In the book Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, there was a consistent theme around the usefulness of variable practice. Last season, my team had twelve out of bounds plays in the playbook at the beginning of the season. We never got as far as running all twelve. At one point, we had the team practicing as many as seven. The results were not spectacular. At times we would call one play and have two players running a different play. I wondered why and that is why another coach recommended Make It Stick. Here is how brain research relates to why players can’t execute basketball out of bounds plays and what coaches can do to fix it.
Massed Practice Is Not as Effective as Variable Practice
On the surface massed practice looks great. If you tell a player ten times to set a screen across, by the tenth time there is a very good chance that a screen across will get set. When this happens, the coaches believe they have taught the players. The players feel successful because everyone is on the same page. Two screens get set across, two players wait for the screens to come, and the inbounder is even more patient waiting for players to open up after setting a screen. The coach seeing that the team has the play down is ready to move to the next part of practice. During the game the next day, the out of bounds play and situation happens and players have no idea what to do. Panic ensues and the play does not work.
What happened? There are three things that went wrong:
When it comes to mass practice, forgetting happens quickly. Whether it be with motor skills such as shooting a basketball or cognitive skills such as memorizing multiplication facts, it makes no difference. Coaches get lured into a false sense of security and so do players when the play is called. According to Brown, “cramming leads to higher scores on an immediate test but results in faster forgetting compared to practice retrieval.” When the out of bounds play got called for a screen across, a player mistakenly set an up screen instead.
How to fix it?
Eliminate massed practice. If the team runs three out of bounds plays, then practice them in a random order – regardless of the proficiency players demonstrate. Offer feedback as players make mistakes, but do not come back to the play immediately. When the segment of out of bounds plays is over in practice, return to it in a live game situation if you scrimmage or run a shell drill at the end of practice. This will emulate the surprise element of needing to execute an out of bounds play in a short amount of time.
Needing a Challenge
According to Brown, “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, it sticks better.” As players go through the same motion again and again, there is no new learning taking place. There is no challenge. In the game, it is as if the referee suddenly and surprisingly places the ball underneath the basket. The players in the game might recognize the situation, but the suddenness of it is different than how it was rehearsed in practice. In the heat and intensity of the moment, their execution suffers. The players on the court might leave before a pick is set or the inbounder might miss the primary option.
How to fix it?
Coaches need to lower the expectations that players will get plays immediately with variable trials and in game situations. The research indicates that while variable practice is much better at getting people to recall information in the long term than massed practice, they will not recall all of the information. This is something that you may have to weigh in determining how many out of bounds plays you wish to run.
Your players might become frustrated or develop anxiety with the lack of stability that this method induces. It will serve you will to warn them ahead of time that there is scientific and psychological research that defends the method you are using, and that you are ok with them struggling providing their effort is sound.
The Familiarity Trap
Many people misjudge their level of mastery when it comes to motor or cognitive skills. That includes players and coaches. As Brown described, “Beware of the familiarity trap: the feeling that you know something and no longer need to practice it.” The feeling that the players and coaches had at practice is a perfect scenario for the familiarity trap.
How to fix it?
Quiz the players. Quizzing is a much better learning method than rereading. Simply telling players what to do is faster, but not more effective in long-term memory. We have a tendency to be overconfident when hearing something that makes sense. By forcing the players to recall first and giving them feedback second, their brain is doing work. Again, the players are being challenged.
Do not just quiz them once.Information easily gets stored and lost in the brain. Sporadically ask players to draw the play on multiple occasions. Even on days where the out of bounds play was not used. Another alternative is to get players to take the quiz in groups of two or three. As Brown said, “The person who knows best what a student is struggling with in assimilating new concepts is not the professor, it’s another student.”