practice is a zero sum game: If I am allotted two hours, I have two hours. Parents want to pick up their children, the girls’ team is ready to take the floor, etc. Therefore, if I am talking, it is taking away time from the players performing. I save my lengthy explanations for when I want to give the players a break.

The other reason that I talk less is due to the nature of the game and my philosophy of chaos. I do not want to stop the action on every play or every mistake because the game is not like that. Basketball is not football where there is 45 seconds between plays and you can take a player out for one play and put him right back into the game. In basketball, the game continues after a mistake or play.

I used to play 1v2 a lot. I noticed that when the 1 committed a turnover, he or she dropped his or her head, and the three players shuffled to the back of the line. Is that the response to drill? No. That is why I added the 2v1 to make the drill 1v2/2v1. In a game, when you make a mistake, you adapt. If it is a turnover, you immediately play defense. Stopping at the point of the turnover in each drill or set never allows players to learn to adapt to the mistakes that inevitably will occur in the game (not to mention its impact on learning and confidence).

As a coach, what is your job? How do you see your role? Philosophically, I differ from most coaches because I do not believe in perfection; I believe in chaos. I do not think that I can control the game, so I do not attempt to control it. I surrender control to the players, and attempt to use practice time to prepare players to handle the chaos. I want players to focus on the next best decision possible, not to worry about a mistake. Since those are the behaviors that I want in a game, those are the behaviors that I emphasize during practice. There is an incongruence between expecting these behaviors in a game and stopping practice after every play.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

4 thoughts on “A critique of coaches and the misunderstanding of learning

  • Nice article.
    What are basic skills according to you? And how do you teach them?
    For example, when someone has very poor movement, how do you train it?

    I’m asking because I give training in canoepolo myself and had a discussion about TGfU with some people. Turning in a fast manner in my sport is a very unnatural movement, even just paddling is. Therefore I sometimes use exercises that take the skill out of the game context. I try to combine it with other skills or increase the level of noise of different factors while they’re working on the skill. One way of doing this is hindering someones paddle movement while they’re trying to execute the skill, just like in the game. The only thing is that it isn’t practiced in a game context till they are quite proficient in the skill. My opinion is that it’s difficult to learn in a game setting alone when your goal for example is trying to stop the attackers. The best move to stop an attacker may be so far removed from the skill level of the participant that they never try to execute a skill that’s in any way similar to the best move as they don’t see the solution. Only when they get proficient at the skill you can see them trying to perform the skill and failing often in a game setting.
    So my problem is they don’t even see the movement solution in the game until they can perform the skill outside of the game. In your opinion, should you stick to things like TGfU and wait for the behaviour to emerge spontaneously (even though it doesn’t look like it will) or practice the skill a bit more in isolation?
    The same thing goes for skills that do get practiced in games (like passing). What’s your opinion on practicing these skills a bit more isolated, so you can increase the difficulty of the skill. Another example, increasing the difficulty of making a pass by letting someone push against you. In canoepolo you need to stay up, get the ball out of the water/keep control over the ball and look where to pass. If people are having a lot of difficulty with staying up and keeping control of the ball, that much that they can’t even look around them, I use exercises that incorporates the pushing but where they just have to pass the ball to 1 person. That person may be moving though, but it makes it easier for them as they just have to see where that one person is. Difficulty can be increased by adding defenders and more team mates. What’s your opinion of such exercises for training the basics?

    I’m sorry for the long story and I’m thankful for you taking the time to read it.

  • Basic skills, to me, are pivoting, passing, shooting, finishing, dribbling, and cutting as well as using and setting a screen (which enables screens, pick-and-rolls, post splits, dribble hand-offs, etc.).

    It depends on the poor movement and the age of the player. For younger players, I generally give time to allow the movement to correct itself by creating constraints which demand the execution of the movement. For instance, to cut correctly, I play tag. For older players, if there is a problem with the movement, something must have happened to cause the poor movement. Therefore, I have to decide whether it is weakness, tightness, technique, etc.

    Essentially, a young player needs exposure to different environments that allow for natural learning.

    An older player who lacks movement quality either had this learning impeded or has a deficit that causes the poor execution, and that needs to be addressed with more remedial work, oftentimes above my pay grade – soft tissue work, as an example.

    As for something like passing, I may take it out of a true game environment and create a passing game with a version of keep away. Depending on the skill level, I can modify this game to work on different things. Is the issue with seeing the court? I give the offense an advantage so someone is always open and the play simply has to scan the court to find that open player. Is the problem passing under pressure? Then I’ll play an even numbers game in a confined area to increase the amount of pressure on passer and receiver. In this way, the skill execution is game-like, but we are working specifically on one skill.

    Of course, I also use these type games to practice skills that they do not know they are practicing. An offensive advantage transition drill is the beginning progression to teaching playing a zone because you must play a zone when you do not have even numbers. There is some implicit learning on-going even though the focus is scoring in transition.

    For something like shooting, I may diagnose the issue as the technique, so we will do more isolated technique work. So, again, it depends on skill level, age, maturity, etc.

    Did I miss anything?

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