Teaching – Why aren’t we learning from our errors?

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 3 we questioned why would an individual, after incorrect learning of a movement, repeatedly try to use the faulty shooting mind-map in a game, rather than learning from experience and adjusting the mind-map to in fact suit the game? We acknowledged that this does occur, but not as fast, or as often as it should. One of the biggest factors that impedes the learning process is our tendancy to over-intervene. As it is in many areas of life, we think we’ve got things all figured out and we try to control processes using our ‘best management practices’. In this particular case it is apparent by our laser sharp focus on correcting poor shooting by placing such great emphasis on technique. Rather than focusing on and learning from the result of the shot, the brain is encouraged to place it’s energy into focusing on mimicking the textbook shooting action. It is constantly reinforced to the player, through common player perception and verbally through coaches, that this will solve the problem. This means if we shoot with our elbow tucked in (as one common example) we should make the shot. So instead of the brain learning from each missed shot to figure out what global adjustment to make to the shooting mind-map in order to make the next one, it simply focuses on what it needs to do to make sure the elbow stays in on the next shot and tunes out the rest. We convince the brain that this is the key to our shots success, over-riding it’s natural tendancy to learn through action-consequence (did the shot go in?). Yes keeping the elbow in might be correlated with good shooters, but it is definitely not the primary reason the shot goes in or not, it is just one aspect.

We then go and practice with this heavy technique focus inside stationary catch and shoot scenarios which, given it’s isolated and controlled nature (stark contrast to game shots), means focusing on textbook form will likely provide some success. By focusing too much on technique (over-riding natural learning mechanisms), and ingraining stationary shooting habits in high repetition shooting sessions (reinforcing irrelevant and incorrect mind-maps), you will reduce the brains ability to ‘figure out the best response’. This is an example of over-interventionism. We assume that we know and understand what the problem is, and that focusing on technique refinements is the answer, but if the focus and/or the type of practice isnt appropriate (through types of shooting or the focus during shooting), we are hurting out ability to simply learn naturally from game shooting performance and adjust appropriately.

Often the wide open shots are the hardest to make. Consider a free throw to win a game compared to a catch and shoot in rhythm. Players call this ‘over-thinking’ their shot, another term for it is ‘reinvestment’. When players take movements which are smooth, instant reactions, such as a shot, and start overthinking the process (elbow in, fingers spread, feet balanced, snap the wrist etc) they begin to perform worse. The way we coach increases the occurrence of this. The more verbal cues we give players, the more we break down skills and get players thinking about them, the worse they will perform under pressure. The more cues, the more they will improve in that training session (the better we might look or feel as a coach), but the worse it will transfer to games, and the harder it will be to undo the overthinking you’re encouraging.

This lack of immediate negative consequence makes it harder for us to see the link. Look at Shaq’s free throws. He probably had more free throw coaching than anyone else (given the fact we spend our time coaching those who appear to need more help and not those already proficient) and there has never been a more awkward moment on the basketball court as when he went to the foul line. You can almost see his brain whirring in front of you, over-thinking and trying to do exactly as his shooting coach, for that particular month, had instructed, all the while dreading the situation. This compared to a relaxed free throw shooter who doesn’t have a care in the world and just does what they’ve always done – make the free throw. Now again there’s more too it than just over-thinking here, but I certainly think it plays a big part. The more pressure/stress he feels shooting free throws, the harder he tries to make it, relying more on coaching cues provided to him, which makes him less likely too make it. A vicious cycle.

There are two pathways our brain uses, conscious and unconscious. Consider the mind-map as a road, you can have the same road structure, but one might be a dirt road and one is asphalt. The first is slow, the second is fast. The conscious method of learning and storing information is prone to reinvestment or over-thinking and the second is robust to it. As coaches we tend to feel a need to provide input. Players are turning up trusting us, or perhaps even paying us, to make them better. There is a preception too from players, and parents of players, that this involves using lots of verbal cues and seeing visible signs of progress or success inside that training sessions. This leads the coach to break down skills into managable components, demonstate and then provide lots of feedback to the player on how to execute them with perfect technique.

Unfortunately, the more we break down skills and the more we over-coach them, the more we teach the body to execute those skills inside the conscious mental pathway which is slower and more error prone. Our tendancy to shift the focus to technique assumes we know the problem, and the way we teach it makes performance under pressure or in games less likely to be successful, despite success at training. In order to improve players performance and development, we need to reverse the trend of ‘coaching more’, and instead step back and ‘coach less’, or perhaps through alternative methods involving fewer detailed verbal instructions. Some solutions to this and the other problems presented will be reviewed in the following and concluding article in this series.