The Myth of Personal Trainers

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2015.

The play of 2014 in basketball occurred in a WNBA playoff game. The ball was passed ahead to Lindsay Whalen, the point guard for the Minnesota Lynx, on the left wing. As the defense recovered and matched up, Maya Moore sprinted down the right sideline to the basket. Whalen threw an underhanded scoop pass over a defender to Moore who caught the ball and finished a layup in one motion. While there were more athletic feats and more important shots, the sheer creativity and audacity to attempt the pass, and the skill to complete the pass, made the play stand out amongst so many others.

Whalen’s pass was not a pass that players practice, and few players would attempt such a pass. Instead, Whalen reacted to the task constraints: Her location, the defenders’ locations, Moore’s speed, and the distance to the basket. After accounting for these constraints, the underhanded lob pass was the only option to get the ball to Moore for a layup. These constraints determined the pass execution, and to her credit, she had the confidence to attempt the pass, whereas most players would have dribbled out and set up the offense.

In motor learning, skills are classified as open or closed. Open skills are externally-paced; the environment is variable and unpredictable. The timing of Whalen’s pass was dictated by Moore’s speed and the defensive pressure. She did not plan the pass ahead of time, and likely had never practiced such a pass in a similar situation. The ever-changing environment created a situation where the underhanded lob pass was required. Closed skills are self-paced; the environment is predictable and behaviors are planned. A closed skill in basketball is a free throw, as the distance to the basket is uniform on every attempt, and the shooter is able to take her time and shoot when ready.

Invasion games such as basketball, soccer, and lacrosse are open-skill sports, whereas gymnastics, golf, and track & field are closed-skill sports. Within invasion games, there are closed skills, such as a free throw or a penalty kick in soccer, but the sports are classified as open-skill sports because most of the game is variable, unpredictable, and externally-paced. Skill performance depends upon environmental, individual, and task constraints.

In youth sports, coaches often treat open skills as closed skills and ignore the task constraints. Rather than finding an open teammate and passing to that teammate under duress from an opponent, players stand across from each other and make uncontested, unstressed passes. These isolated drills focus on the technique of the pass: Thumbs down on a chest pass in basketball or the proper part of the foot to use when passing the ball in soccer. When coaches discuss skill development or fundamentals, they often refer to the closed-skill version of these skills. They emphasize the technique of the proper pass or shot, but ignore the interactions between the individual’s skill, defenders, teammates, location, ball, basket or goal, and more.

Because the discussion of skill development centers around the physical component of the skill, the decision-making component, or the perception, is ignored. Skill performance in a game depends upon the perception-action coupling: Part of completing a pass is deciding when and where to pass and what pass to use. When soccer players start in two lines and kick the ball back and forth to each other, there is no perception. When they play in a game, how are they supposed to pick out the right pass in terms of direction, velocity, touch, angle, and more?

When the discussion of fundamentals focuses solely on the action, coaches contrast practice or skill development with games. These are viewed as two separate things rather than one being an extension of the other. Detroit Pistons Head Coach Stan Van Gundy said, “We are much more interested in playing games….than we are with skill development.” This dichotomy illustrates a misunderstanding of learning, practice, and skill development, as the skill is understood to be the action with no respect for the constraints of a game. Somehow, we believe that more practice of the action will lead to better performance of the skill in the game when the perception-action coupling is required. Because decision-making and game sense are more difficult to define and teach because the process occurs unseen in the brain, we largely ignore the perception and focus on the visible, the physical action.

The emphasis on the physical has created an environment in youth sports where every player works with an individual skill trainer or private coach. We have created a perception, furthered by luminaries such as Van Gundy and more recently Kobe Bryant, that coaches, team practices, and games do not develop skills. In his promotional book, Reaching Another Level, Jordan Fliegel wrote, “Receiving private coaching is the single best way to improve performance. Full stop.”

The problem with private coaching and individual training is that the skill loses its context. Private coaches treat open skills as closed skills. There is no perception. Players do not learn the vital aspect of the skill. During the 2014 World Cup, soccer coaches repeatedly tweeted a video of Costa Rica’s goalie Keylor Navas saving tennis balls hit at him with a tennis racquet. It was suggested that this practice was a reason that he stopped a penalty kick in Costa Rica’s penalty-kick shootout victory over Greece, although nobody tweeted about the video when Costa Rica lost in a penalty-kick shootout to the Netherlands, with Navas stopping only one PK in eight attempts between the two games.

The practice looked hard and creative. People watch a goalie saving tennis balls and imagine that that practice must make saving a soccer ball easier. However, they are two different skills. There is almost no transfer between the two. Saving a tennis ball works only on the physical aspect of saving a shot, as the constraints and informational cues of a tennis ball hitting a racquet, and kicking a soccer ball are entirely different. Successful goalkeepers read the stance leg that provides cues before the ball is kicked. These cues were not present in the tennis ball drill, so it was impossible for that practice to enhance Navas’ learning of those cues.

People love to see drills such as Navas with the tennis ball, and private coaches continually create new and innovative drills to attract clients. Private coaches sell parents on the importance of their drills, and the drills look as though they practice important things, such as saving a tennis ball, when the reality is that the drills have only a small association with the game because they concentrate solely on the physical. In the recently-published The QB by Bruce Feldman, former UCLA quarterback and head coach Rick Neuheisel said that parents who hire quarterback gurus, or private coaches, are wasting money. “If you have any sales ability at all, you can make them believe they have to know what you know,” Neuheisel said.

Whalen demonstrates creativity and skill under time stress and the pressure of a playoff game. She did not learn that pass with a private coach in a gym by herself. Her ability to read the defense and anticipate her teammate, skills learned by playing against defenders and with her teammates, enabled her to make the play of the year. It was the coupling of the perception (seeing Moore, anticipating her speed, anticipating the reaction of the defender, seeing the space to drop the pass over the defender’s head) with the action (the execution of the underhanded pass) that created such a memorable play. Private coaches and individual training focus only on one aspect: The physical. Treating open skills as closed skills will not develop this ability. Skill development requires both the perception and the action, which means teammates and defenders. Games are not the opposite of skill development as Van Gundy implied; games are an extension of and an important place for skill development.

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

10 thoughts on “The Myth of Personal Trainers

  • While I agree that games are not the opposite of skill development, it does seem to be a bit of a presumption that private coaches and individual skills training treats open skills as closed skills. Any coach or trainer worth his salt recognizes that athletes should be playing games. They should be playing pickup ball, and there needs to be competition in practice. Many coaches organize open gym at their schools and encourage players to play in pickup games throughout the season. When coaches or trainers use drills are used to train technique, this does not mean that they believe this type of practice is in and of itself sufficient for developing a player’s game. They will tell their players that they need to play and try to use the trained techniques in play.

  • ^meant to say the offseason. To build on this, this does not mean that the technical training does not provide benefits. Are we really to believe that Whalen hasn’t done drills using the underhanded scoop pass, and that this technical skill did not aid her ability to perceive and act on the game situation that presented itself? In reading John Keseel’s recent blog post, I couldn’t help but wonder, are we really to believe that hours and hours doing dribbling drills doesn’t give her dexterity and ball control that, in combination with her spending hours and hours playing games, is applied every time she makes a play with her brain?

    If the central argument here is that many coaches often wrongfully ignore games as a central tenet of skill development, I think it should be argued that it might be just as big of a mistake to ignore drill work as a central tenant of skill development as well. Is it wrong to say that the two go hand in hand? Or is closed skill training so useless that significant amount of time spent on it is time wasted?

  • A presumption? Maybe, although I have known a number of private coaches over the years, as well as myself, and most private training, especially individual sessions, treat the game as a closed skill. Almost every video posted of training with private trainers demonstrates closed skills.

    As I have written before, somewhere, the greatest value of the “name” trainers is the pickup games after the workouts. A “name” trainer, whether a local trainer who gathers many of the top high school players, or a national trainer who gathers many NBA players, provides a service in terms of the competitive pickup games after workouts. I encouraged several of my private clients to work out with another skill trainer because the pickup games included NBA and NCAA D1 guys, which was good for the skilled high-school players. Therefore, the value is not the private training, but the pickup games.

    Also, as I travel, this idea espoused by Van Gundy is espoused by many others. There is a belief that players play too many games and do not engage in enough “fundamental” practice. I don’t know what “fundamental practice” is in every situation, but I have seen and spoken to enough coaches that I felt compelled to wrote “Fake Fundamentals” because of the way that many view fundamentals. To me, stationary dribbling or three-person weaves do not practice fundamental skills.

    As an example, I reacted to an article that someone posted about a lacrosse drill. The original writer responded that before one can play a game, one has to master all of the fundamentals. I disagree. I played for years before I had a coach or instruction. I learned most of my skills implicitly by playing pickup games and practicing on my own. I feel that it is sad that generations who were raised playing games and developing through unstructured play now treat children as though they cannot learn without a coach’s instruction.

    As for Whalen, how many coaches do you know that practice underhand scoop practice? I have seen coaches challenge each other on underhand scoop shots from half-court, but I have never seen it incorporate into a practice drill of any kind.

    I thought of this last night. I watched some NBA workouts last spring. The coach was trying to get an NBA PG to do some move. The player tried over and over in block practice form, and he never got it. He made a mistake every time. When they scrimmaged, he actually made the move.

    Here is the question that divides motor learning/coaching: Was his ability to perform the move in the game because of the unsuccessful repetitions in block practice or because he solved a movement problem? I would argue that he solved a movement problem, and the previous practice had little to nothing to do with it (especially because he never got it correct in the practice). When the coach pointed out to him that he did it, he said, “I don’t know what I did. I just finished.”

    I think the goal in practice is to create these movement problems for players to solve. By doing so, they expand and develop their skills.

    Explained another way…When I was young, I never did very many ball-handling drills, but I was a good ball-handler in games because I was always dribbling. I had a ball in my hands all of the time. When I started to coach during college, I coached in a program that did a number of ball-handling drills. Many, I had never done. I had a player who could already do everything that we did at practice. She was amazing. I had to learn some new drills to challenge her. Despite not having done these drills before, I could learn a new drill rather quickly. Is the same true when we go the other way? Does learning a new drill to an adequate performance level immediately transfer to improved game ball-handling? I think it enhanced confidence, but that can be positive and negative (try to do too much). It is hard to say because it is hard to measure one’s ball-handling in the same way that we measure shooting percentages. However, I would say that it is easier to go from complex to simple (game to drill) than from simple to complex (drill to game). If that is true, and I believe that it is, why spend a lot of time on the simple (drills)?

    As for dexterity, what is learning? Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience or practice. If I can do a stationary two-ball rhythmic pound drill, what do I learn by doing this drill today and tomorrow? Is there a change in my behavior? What is the change? Well, I can become more accurate or I can become faster. How many dribbles in a row do I need to be able to complete before any further improvement constitutes no real or important change? How fast do I need to be able to go?

    Now, when I practice this drill to become faster and more accurate, am I becoming faster and more accurate at the drill or at dribbling in general (principle of specificity)? How much transfer is there to the game or to other drills or tasks?

    I don’t know. But, I do know that the first time that I did this drill, after years of playing games and practicing on my own, I picked up the drill in a matter of seconds. It is not that hard.

    In fact, as I wrote last week, the most valuable part of most of these drills, in my opinion, is the creativity to come up with the new drills and new ways to handle the ball. That’s one reason that very few children who grew up when the And1 MixTapes were popular were able to handle as deftly. Whereas the originals made up many of the moves, the next generation of players copied the moves and had private coaches to teach them the moves. They lacked the spontaneity and the creativity. They could do the same basic hand movements, but they missed an important part of the learning.

    As for games vs. drills/practice, I ended by writing “games are an extension of and an important place for skill development” rather than games should replace all drills. Drills have a role, but I feel we need to examine the drills and use drills for specific purposes – to improve learning – rather than as activities to keep players busy.

  • Agreed wholeheartedly on that last point. My goal wasn’t so much to argue with the main point you made, but to also highlight another part of the equation. I don’t necessarily know that that skill development is about going from simple to complex or complex to simple. Rather, it seems to me that it might be a constant fluctuation between the simple and complex.

    I think the scoop pass should be practiced, because it’s something that is often the best solution to situations that occur frequently in games. Many coaches emphasize the fundamental chest/bounce pass, or jump stop and pivot. In this clinic from Allison McNeill, she talks about the hook pass, which is another pass that should be practiced:

    If you drive, jump stop, and pivot, that allows the help defense to recover. Making the hook pass is faster and leads to an open shot. Same with the scoop pass. Whereas picking the ball up with two hands and passing might be “safer”, the scoop pass allows the player to make the pass quickly, which is more likely to lead to an open shot. Here is a video of Stephen Curry working on his ballhandling and incorporating the scoop pass:

    I had this talk with a group of 6th graders last night. I told them you need to work on the technique because that is an important part of a skill. But I also told them they need to apply the same work ethic, focus, and time to game situations, because technique is only one part of a skill. There’s also decision-making, and other aspects as well. In this practice, 2/3 of it was spent on “fundamental” drills and 1/3 on games. In another practice, 2/3 might be games and 1/3 might be drills. The percentages might change any which way depending on different factors. This is the art of coaching.

    When I say that it’s a presumption that coaches treat open skills as closed skills, I didn’t word that too well and my point wasn’t made very clearly. What I mean to say is that many coaches recognize that they are only training the closed part of the skill. They recognize that in and of itself, it’s not sufficient. They are under no illusion that they are training the whole skill. But, it’s an important part of the equation. They will let their players know, though, that it is important but that play is important too.

    I am, of course, talking about the best coaches and not the run-of-the-mill who simply run their players through 3-man weave, layups, stationary dribbling, some shooting drills, 5v0, scrimmage, and then suicides at the end of practice. While players can still improve in those type of practices, learning is not being optimized at all.

  • Paul:
    All good. I enjoy the discussion.

    With the example of the hook pass, a pass that I encourage, and a shot like the floater, I have found that players have more success against defense than in isolation, especially during the learning or developmental stages. I see a lot of players who struggle with the floater without defense. Once they practice and learn it with defense, they can apply it without defense and continue to practice the shot (Complex to simple), but it’s hard to get a feel for the shot – and I believe it is very much a “feel” shot – without the task constraints. I know personally that I am terrible at demonstrating a floater, but then I get in a game and I can drop a shot over almost anyone, and it’s been that way since I was 11. Of course, maybe that’s because I learned a floater by playing against bigger and older kids rather than doing floater drills, which I never once did as a player.

    As for Curry, I have seen that video tweeted and linked dozens of times. Many attribute his great ball handling to these drills. I don’t. I think those drills are easy for him because of his great dribbling skills, which, according to the ESPN The Magazine Point Guard Issue, he developed by dribbling through rocks and tire tracks (random, variable) at his grandfather’s house. Honestly, I don’t think anything that he does is that difficult, and I’ve seen 10 year olds who can do those drills.

    That’s part of the point of the original article: I think we misattribute people’s success.

    As for open and closed, I disagree. Based on my experiences, based on the emails that I receive, based on the coaches who I have watched over the last 20 years, I don’t agree that coaches know the difference. Of course some do. I know plenty of coaches, coaches who I like, who believe or at least suggest aloud that the problem with skill development is a lack of closed-skill drills. They don’t use those terms, but that is what they are arguing. They believe that Curry doing that drill before the game is the reason that he can split a pick-and-roll.

    Every year, I criticize some media member or trainer who writes that some combo guard is working on his point guard skills by dribbling through cones or doing stationary two-ball drills. That has virtually nothing to do with PG skills (confidence with the ball will improve vision because less attention is paid to the ball, leaving more attention for the external environment, but that’s the extent of it). PG skills, to me, are far more than dribbling skills. Dribbling through cones does not develop these other skills, the perception-action coupling, the reading of visual cues, the timing, etc. There’s a reason why guys on the And1 MixTape Tour can handle the ball as well as anyone in the NBA, but they can’t play PG in the NBA. Dribbling and PG play are not the same thing, just as closed-skill practice does not necessarily improve open-skill performance.

    Even free throw shooting, a closed skill, is improved by variable practice compared to constant, block practice.

    I’m not saying never to do a drill. However, I do believe that people have bought into the repetition argument too much. I’ve even argued about Coyle’s futile example in The Talent Code. He attributes the Brazilians success in soccer to playing futile; more specifically, he suggests that these players get more repetitions in futile than soccer players. It’s more than that. Those repetitions are variable and random. They practice in an open-skill environment, whereas many U.S. kids are still kicking the ball back and forth to a partner. It’s not just repetitions; it’s the kind of repetitions. They can think the game faster because they develop from a young age in chaotic, ever-changing environments, and their skill development occurs primarily in these environments.

    To me, I show drills like the Curry video to give players something to practice on their own when there are no other players or coaches around. When it is hard to have random and variable practice. It creates a challenge and mastering the drills can develop confidence and self-esteem. That’s the purpose to me. But, I don’t want to spend a lot of time at practice practicing these drills for two reasons: (1) I want to use practice time to ensure that they are working in an open skill environment on things that involve the perception-action coupling and decision-making; and (2) If they can do the drill already, what are they learning? What relatively permanent change in behavior is derived from doing one of these drills?

  • Good stuff. Can’t really respond because I’m on my phone and coaching aau games all day, but I really appreciate the well thought out feedback.

  • I firmly believe in a combination of both. work the skill and put it into a small-sided game situations. As a basketball player development coach I prefer to work players out in small groups so that we can have 1 on 1, 2 on 2 and 3 on 3 situations as I believe this helps a player develop feel for the game. Also, guys need to play full court with others that will play hard as well.With that being said, I do think skill and instinct/IQ are two different things and the best players have both. If you look at the most SKILLED players in history, without a doubt they report working on their games by themselves for hours: Larry Bird, Kobe, Durant, Jordan, Magic, Steph Curry, Dirk

  • There is a difference between working out by oneself, and using a personal trainer. In another article, I wrote about the difference between drills developed by a trainer for himself as a player, and those drills used by him as a trainer for other players. To me, they are not the same thing, even though they are ostensibly the same drill.

    Also, people are not very good at attributing their own success. Plenty of people who succeeded at basketball also ran miles and miles around a track as basketball conditioning. Does that mean that everyone should?

    The point is not that players should not practice on their own or train or whatever. The points are (1) defense changes the skill execution; (2) skills require perception and action, not just the action; and (3) games and practices should not be viewed as opposites.

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