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They Learn by DOING

Feb. 28, 2014, 11:03 a.m. (ET)

John Kessel's Growing The Game blog
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One of the core concepts of motor learning is to increase the opportunities to respond.  In our USA Volleyball IMPACT course, we call this increasing the contacts per hour. For in all cases, the reality is that we learn by doing, NOT by watching when it comes to acquiring skill. Indeed, the old Chinese proverb of “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand” is why USAV Coaching Accreditation Program (CAP) courses put all the coaches out on the court to experience the drills – so they understand and increase their volleyball IQ.

I use several examples of this in the coaching clinics I do – starting first with how did you learn to walk…sure you watched countless people walk from the stroller, carrier, or crib, but you LEARNED by doing it, along with many errors in the process. What about how you learned to ride a bike, a skill set far more dangerous than volleyball, as children get killed learning to ride. Did your parents hire a bike riding coach? Did they send you to bike riding summer camp? Did they put you through bike riding drills? How about bike riding progressions? No, you learned by doing. Finally, “How did my own kids learn to drive?” They had watched me drive for 16 years, but did they know how to drive? No, not until they actually got behind the wheel, and gave driving a go….and how good are kids at driving when they first learn? Well just look at my insurance bill for their first year of driving, and see, how by doing, by driving, over time their driving improved and my rates dropped dramatically.

Now, let’s look at the current skill robbing tradition of playing 6 vs. 6 with kids under 12. Even worse in a PE class, it is 15 vs 16 on the one court, where the average child twitches and watches for any rally, then rotates, never even touching the ball in a half hour class.  When clubs take their beginners who need lots of “driving time” into competition, their roster of 12 vs. their opponents 12 players, sees six on the bench and six playing. What everyone simply seems to fail to understand is that this is essentially and simply like 24 kids learning to ride a bike, but there is only ONE BIKE, as in one ball of contact/doing the skill. Everyone else is watching. So I ask you, how long will it take to teach 24 kids to ride a bike, with only one bike to practice riding on?  Yeah, way, way, way too long. Yet program after program put their youth into six on six competitions, with whatever number of additional kids riding the pine, and all of them watching but only one person contacting the ball.

The need to get more gamelike touches in a practice period is fraught with traditions which not only have players training in un-game-like ways, they again are simply doing too much watching, and not enough learning by doing.  Add in that most programs also still adhere to the tradition of the coach controlling the drills, and you see research showing that the coach will get 10 times more contacts in a practice than any one player. Yet the coach never plays a single point – they just keep stealing volleyball IQ enhancing skillful contacts from every player, by controlling most drills.

When I wrote the first IMPACT manual in 1988, I had no idea that this year would see its 26th edition being used in 2014. You see, the manual is updated annually to include the newest research we discover over the year at USAV, so a book from last year might have as much at 10 percent or more new insights and ideas than this years. Like the best coaches are lifelong learners, so is the manual’s material for every new coach joining USAV.  The drill design chapter has not changed from the start, however, stating that this is about maximizing (increasing), meaningful (reality based), movements (the game between contacts) and contacts (skill touches).

Ask the players – “Do you want to do a game about this skill, or a drill?” and what do you get in response? Why is the chorus “A GAME!!” do you think?  We have asked, and the top three answers back are: 1. When we do a drill the coach gets most the contacts but in a game, we do as he/she is mostly out of the game. 2. A game is way more fun and competitive than a drill. 3. A game means I am playing my peers but a drill often means I am learning the moves of an old person…lol. 

They know how the game teaches the game and increases their volleyball IQ and skill. Just ask around the world, what drill or game do players scream NOOOOOOOOOOOO! when you go to stop it? Universally it is monarch/king/queen of the court – or lately speed ball (a game like monarch of the court but on steroids), as the research has shown you get 22 percent more contacts per hour in speed ball (where the ball is ALWAYS in the air) versus monarch of the court. Add in that it is based in reality, by starting with the serve (just like virtually every point scored in a match), and by going OVER the net, and you start to see why they like it. The final reason however goes back to the title of this blog – in 6 vs. 6 games, half the team on each side watches on each rally on their side, and maybe even more. In smaller sided fast games of 2 vs 2, you almost always get to touch the ball every net crossing, and in 3 vs 3, you usually do.  The athletes know the importance of maximizing meaningful movements and contacts, it is just that the coaches don’t.

Then there is the old adage of the more you know, the more you try and tell them and the more you confuse them. In addition, the more you know, the more you like to hear yourself talk, and the more they stand around. I have seen practices where the coaches talk over 50 percent of the time, expounding on their wisdom, and forgetting that players need to DO to learn best, not be lectured. Indeed, there is a great study recently by MIT who discovered that even with their bright, passionate students, that powerpoints and lectures simply was not resulting in the students learning the topic.

This leads us to what you are seeing at our National Team practices, what educators call a “flipped” classroom – in which the players are empowered, and the coaches are there as mentors, but not ball machines or lecturers. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Lecture Halls Without Lectures,”  Stanford Associate Medical School dean, Charles Prober and business professor, Chip Heath, cite that when Stanford piloted a Biochemistry flipped class where students review YouTube lectures at home and solve problems alongside professors in the classroom, attendance ballooned from roughly 30% to 80%. More importantly their one-week study that compared a control class that earned a lecture from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and an experimental class where students collaborated with graduate assistants to do and solve physics problems, the non-lecture group had test scores that nearly doubled the lecture group at 41% to 74%.

So I challenge all readers of my blog to grow the game even better together by flipping your gym – and letting the players not only DO in gamelike ways but do MORE. Using smaller groups, stations, nets/ribbons down the middle of the gym, and getting more balls into the air than just one. Indeed, take this concept to heart please – that if you only have one ball in the air above your court, you might as well just be scrimmaging.  Playing teaches the game flow and increases your players’ volleyball IQ – and that is crucial to successful competition. Our National teams know this, as they play small sided games nearly every practice, to get more contacts per hour. We have too many players who know the technique, but do not know the skill. Please ponder that statement and empower your players to be skillful, not just technical. Drills may help acquire technique but skill is only developed in game play and competition.

All this leads to a bonus round!, thanks to Gary Horvath, a USAV CAP Level I coach, who also is a master tennis instructor and all around great ponderer. He did a wonderful study of a classic sized club, of five teams, and then with his great understanding of sport skills from not just one, but TWO rebound sports, gives the facts on what he discovered by looking at how much learning by doing was going on. Sharing the study he wrote in an email I received this week:

The session with the most touches was conducted by a coach whose team had a reasonable finish at nationals last year. The session was noteworthy for the minimal amount of discussion (although plenty of instruction was given during the session) and the high number of meaningful touches. The mix of drills had a nice flow. Very intense, fast-paced drills were followed by slower drills.

This is in sharp contrast to the other 4 sessions which had a lot of lecturing and standing in line. One two-hour practice had fewer than 600 touches for the entire team. Almost half the touches came during 18 minutes of hitting lines.

Gary knows, and writes that the sample size was not close to being large enough, but the point really is this – CHART several of your practices, see how much your players are learning by doing, and you will almost certainly find opportunities for change. If you value it, you measure it. You, or those stat happy parents in the stands, likely know your players stats in competition. Gary and I challenge you to stat your coaching in practice. Please, for the sake of your athletes.

I head at dawn to the east coast for a series of player and coaching clinics in GEVA and KRVA. Friday night I get the pleasure of watching my son Cody and his Princeton Tiger teammates battle on their home court of Dillion Gym, vs. the perennial league champion Penn State. It will be standing room only in the gym and tonight, Cody told me the new President of the university will be coming to speak to the team in advance of the match.  Win or lose, I still love to watch my kids play, and be with others who love the game as much as I do – like Princeton coach Sam Shweisky and Penn State’s Mark Pavlik and Jay Hosack. Well worth sitting in a metal tube at 35,000 feet for 5 hours.  Thanks to Gary again for sharing his study-ette, and please share any comments on how else you have been successful in making the change to helping your amazing athletes learn by doing. 

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