Two More Myths – Learning Styles and Fundamental Motor Skills

By John Kessel | May 01, 2013, 11:12 a.m. (ET)

I just completed three days of the 6th annual Paralympic Leadership Conference. It is always so inspiring to be around hundreds of athletes and leaders who have either a disability or a passion for working with the disabled. As the keynote speaker said on Friday nite “It is a great time to be disabled…” at least in this nation. The two highlights for me were speeches. The first was by David Liniger, chairman and co-founder of RE/MAX, addressing how he and his wife have both dealt with personal disabilities along with his unique form of philanthropy using the Sanctuary golf course to raise millions for non-profits. His very personal account is in his new book called My Next Step ( and he is donating all profits to US Paralympics Wounded Warrior Program and two other charities. The second was the Gimp Monkeys, three guys who became the first disabled guys to climb El Capitan in Yosemite. You can get the gist of their speech by watching this eight minute highlight video here

I had two sessions, one with Elliot Blake entitled “Creating Sitting Volleyball in ANY Place,” where we showed how to use ribbon or flip over a regular net to create what is now known as “ParaVolley.” The second was called “Leadership Development and Myths in Learning.” This is about the 5th time I have spoken to the group about these latter two topics, but with 40% of the attendees being first timers, I had a nice crowd attend. The first part of this blog, and a part of my presentation this weekend is summed up best in this article:

The second part of this blog is about what I am going to simply call “the myth of fundamental motor skills.” I base my calling this a myth on the science of motor learning which has clearly defined principles of specificity, whole, and random training. There are many who will have their own opinion on this, and likely who will disagree, but after nearly 40 years of teaching kids of all ages, the science speaks clearly to this “myth.”

Lately, as clubs and sports move down into the younger age groups, we see an ever increasing set of methods, most often found in lesson plans and drills, where these so called “fundamental motor skills” are being taught to kids. More recently, several international coaches have asked me about the training they are seeing in their nation – in New Zealand and Canada it is catch and throw variations, while in Finland it was no volleyball at all – just “fundamental motor skills,” and of course here in the USA, there is “Newcomb” where the ball is allowed to bounce once before playing or no volleyball but “movement training.”

If you read my blog at all, or are up to date on the science of motor learning, you know how important I think it is NOT to specialize, yet how important it IS to be specific. I love that my son played a dozen different sports in school and park & rec, before settling on volleyball. The thing is, he learned/experienced those many sports, but due to the principles of specificity, transfer and random training – they did not make him a better volleyball player – he got to be good at volleyball by…playing volleyball. It is as simple as that. No catch, throw, bounce, dribble or whatever volleyball, just playing volleyball, mostly with older teammates, as my blog “For the Kids’ Development, not the Parents” covers. In physical education circles, this is sometimes called “TGFU” – Teaching Games For Understanding.” It allows for what Marv Dunphy wisely says “Train in Reality.” The game is what teaches the game, the reading, the understanding of ball flight in advance and covering your court space and so much more…

The importance of training and learning in random ways I have covered often and won’t go into here other than share a recent article about the idea of "interleaving" in learning. Random training, called interleaving in this article, shows how learning is best when the events are presented in random sequences and formats, rather than blocked learning, or learning in cycles (like blocked and circuit training).

I responded to these coaching leaders first with this section taken from Drs. McGown and Bain’s article, with the underline being mine:

The neuronal explanation for these effects are perhaps best exemplified by observations of inexperienced coaches training novice players where the instructor(s) become frustrated by the performance variability and lack of successful repetitions of new learners. As a consequence, these inexperienced coaches limit or abandon whole teaching methods for part, and random practice for blocked. Unfortunately, this course of action deprives the learner of the environmental variability and sensory inputs that are essential for the formation of motor maps and implicit behaviors, which are ultimately reflected in the acquisition of functional skills and expert performance [13, 18, 19, 29, 65]. In total, the evidence on this topic is clear; drawing distinctions between training methods based on age or ability is a coaching practice that has no foundation in either motor learning science or in the application of motor learning principles.

I also replied with this…Yeah there is a lot of slowing down for “success” by playing a catch and throw game – known as Newcomb where it actually is allowed to bounce first. In general this remains the way PE teachers teach the game of 6 vs. 6 to elementary school kids, rather than teaching 1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3 on smaller courts and all. Rather than learn to play by playing over a net and getting lots of chances to read/track the ball and play, they get one ball and 12-24 kids to play, so no kid is ever learning to play volleyball, since there are so few contact options.

Circulation volleyball as a concept is good, especially in 3 vs. 3 or even 4 vs. 4 – in where the team rotates after each ball crossing of the net, and thus there is no specialization. I like that, along with the chaos and randomness it adds. But specificity applies to any age from all I see in the research. Certainly an Olympic gymnast would not be successful at such a young age if age was what mattered in learning a new sport skill. The four nets on a rope system to also promote badminton, pickleball, youth tennis and sitting volleyball. In all the course work, we train live balls, over the net – just smaller team size, smaller courts, and lighter balls. It works, just like it is seen in developing Misty May and Karch Kiraly’s skills – learning to play any game is about opportunity to respond.

Canada interestingly (I just did two large province clinics there in January) has what I call “maxi-scoring” in my Minivolley book, but they call triple ball, as a national rule for 6v6 13 and under play. This is where the serve is only 1/3 of a point and two other balls, one of each thrown easily to each side, are the other 2/3rds of a point. It gets them learning the 3 hit game much faster.

I played hockey and am a skier. If you ever watch a new skier or skater, there are no “fundamental motor skills” you can learn in advance that are fundamental for those sliding sports, unless there is one called “nooooo, I don’t wanna fall.” Yet USA Hockey has over 50,000 members who are 6 and under, who can skate, turn, shoot and play with no problem. You learn to skate by skating and ski by skiing, no other way.

Two of the most important quotes taken from Dr. Richard Schmidt’s important book Motor Learning and Performance, Principle to Practice, now in its FIFTH edition, and discussed intensely in every IMPACT and CAP course for 20 years, is “Drills and lead-up activities take considerable practice time and do not produce much transfer, so use them sparingly in later practice stages.” AND “It is fruitless to try to train fundamental abilities, (e.g. quickness, balance) so concentrate on the fundamental skills instead.”

So given the limited time we have to teach volleyball as a specific sport skill, the best way to learn and teach is to use the net and court, and play small sided games, and throw some fun in the way, tag games, silly races, fun cool downs, all found in the MiniVolley book I wrote. Still a tag game is making you better at tagging and not being tagged, and not volleyball, but if it keeps more little kids in our sport by having fun games to warm up with, then that is worth doing.

A high school and club coach in Minnesota (Heidi, what else would she be named up there?), put it this way..

I sometimes wish someone had said to me: “This is what I would like you to do (play doubles). This is what it is going to look like (they are going to have trouble reading the ball and it is going to drop). Instead of making them run because they need to be quicker at moving to the ball, play more doubles. Give them feedback on their technique while they are playing. Keep and track score. It is going to look squirrely, you are going to want to step in and make the drill look more “successful” by having them throw the ball in instead of serve or worse yet enter the ball yourself. But in the game they must serve and you must stand on the sideline. When you get to the game, notice how much better the players are at anticipating the play. Watch how they can set the ball up and that the rallies are longer. Watch how they get their serves over the net when the score is tight (because they have had to do that in every practice). Realize that your training works. If you lose to a team that practices more days a week, has more talent, has players who have been playing for more years, understand that it is not that you need to change the way you practice. They just need to play more.”

When I taught 6 vs. 6 volleyball to youth in the past (both in PE and youth vb), I thought I was helping them understand the 6 person game, so that they could play it at a family gathering or something of the sort. One of my 14’s commented the other day “None of my friends want to play volleyball because they think it is boring and all you do is stand around and watch the ball drop.” So instead of teaching them 2 vs 2, 3 v 3 and them learning that volleyball is fun (and someday teaching them the 6 person game), we teach 6 v 6 and they think it is boring and don’t play anymore. This year in PE class I finally put the ribbon up and the kids had so much more fun. And moved and got so many more touches. The 4 nets on a rope is a no brainer.

Our traditions show this belief in what I am calling a myth of fundamental motor skills. To be sure, running, jumping and throwing are core parts of many sports, volleyball included, and if you have thrown a baseball, I could use it as a reference for you as an individual when you are spiking. Then again if you have painfully watched this great VW commercial on learning to throw, you see the specificity and cue words being misused … CLICK HERE. However, it is not necessary to know “how to throw” in order to be a good spiker.

I guess I believe that such fundamental skills are learned before sport is discovered, by first walking, then running to a parent, or chasing a sibling or preschool pal in any way. I was not “taught” to walk or run. I still trip, but don’t think I need a private coach to teach me when I do stumble. My parents certainly did not hire a coach, or give me any cue words when I learned to walk. I run but I am a better jumper than a runner. I am not a track star, but appreciate what technology and video can do to enhance my running if I were to be a track athlete, to find economies of motion. But if I were to run the 100 meter race, then decided to go to the 110 meter high hurdles, I know that I would need to run in a TOTALLY new way, even tho it’s the same distance, just some stuff is in the way. Or maybe it is not in the way, watch this guy at a university level of competition do his thing… CLICK HERE

Specificity is seen in jumping – from the fosbury flop to a jump shot or dunk in basketball, to volleyball. I have seen that really good jump shooters in basketball, might start to do a spike approach with an incorrect left-right finish, which is great footwork for a right hander doing a jump shot. But Blake Griffin shows that if you know how to back row attack, you can use that to do a mighty fine dunk shot with a car (CLICK HERE - go about a minute in). You see, Blake played boys volleyball when he was young, showing perfect back row spike approach, double arm lift and reach, only to dunk…

In closing, two more things… Dr Schmidt’s work is very important in motor learning, and I urge you to not only buy his newest book, but to go to his website (a target="_blank" href="">, and click on the articles button there, for hours more of insights and learning about being better at teaching motor skills. Finally, just a heads up that this summer, our new USA Volleyball Resource DVD will be coming out, with new videos, lesson plans and so much more it is what those seeing the draft versions have called “a Volleypedia” and “all encompassing.” To get a copy, contact your USAV Regional Commissioner after July 1. If they are already out of stock, as they will be free in our Growing the Game Together efforts, send a stamped ($1.09 or more), self addressed 9x13 envelope and we will send you one. As always, thanks for your help in growing the game together.