Learning – The negative effect of training and teaching methods

Why is it you or your team might shoot the lights out at training and then go ice cold in games? It’s one of the most frustating parts of the game, not getting reward for practice. There are some fundamental flaws in how we view shooting as a skill, and how we go about improving shooting performance. For the most part these problems are unrecognised and remain unchanged. This article series is going to look at how we approach, teach and practice shooting, and its effects on game performance. We’ve settled for inefficiency for too long, it’s time to wake up, and make a change.

In Part 2 we spoke about the body storing different ‘mind-maps’ for different movements, and compared the look up system somewhat crudely to that of a filing cabinet. If for every variation of a possible movement, the body had individual movement patterns stored as mind-maps (think of each as a template stored as an A4 page in the cabinet), they would all work perfectly – we would never miss a shot once we’d practiced sufficiently. But there would be so many mind-maps in storage, each with entire movement patterns stored for every slight variation of that movement, that we wouldn’t be able to find the required mind-map in time to execute it. Stick with me through an example we can all relate to and I’ll bring it back to shooting.

Learning to walk incorrectly

Walking on sand and walking on concrete look very similar, but there are small important details which separate the two. For example the extra movements side to side at the ankle during walking on sand must occur quickly enough to stabilise the foot on the uneven surface without disrupting the swing of the legs and rotation of the upper body in the walking gait. If the body tried to walk exactly the same way on sand, as it does on concrete, you would fall over. If you walked from concrete onto sand, and the body had to search for a different mind-map to suit the sand, then if it didn’t find it in time between the last step on concrete and the first on sand, you risk falling over and hurting yourself. So to solve this problem the body learns to ‘group’ related movements and learn what the fluctuating aspects are. It stores the important stable traits that are required in both (for example the hip swing in walking) and identifies the fluctuating traits (increased ankle movement when walking on sand vs  ankle stiffness on concrete). Which aspects are stored as stable or as fluctuating are learned through repetition of the overall pattern (walking) within varying contexts (sand/uphill/downhill/concrete/fast pace/slow pace/carrying shopping in one hand/with a back-pack etc). If someone was only ever to walk on concrete, they might learn incorrectly to lock the ankle position in as a stable trait. This is not a problem, until they walk on sand for the first time in which case they might stumble. The longer they have only ever walked on perfectly even concrete, the harder it will be for them to adapt to sand – since the incorrect recognition of the ankle as a stable trait is by now very ingrained.

Learning to shoot incorrectly

We teach shooting to junior basketballers by first isolating the skill from the rest of the game and simplifying it, trying to stabilise their performance. We want consistent accuracy and we assume the best way to get this is to break the shot down into textbook form. The majority of shots ‘coached’ occur stationary – catch and shoot. This is because it’s easier to teach, control – which produces greater success inside the training session (so everyone feels good, although this is useless if it has no, or perhaps negative transfer to game performance), and because it’s easier for the coach to see apparent errors in deviation from ‘perfect-book’ form. This means while players are trying to learn ‘proper shooting form’ we exclude aspects which ‘get in the way’ of successful performance in that training session. These include removing the need for; deceleration (from running left right/backwards or forwards as you would if cutting); shooting off the dribble (a more complex scenario and usually involves movement – deceleration); transitioning from performing different movements to shooting the ball (defence/running/arm bar push off/passing/jab step/etc); needing to mentally take in and process surroundings (am I open/is someone else open and should I pass/should I catch and shoot/should I dribble into space first); adjusting your shot performance based on fatigue (less power available from legs so better momentum of the ball lift might be used to compensate). Pretty much all the factors which make a game shot a game shot, and not a practice shot. By spending our time teaching in this setting, with the exclusion of those factors, we are teaching the body to learn the skill irrespective of them. That they don’t influence the result so there’s no need to factor them into the shooting mind map. Every shot that is made in this setting only stamps this incorrect pattern down further. This is like someone coaching someone else in walking, perhaps someone recovering from a serious injury, and only ever teaching them on perfectly flat surfaces. It is easier to coach, easier for the walker to control and easier to see improvement occur, but ultimately it can lead to a negative learning effect if no variation is included. Any training or teaching that consistently removes important variables, encourages the storing an inaccurate mind-maps, and creates a negative learning effect which will need to be undone before correct adjustments can be learned.

The effect of incorrect learning

By now we know that the body likes to transfer similar movements to different situations (such as shooting technique to various game shots). So if we consider a player who is either learning to shoot by using traditional, break down drills, or a player who predominantly shoots stationary catch and shoot during shoot-arounds, which excludes key variables, we can see potential problems arising in which they may be encouraging the incorrect storage and labelling of traits which should be fluctuators, as being stable and vice-versa. I believe the result is players catching the ball off a cut, or off the dribble, or fatigued, and attempting incorrectly to ‘fit’ their well ingrained stationary shooting mind-map/form into the type of shot the game requires. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole rather than selecting the round peg. The amount, and our focus inside our training sessions has encouraged the development of a shooting mind-map which isn’t flexible to the demands of a game. All of these types of game shots listed earlier are slightly, but significantly, different from one another. Running one way then shooting requires different muscles to be used to varying percentages to off-set momentum, than running the opposite way and shooting the same shot does. Shooting a jump shot with fresh legs (as most traditional shoot-arounds involve) compared to shooting the same shot when fatigued again requires different muscles to be used. This varies even more when you consider which specific muscles are fatigued more or less at that particular moment. It’s naive to think that the shots you shoot inside traditional style practice are the same shots you’re shooting inside games.

Intent driven learning

In Part 2, the importance of intent for learning was briefly discussed. Based on that premise, even if it was only inside games, the focus of the athlete was 100% on ‘making the shot’, then we assume that players would subconsciously ‘figure things out’ over time and change the incorrectly labelled ‘stable’ components to ‘fluctuators’ or vice-versa inside their mind maps. This would result in a mind-map which is more robust and transfers well to a variety of game shots. This would and does occur, just not as frequently as it should. This is for a couple of reasons. One we’ve already discussed in this part, and that is that most players will go out intending to improve their shooting by increasing the amount of stationary shots they get up in a practice session. This only further ingrains the same faulty habits that were the reason they were missing in games anyway. The second factor is one of the most prevalent and disguised problems in basketball today. This will be discussed in Part 4.