Learning and mastering new skills By Dennis Mooibroek, BC Shooters, the Netherlands

As a coach in any sport, one of the many responsibilities you have is with player development. This more often than not requires your athletes to learn new things or, depending on the age group, even requires them to part with bad habits. As coaches, we are teachers of the game, trying to encourage new skills to enable our athletes to become the best they can be.

Learning new skills is not something that happens all at once, as it takes time and even past experiences to develop better habits. Most new skills are taught by repeating the desired action over and over again. Eventually, with enough repetitions, the skill is performed without thinking, making it a habit. Depending on the skill and the athlete’s experience, learning a new skill can be a slow and uncomfortable process.

With repetitions being the preferred teaching method, another potential problem arises. Most coaches probably have heard their athletes complain about “boring practices with the same boring drills over and over again.” This is often followed by a lack of motivation during the drills with the athletes just going through the motions. While this behavior is completely understandable, it’s also 100 percent unacceptable.

We can change this behavior, but in order to understand how, we need some more background about the process of learning new skills and developing them into habits.

Developing habits

Legendary coach John Wooden said, “The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created eight laws of learning — explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.”

Wooden talks about creating correct habits as the ultimate goal of learning. A habit is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition.” Ben Gardner and Susanne Meisel at University College London write that habits are formed through a process called “context-dependent repetition.” This means in order to form a habit, you must have context and the correct response to that context.

Let me illustrate this with a basketball-related example. Imagine that each time you make a pass to a teammate, you are required to cut to the basket. When you first cut to the basket after a pass, a mental link is formed between the context (making a pass) and your response to that context (cutting to the basket). Each time you subsequently cut to the basket in response to making a pass, this link strengthens to the point that making a pass prompts you to make the cut automatically, without giving it much prior thought. A habit has formed.

The time your athletes used to spend thinking about what they are supposed to do can now be used for other purposes, like considering catching a return pass for an easy score or screening a teammate.

Four learning stages

In order to understand the value of repetition in creating habits, we first need to understand the stages the athlete goes through when learning a new skill. For this, you can use the four stages of learning, a model often attributed to Abraham Maslow but actually developed by Noel Burch (Gordon Training International) in the 1970s.

This model describes the four stages we go through when we learn new skills.

  • Stage one: unconscious incompetence. We are unaware we are incompetent and therefore displaying ineffective behavior.
  • Stage two: conscious incompetence. We know (or are made aware) we are incompetent and are starting to learn how we can do things differently.
  • Stage three: conscious competence. We are experimenting and practicing. We now know how to do it, but we still need to think and work hard to do it.
  • Stage four: unconscious competence. If we continue to practice we eventually arrive at a stage where it becomes easier, and given time, even natural.

When applying a new skill, not all athletes go through the four stages of competence. The beginning stage depends on the past experiences of the athlete with that particular skill. Not only does the beginning stage differ among athletes, the amount of time individually spent in these stages (e.g. the learning curve) also differs. Hence, teaching a skill to a group of athletes is one of the most challenging tasks a coach faces.

The athletes in the group are most likely in different stages of competence. This means there might be some athletes already at stage four, being able to apply the skill without thinking. These athletes are probably the same ones complaining about “boring practices” and show lack of motivation in doing some drills.

The road to competence

Going through all, or part, of these four stages of competence takes time. How much time it takes depends on multiple factors, like past experiences and the commitment to learning a new skill. There is not much scientific research regarding the time it takes to reach the final stage, which is when the skill becomes a habit.

Based upon research by Maxwell Maltz in the 1960s, where he describes that amputees took an average of only 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb, it was reasoned that the same should be true for all big changes. Therefore, it should take roughly three weeks to form a habit.

Research in 2010 by University College London psychologist Phillippa Lally and her team has shown that 21 days does not have any scientific value. In this study, where subjects were trying to learn new habits, like eating fruit daily, it took on average 66 days before the desired habit became automatic. That means it will take, on average, 66 days to go from stage two to stage four.

The authors also found there is a large individual based variation of anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days. To make it even more complicated, the time it will take to form a habit also depends on the habit itself. It was also discovered that missing a single day did not reduce the chances of developing a habit.

One thing we haven’t discussed is the strength of the habit. Depending on the number of repetitions, the strength of the habit may differ between individuals. There is a gradual shift from stage three (still thinking about it) towards stage four (automatic reaction). Habits will persist over time, and it is the strength of the habit that determines how long that lasts.

The strength of the habit determines how much maintenance is required to maintain it. Relative simple behaviors, like cutting to the basket after a pass, will peak earlier at maximum habit strength compared to more complex behavior (e.g. shooting a left-handed layup).

Translating to basketball

In order to turn a skill into a habit, the most important thing a coach should use is “context-dependent repetitions.” The drills, used for reinforcing the habit, should reflect the context in which the habit is most likely to be used. In most cases these are situations in a real game; Drills therefore have to reflect game-like situations in order to allow the athlete to transfer the skill faster to the game itself.

Each team, based upon the level of play, has a different number of practices. In general, the number of practices for most ranges from 40 to 80 each season. From Lally’s research, we established that it takes about 66 practices for a skill to become a habit. We have established this number can differ greatly individually and is highly dependent on the complexity of the skill being taught. This means some of the athletes on the team might perform the skill as a habit (stage four) whereas other athletes are still in the earlier stages of competence (two or three).

Based upon the limited number of practices you might conclude that athletes should attend all practices to transform certain skills into habits, and missing even one practice is a bad thing. This is not the case.

Lally and her team found that missing a single day of practice does not limit the chance of developing a habit. Missing multiple practices, however, likely increases the number of sessions needed for a skill to become a habit.

Easy skills can probably be turned into habits during one season, whereas more complex skills can take longer. The key, however, is to have a maximum number of ‘context-dependent repetitions’ during practices. This increases the chances of a skill becoming a habit, even if the total number of practices is limited. However, don’t be surprised that some skills can take up to multiple seasons before becoming a true habit.

Some of the athletes might already be at the habit stage. As a coach you might be persuaded to think the additional repetitions will strengthen the habit in these athletes. This obviously is true, but chances are they might just get bored doing the drill. Before you know it, their motivation is going to diminish, potentially influencing your group.

As coaches, we know numerous drills to reinforce one skill set. While changing drills every once in a while might be a good way to motivate the athletes, changing them every practice most certainly is not. Using the same drill a couple of times allows for monitoring their progress and to determine what stage of competence they are in.

By constantly changing drills you take away this monitoring aspect. Changing drills every time also takes away valuable practice time, because you have to explain each new drill to the group. Instead of spending time explaining all these drills, you might be better off investing that time in additional repetitions. After all, repetition forms habits.

So what can you do to keep the practices interesting for those athletes already in a stage four level of competence? One great way of doing this is by “collapsing time-frames.” Instead of seeing each skill separately and devising drills for a particular skill, you can combine several skills into one drill. Collapsing time frames by combining skills is a great way to increase the number of repetitions and with that the chances of a skill becoming a habit. You still must be careful.

One season I focused on teaching my team to cut to the basket after a pass. Initially, I used a drill that involved only passing and cutting, but soon I combined this with a return pass for a layup. This drill was a time saver, because by combining passing, cutting and the return pass I could not only drill cutting to the basket after a pass but also drill making layups.

After a few weeks, I started noticing something peculiar during our games. The first pass was made to set up our offense and was followed by the basket cut. However, the receiver of the pass immediately threw the pass back in for a layup. This action often resulted in a turnover as the first cut is still defended on a decent level. I was baffled by this behavior until I realized I had inadvertently created an additional habit in some players with my cutting drill.

By doing the drill I reinforced the habit of catching the pass and returning it to the cutter for a layup. As this was an undefended cut, the pass was always right on target. With this action I accidently had taught my players to throw the ball to the cutter regardless of the position of the defender, leading to turnovers and easy scores for the other team during games.

The solution was simple. For the remainder of the season, I added a defender on the cutter. This forced the receiver to determine whether the pass was really there or not. Adding the defender also forced the cutter to work harder to get open for a layup while still cutting after a pass.

Be careful how you collapse your time frames. You might get more than you bargained for.





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