Training Ugly: Great Practice isn’t Made for YouTube
This post is inspired by a recent blog by my friend, John Kessel, my trip to the USAV training facility, and the two hour YouTube binge I just had. Enjoy.
Do a quick YouTube search for “basketball skill training” and you’ll find about a million different videos of various drills promising to take your game to the next level. The videos show endless hours of instructors and players dribbling through cones, stationary ball handling, and tennis balls FOR DAYS. I wish I could post some links, but I’m not trying to start any fights here.
These tricks and fancy drills are what the majority of coaches use to market their camps, training programs, and their vision of what it takes to be great.
People absolutely eat it up.
My favorite was a 5 min training montage of a guy running through a series of tricks, absolutely none of which even closely resembled anything that happens in an actual game. At one point he spent a minute throwing balls behind his back, from half court, at the backboard (he did hit it every time, which was impressive). The video had 50,000+ views and the comments were full of parents and players begging to be trained by him.
John Kessel talks about a similar phenomena in volleyball. Here he talks about all of the “drills” you see online and how they are made to look nice and organized, but have absolutely no grounds in the actual science of motor learning.
In one of my favorite blog posts ever, Bebo CEO, Shaan Puri explains:
“The movies show our heroes having a clear vision, a great plan and of course a 2-minute montage where they put in the hard work necessary for success.
However, we are not visionaries or grand strategists working towards inevitable success.
In reality, we are just a bunch of stumbling fools. Puddle splashers & toe stubbers. We thrash our way to success…and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.
If the movies and magazines wanted to accurately depict the “road to success” – they’d see a bunch of dead ends, confusion, and irrational determination.”
Like the movie montage, these made-for-YouTube training techniques look great but paint the wrong picture. The truth is they have literally NO resemblance to what the real process of development looks like. It seems as though the better they look, the farther they skew from the actual science of learning and development (I’ve yet to see any research that shows that being able to dribble a tennis ball transfers to any actual basketball skill). By spending time working on these tricks, kids get better at doing the tricks and not at what really matters: performing in an actual game.
Decades of science and motor learning research have shown the best and most effective learning happens when practice:
- Is random, not blocked.
- Teaches the whole skill, not just part.
- Is game specific.
- In short, the more closely your practice resembles the actual game, the more of it transfers to a game.
- For more on the science of motor learning watch (this video) and (this video)
The problem here is that this type of practice goes against most “traditions” and will make the coach feel like things are out of their control. The chaos, confusion and randomness of a game specific practice can get ugly, and coaches don’t like ugly. This fear of training ugly often drives us to doing things in practice that are structured, controlled, and look nice, as opposed to following the science that points to a better way to develop athletes.
(Needless to say this type of practice isn’t exactly designed to optimize YouTube viewership either).
While I was in California with the USAV coaching staff, one of their key points was the notion of training ugly. They go out of their way to design their practice to be as game-like as possible, to stretch players outside of their comfort zones where they make more mistakes, and ugliness ensues. As huge proponents of growth mindset, the staff realizes that the mistakes and chaos are not reflections of poor coaching or unskilled players, but happen in exactly the type of environment where real learning and development take place.
If I would have filmed a few of their practice sessions you wouldn’t have seen them working on any fancy ball handling tricks or performing highly elaborate drills. They simply put their players in various game-like situations, focused on their teaching points, and let the game teach the game. It was amazing to see.
The bottom line is this:
Players – If you really want to get better it’s not about being alone in a gym learning tricks. First – understand what it means to have a growth mindset. Then – spend as much time as possible playing in game-like situations against people that are bigger, better, and stronger than you. Get your ass kicked repeatedly and make a ton of mistakes (learn about the 3 types of mistakes here). Embrace the mistakes, learn from them, and eventually you’ll grow.
Coaches – Rather than spending time dreaming up pretty drills and fancy tricks. Figure out how to create a growth mindset mentality within your team. Then think about ways to make your practices as game-like as possible, and how you can maximize the time and reps that your players get in these situations.
If you want to be great find ways to train ugly.
If you want to be a YouTube sensation learn tricks.
Tricks are not skills and being able to do them will not make you a better player.
Have a great day!