My son had something that I gave him in his Princeton dorm room. In capital letters, on an orange Post-it® Note, the word “YET.” I think it is a very important word to use often in coaching, teaching and parenting, as it sums up such an important focus found in all who have developed skills not just specific to a sport, but life; they simply have not achieved myriad short and long term goals… yet. Indeed, getting players to focus on the process, not the outcome, can be one of the more challenging parts in all of teaching.
So you can’t serve over the net? Yet. So you can’t hit a float serve/with accuracy? Yet. So you can’t jump serve? Yet. Everything you choose to do in a sport is a long process of learning. Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Some learn faster than others, but all of us learn to ride a bike. You simply did not know how to ride a bike… yet. Indeed, it is a word that you can actually say in the negative, and it remains positive. Can’t dig a ball up on your side? Not Yet!
Within a sport like volleyball, where a play ends with some sort of error, a fear of mistakes or demand to be technically “perfect" gets in the way of learning. This article on motor learning shows that memories of errors foster faster learning. So we need to make more mistakes and sooner.
Another study notes how, beliefs about learning shape primarily involuntary error-related brain signals; part of the research of Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. There are athletes who see errors as a big failure/proof of lack of talent (fixed mindset) and those who realize these errors are essential and expected stepping stones to learning
The DESIRE to learn is woven into this word “yet.” The first word that Jamie Escalante, a national teacher of the year winner, writes on his white board (hey coach, just where is your whiteboard in the gym?) is GANAS, which in Spanish means desire. He states “Ganas, the desire to learn, the wish to get ahead. People are watching you, you are going to do it…” It is best when it comes from within, as those things are also best learned. You will do best at that which you are passionate about. You will learn best that which you learn yourself. If you only get good when the coach is looking or imploring you, you will only get good for a few minutes of a practice. When you work hard when the coach or teacher is not looking, then you will maximize the minutes in anything you do, including getting the most out of any practice. Albert Einstein once noted that “I’m not so smart, I just stick with the problem longer than others.”
Learning to do new things is a process fraught with errors. In many cases, what we want to do is simply speed up the error rate by making errors faster. We have generations of coaches who say “just get the ball in,” which then impedes the learning of playing at a faster speed. This demand for accuracy over speed comes from coaches who want to win at their level, rather than focus on the player’s overall development. They put the outcome first, over the player’s overall growth. Thus we have a lot of players who can hit the ball in, but who can’t hit it hard. Yet.
There is almost a reverence for not making errors. This leads players to want to do simpler and often repetitive easy skills in a non game-like way, rather than show their faults in the actuality of the game. Some say that these simpler, often pair drills instill a form of confidence in a player. I agree, but it is a false confidence.
You watch pairs pass back and forth 100 times in a row (and even worse, against a wall), then place those kids out into the realities of the game. They get aced over and over. They can perform the skill of pair passing, but they cannot serve receive. We see kids blocking on boxes, getting spiked into by the coach, who then have no clue how to read, time, position and block a live attacker. We see kids who can spike off a ball thrown to them at the right place and time, who cannot themselves learn to read the variance in a set ball, nor jump at the right place and time. YET. Why yet? Because these kids are learning in the game itself, not in the drills. It is just that it takes so much longer, and time is one of the things we value most and often waste in many sports.
There is a lot made of the “10,000 hour rule,” an amount of time that shows how long it will take to get past “yet.” For me, I think this quote from Neuroanthropology.net hits the nail on the head: ”Ericsson’s research suggests very strongly that what is really in short supply in the cultivation of expert performance is not initial ability, but rather expert coaching and motivation to continually develop greater skill.”
When most people practice, they focus on things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
Another thing that Escalante uses so well in the classroom, that coaches should do more of, is "pattern interruption." Break away from the normal delivery of information to yourself, and as a coach to a player, by delivering information on skills/concepts in a new and unique way. I will stand in a tuxedo in a trashcan on the field to explain why my teams never trash talk. The effect is known in learning as the Von Restorff effect.
We know that fatigue is detrimental to learning, yet many coaches condition, run, and make players do push-ups/burpees/sprints when players perform poorly in practice or matches. This tradition shows a lack of understanding the learning process and comes from a focus on outcome. The USOC just built a $27 million athlete recovery center; for we know at all levels, including the Olympic level, that fatigue slows down the learning process. To those coaches who seek to “teach” with physical punishment, please get with the times and start catching your athletes doing it right and praise effort, rather than giving most of your attention to the times players are on the lower half of their learning process.
This INTENTsity of training and focus on improving one point, shot, pass or sentence at a time, is vital to becoming the best you can be. Some coaches call this practicing with a purpose. Take a look at your handwriting, something you may have been doing since first grade and yet, it has not improved. That happens not just by going through the actions, but by being intent to change. A coach who maximizes learning will know the clear difference between intent and outcome, and guide discovery so each player can focus on the processes of learning that outcome.
When you err, but it is not on purpose, you start to learn with the intention of not making that error again. Thus, your errors are appreciated as part of the learning process, not feared. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you. But if you are not willing to learn and fear failure, you will be stuck where you are and won't progress. You will likely do what you are already good at, rather than pushing your own envelope and making mistakes as quick and often as you can. A wise coach once told me “Fail first to be successful first.” Then that magical word comes back, for you will get better with deliberate practice, not mindless repetitions of simple skills. You just are not as good "yet" as you will be later. Failure is simply part of the process, and unless you just give up and walk away, you are not a failure. Mistakes are simply part of doing something new.
So you are not good or great, "yet." Focus on what you can control and make mistakes faster, as they are simply an opportunity to learn.