It’s not about wrong or right, but about what is more effective. It’s not criticism when science guides us to more effective ways to learn, it is information, which sadly many traditional coaches chose to ignore. As the great “coach” William Penn said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” Most reading this blog are amazing people who use their sport to develop leadership, using sports as the vehicle, while only having 3-6 hours a week to make that impact. We must be highly efficient in how we get our players to learn.
When grills and small- to full-sided games with hundreds of subtle scoring variations are the primary source of learning, my players actually are learning how to play, not drill, the game. Many coaches and players like that drills are easier to do and make them look good, and they currently opt to train primarily with drills. They would rather look good in pairs, with no net to induce reality, than learn skill habits which work effectively in the game. The problem is this develops what we call false confidence, as the skill “fundamentals” and habits being developed in drills have little or no applicability or transfer to successful game play. The vast majority of drills are for practice’s sake, not performance. Gimmicks and machines create the same false confidence.
When coaches do ineffective learning drills, they often justify their training with the phrase, “There's lots of ways to skin a cat,” and continue doing the less effective and easier supposed “learning.” They'll say “You're telling me I'm wrong?” No, you're not “wrong,” you're just training least effectively, and your players are only learning to actually play when they get in the match! Tradition and doing the things we are most comfortable in doing, the way we also were taught, makes us feel good, so we like to keep doing it, without really critically thinking…WHY am I doing this? Are my athletes learning in reality, or in a part of practice that will not happen in the game?
I'd like to think you're reading this blog to learn ways to become a better coach or teacher. Just like you're asking your players to learn. For that I thank you, and now it is time to break away from teaching the way you were taught. We want to train in reality and the way we know that the brain learns new skill. The biologist in me has never seen any other animal do drills. In fact, if animals did “drills,” the repetitive behavior would signal that something is wrong. Every other animal learns by doing, working in the reality of what they need to learn. They might watch their parents do it and then mimic, or they just learned by the harsh Darwinian way of trial and error, just like you learned to ride a bike.
Developing/creating a positive "learning environment." That is now the 5th time I've read that phrase this week. Here's the new piece. PROACTIVE has been a huge part of my teaching the last couple years, but PREVENTATIVE is the other word. I like how they sound together. Proactive and preventative. Like efficient and effective. Your gym or sport space should be an Exploratorium, where mistakes and failure are simple important parts of learning and not something to be punished. In healthy gyms, the coach trusts the players. It thus is more a place of love, and not fear. When we are in a place of trust/love, everything that happens, especially the failure which comes in learning, is ok. When we are training in a place of fear – we fail to challenge ourselves to progress, we argue back internally at even internally. Players want your insights and affirmations, not your judgement.
It's not really so much an issue of wrong vs. right as it is fear vs. love. When I'm acting out of love, you can say anything and it's okay with me. When I'm acting out of fear, I argue. I have to prove I'm right. I have to get the book out and show you. When I'm acting out of fear in a classroom or business setting, I feel challenged if people ask questions, and I come down hard on them to put them in their place. When I'm acting out of love, I understand that they want affirmation, or confirmation, or maybe just information. Quite a difference in attitude. Quite a difference in perspective."
Why is it that you learn to drive a car, ride a bike, play tag or learn to swing, without a single coach or drill being done? We have seen decades of beach volleyball learned without a single “spike or serve machine.” Why, when we get to the challenges of volleyball, dodrills (not playing) become the norm.? The fact that we can't hold on to the ball, and must send it back over a barrier, makes even the best teams in the world play mostly out of system. The #1 ranked women’s team in the world, USA, currently is out of system 48% of the time, while the number one ranked regional 14s team is…well, let’s just say they have a higher percentage and leave it at that.
Many coaches forget motor learning principles of transfer and do things that are not at all game like in the interest of doing drills. Players would much rather do a partner passing drill about "ball control" where out of 50 ball contacts, they probably will pass 46 of them back-and-forth “successfully.” When you move to the reality of passing a screaming-fast ball travelling over the net – called serve reception – well things are not as successful. The great passers might only be putting 50 to 70% of the balls on target. So rather than train in reality and get better at serve reception, players and coaches alike prefer to do the drill of partner passing, even ignoring the fact that there's a net. That every ball they'll serve receive comes over the net doesn't matter to them as much as their passing form. Players would rather learn how to pass the ball straight back to where came from or against a wall, even kneeling in prayer as they become a wall machine.
When young kids learn to serve receive in small-sided small games over the net they learn to move to the ball before it comes over the net. It WILL look ugly at the start, and that’s OK because it is reality; a reality that most coaches would rather ignore in the interest of looking good in practice. When you eliminate the net, every ball in pepper “clears the net” even though the reality is that most balls in pepper are training players to hit into the net. When I watch the athletes in the X games perform a myriad of tricks, I know that they've learned them all without a single drill and in most cases without a coach. In box lacrosse and ice hockey in Canada for over 100 years the players learned in small-sided games from the game itself. The coaches job is to teach team tactics and systems, using players who already know all the skills from the games they are playing.
I know the math says that if we have enough monkeys and typewriters just randomly hitting keys, and enough time, even Shakespeare’s works will be written. However, that seems pretty inefficient to me. What is clear is that even with non-gamelike drills and talented, passionate players, the time spent playing in matches and scrimmages will finally get them to be good at reading, with high volleyball IQ and skill sets. That also seems very inefficient. The science is clear that there is no such thing as “general athletic ability…” yet we spend millions of dollars and hours running speed ladders, and doing things to improve our “movement.” The college player who is the best in the nation at moving one way to block, who is also one of the worst moving the other way… is he just built wrong, or is he just not as good at moving one way over the other, even with lots of reps? I would say the latter. No speed-ladder work that way will get the player moving there faster; he just will be skilled at running through ladders. This reality is seen in the NFL combine over the decades, and it is well documented how inaccurate it is for selecting successful NFL players.
Recently, to justify the use of a spiking machine, some coaches noted that pro baseball players use a hitting tee, just like little kids do. In speaking with players from the past, they noted that they never used a tee in their training and batted great. In talking to coaches from a similar sport to baseball – my cricket friends said they have never seen a cricket machine that holds the ball so their batsmen could be successful, or “hit different shots.” I have never seen a hitting machine used on the beach in my life, but given the huge desire for coaches to control things in a reality that things are chaotic, to “show” success, I bet someone has. I will contend that hitting off a machine, or a coach’s toss, is better than doing nothing in our sport. It remains ineffective learning compared to hitting a real set, set by a setter. The number one skill in our sport is reading the set, coming from countless different places on the court, adjusting and timing the ball to be at the top of your jump at the right place and time. That takes lots of reps doing it in reality. A machine or tee portrays, to quote a dear friend Peter Vint – “the same old static "gettin' into my groove" rationale behind 100 free throws in a row, 100 no-jump jump shots from the block, constant chest passes delivered to exactly the right "catch and release" zone...and everyone complains they don't have enough time to tackle other performance issues...like sleep or eating a reasonable diet. Marginal gains are nothing” - in the spectrum of effective learning.
We want to justify our existence as coaches when in reality we are spending far too much time teaching skills that the players already understand how to DO – for they can show you what you want without a ball in the picture. These amazing athlete of any age just don't know how to do it at the right place and time. We coaches should be letting the game teach the game, and teaching more essential skills like cooperation, attitude, character development, grit, perseverance and leadership - things that our coach can model and teach. We need to guide discovery and make observations, not tell them what to do and answer the questions. In the end, when we train in reality, we have players who can PLAY, not drill, and make the adjustments themselves technically, which lets we coaches do things tactically. That is the most effective teamwork formula for influencing the outcome in our favor.