False Fundamentals

By John Kessel | Aug. 24, 2015, 3:05 p.m. (ET)

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The term false or fake fundamentals, along with the concept of irrelevant training, is one that it seems coaches, parents and players simply want to ignore.  Understandably so, as it gives them a feeling of success and mastery, even though it is not helping them in competition. It is what Dr. Richard Schmidt said to our US Olympic coaches multiple times “you are practicing for practice, and not performance…” There are some who think that by getting fundamentals to be learned through grills and game play and not blocked training that this is like heresy to the job of coaching. Those people better not start coaching any X games or other individual sports, for they will be out of a job – nor making an offer to coach Bubba Watson for sure. While not many kids learn to ride a bike with a “coach” – or drills or summer camps for that matter, the job of a team sport coach is to blend skilled individuals into team tactics, while tweaking the players’ skills for successful performance at their level and beyond.

In showing their disbelief in the science as we know it today for motor learning principles, they might even then determine that if the game teaches the game, then our best players will be in the US Open 80 years old and over division. While those players can often beat much younger players who also are far less experienced, and masters teams LOVE to do that in volleyball, losing the warm up but winning the match, the realities of aging do exist. I can attest to it as I got served off the court while playing a couple of summers ago with my son in the “Dinosaur” division of a doubles tourney – where your combined ages had to total 80 and over. Our best players are in general in their mid 20s and early 30s, where athleticism and game experience unite to make team like our 1988 and 2008 men’s gold medal teams, or we see multiple time Olympians like the great Tara Cross Battle, Danielle Scott Aruda and Lloy Ball holding court.  Five time Olympian Danielle played in the PVL women’s division this past May in Detroit, and her wisdom shone thru, even if her jump was not as threatening as it once was.

Hugh McCutcheon had to teach players joining the national team how to serve, as the women’s game scholastically has so many subs and all that certain tall middle players did not serve before joining the national side. A chance to do it right from the start I guess, but amazing to me. Given the train ugly environment that now has existed on the women’s national team training courts since 2009, and the very gamelike training done in the men’s collegiate game, we are even seeing talented starters on both teams who are in their early 20s. The future is bright for sure, for Rio and beyond, as both Coach Kiraly and Speraw are working hard to lead and establish program consistency and continuity that will keep the USA very strong in our future quadrenniums.

Sports clubs that promote the pieces of the game will be successful no doubt, as long as they can recruit the talent in an area – usually by taking players from smaller clubs who have actually developed the players’ sport skills. When one program can recruit the best talent in an area, coaches can afford to train less efficiently, in part because despite so many coaches’ desires to be ON the playing surface of the court, they can’t be actually playing in the match. Thus, these talented players finally get to learn from the actual game and begin their understanding of game flow anticipation and increasing their real world volleyball IQ. That doesn’t stop a coach from yelling in after every contact what to do next, expressing their disgust when the players perform less than perfectly, benching a player to “teach them a lesson” and wanting to control a game that is random and in the control only of those six team members on the court.

So it is August, and volleyball at the high school level just was reported by the National Federation to have surpassed basketball to become the #1 team sport, and #2 most participated in sport, for girls. It also means nearly half a million athletes are in preseason. This means they are likely to be doing “Skill work,” and as we teach the way we were taught, these players are doing single skill reps…and standing in line….probably with a coach throwing all the balls “perfectly” so they can develop their “skills.”  Ask them and they will tell you “we are working on skills, it’s boring, but we don’t get to play until we have our skills down.”   It is too bad these traditions that are not based on science, but that most dangerous phrase in language, as Admiral Grace Hopper noted – “We’ve always done it this way…”

That we cannot separate out learning from playing is very well summarized in this quote on playing something beyond a sport, but still a complex motor program.  Not many years ago I began to play the cello. Most people would say that what I am doing is "learning to play" the cello. But these words carry into our mind the strange idea that there exists two very different processes: (1) learning to play the cello; and (2) playing the cello. They imply that I will do the first until I have completed it, at which point I will stop the first process and begin the second. In short, I will go on "learning to play" until I have "learned to play" and then I will begin to play. Of course, this is nonsense. There are not two processes, but one. We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way… -- John Holt

I just served as jury at the 2015 ParaPanAm Games in Toronto (congrats to our USA women for winning gold and the USA men silver – the men qualifying for Rio for the first time since 2004), and got to see a team, led by the late, great, Eugenio George. They scoured the nation for the best hitters, with the fastest arms, and turned them into setters, running a 6-2 while everyone else ran a 5-1.  The Cuban women’s team playing in the Paralympics did not have either that level of talent (much smaller talent pool) or experience. In one match alone vs the USA they were aced 33 times in a 0-3 drubbing.  They warmed up in pairs fine, hit their spiking lines technically well, and had a huge amount of passion. They just could not hit against the block (the block in the sitting game stays above the net the entire time) which only was seen in the game, not warm up. They did not know whose ball it was as this is not learned in pair passing. They did not read the incoming serve, which comes at a pace just 5 meters, not 9, over a net just a meter, not over 2 meters, high. Their “offense” was to put the serve back over the net and hope for an opponent error – something that works well with lower level teams but not at the level they were now competing in. They came in confident from their training no doubt, but the game’s realities were not acquired yet, only false fundamentals.  You can see the action photos from a USA CUB match here >>>  https://photos.google.com/album/AF1QipMswZY9ALRU86o2Bwu6xxwhf1OY5MkuBDpuWJSK .  Note that the picture of the tallest coach on the USA women’s staff is Laszlo Beltran, who in coaching in this Paralympic qualifying event, became the first Cuban coach to work with a USA team. Congrats and thanks to Laz, whose story is a powerful one that someday I hope to find the time to blog about.

The Cuban Paralympic hopeful women in Toronto simply reminded me of our own USA women’s sitting team in 2004 which, having qualified for Athens by beating Brazil, went to Europe and played a bunch of matches. That team did not win a game, and did not even break 20 points in any match. They too were young and inexperienced, but they came back to train with both a new sense of understanding and…they focused on training more gamelike, and over the net in grills and wash scoring when playing the game, as Athens was just 100 days away. I even borrowed a badminton court floor from USA Badminton that was the same smooth, synthetic compound surface as the Paralympic court would be (read –“gamelike as possible” as sliding on wood is much different) and piped in crowd noise as the departure to Athens got closer. We trained constantly over the net, refining both skills and decisions made for all six skills, in small sided games and six vs. six.  End result, the USA women beat teams they had just lost to in Europe 100 days before, and they only lost to China en route to a Bronze medal.

I also had the pleasure this month of working alongside my mentor, Dr. Carl McGown, professor emeritus of Motor Learning from BYU, and his son Chris at a recent Gold Medal Squared clinic. Hugh McCutcheon, who now coaches at Minnesota after winning back to back Olympic medals in 2008 and 2012, and Jason Watson, head coach at Arizona State, both southern hemisphere athletes I had the good fortune of being able to help them come to the USA for their playing careers at BYU.  Add in Mike and Patty Dodd teaching the beach game, and it was a very special weekend. There are some that say that the Gold Medal Squared program and USA Volleyball’s CAP program are at odds, but they could not be further from the truth. The IMPACT manual and CAP courses are principle driven just like GM2. Over the three days together, I found that the only difference really was that I get younger kids to overhead pass first, not forearm, and play over the net sooner that GM2 does, letting the players initiate things. We are both focused on the science of motor learning principles, the importance of random/”ugly” training over blocked and whole vs. part in skill development.

Carl and I taught passing together and there was only one blocked drill – the 1st, before things went random. Since I work often with programs which may have kids for just 2 or maybe 3 months including competition time, compared to scholastic programs with as many as four years of process development time, it is imperative to get the reality of the ball coming over the net on the 1st contact (ie develop a skillful serve from the actual endline) and then back over the net on no later than the 3rd contact. Yes, it needs to go OVER the net, not in front of it, or under it, or into it. These programs may also have 12-36 kids and one coach, so standing in line for a coach to perform a contact a player should be doing, just does not happen. The coach is outside of learning, being a teacher, not a player.

Part of the problem as I see it is the desire of coaches and programs to spend weeks, months, and even years honing these false fundamentals, mostly in blocked training. When I asked Dr. Schmidt how many trials at a blocked level should an athlete do before going to more game like and more random, and he responded “I have not seen a specific study on that, but from my experience and research in related ways, 6-10 blocked trials, or until they get the very simple concept of the skill, then go random…” 

Mark Upton does some GREAT work in guiding those playing soccer to understand the importance of integrating the realities of that sport vs drilling.  What he recently said so well, that weaves right into the need to stop teaching false fundamentals, can be found in a recent blog post linked HERE. if you really want to know more examples and the common sense behind doing the whole/integrated development of skills – Mark notes so accurately that “Old school way of thinking about learning is as you describe; the learner has to acquire some core competence, a motor programme that they can then roll out on demand and tweak to fit the current context. This, frankly, isn’t true at all. Learning really requires that you spend time learning to perceive the relevant information which will support your action selection and control, and this information is only created by the task as it unfolds. So learning to kick in drills is not learning to kick in the game and there really will be relearning required. Learning a task entails learning to perceive the information for that task and using that information to select and control appropriate actions. Because this is how it rolls, learning is highly context/task specific. So kicking in drills and kicking in a game is not kicking + context (same basic dynamic plus some other stuff) but actually more like kicking-in-drills and kicking-in-games (two different dynamics which create different information). If that is the case (and it likely is) then you would only expect limited transfer.”

 http://www.sportsrelations.com.au/blog/blog/2015/03/24/how-do-you-learn-the-first-touch-skills-of-iniesta-context-practice-design/#more-906

And for those who have not joined the special group of volleyball leaders on the closed Facebook group “Volleyball Coaches and Trainers” I would urge you to join and collaborate with over 9,000 other fellow coaches from around the world. Its free and it is one of my favorite spots online. A former player turned coach in upstate New York recently wrote something there I felt would be a great way to close this blog. Here is what Matt T said –

As Brett said earlier, I was a former player of his and unfortunately it was during his “dark days of coaching” as he puts it. Everything in practice was blocked, we did straight conditioning for the first half hour and he was frustrated with us when we didn’t perform in games. It was frustrating for him, myself and my teammates not because we lost but because we had a solid group of players who should have gone at least .750 and made a 2-3 game run in Sectionals. Needless to say we didn’t.

I think it was the 2nd year after I had left, Brett threw out everything he had done before and embraced new philosophies on everything - specifically implementing random practices. It took a couple of years to fully turn it around but I’ve witnessed first-hand as a player / alum the program finally gain respect and become a top contender at Sectionals every single year, even after graduating 3-4 starters.

I don’t feel that I truly learned how to play the sport until my sophomore year of college when I started playing again - this time without a coach. Never a single drill, just different variations of the game. I can’t even tell you how many lightbulbs went off personally in those few months without a coach giving me the answers and setting up practice in a way that would make me successful. I went from completely blocked to completely random practice. From a player’s perspective, random practices helped me get better because I learned how to read, anticipate, plan, adjust and adapt, etc.

While I agree with Larry C to a certain extent that sometimes you need blocked drills to teach a specific skill, I’m also more so of a believer that once you teach the fundamentals of that skill then you should throw them straight into the game. Going through hundreds of reps in a blocked format to me is time that can be better spent instead by going through hundreds of reps in a randomized game learning to APPLY that skill.

Let’s say we’re teaching the approach. Everybody has their own cues and specifics which is a discussion for another thread. However, I think it is safe to say that nobody here would tell the players “Okay, what you need to do is get off the net, then run towards the ball, jump and smash it! Okay, lineup 6v6 and lets get to it” and then expect everybody to understand how to do the skill. You’ll take a moment to teach the skill, step-by-step by demonstrating the movements, teaching them why they want to move this way, why they want their arms in this position, why they want this rhythm in their footwork, etc. Then the players will demonstrate it a few times, which in my opinion, if you can do it correctly 5 times in a row then you’ve proven that you understand what you are supposed to do. Now, the next step is to learn how to apply the approach in the context of the game.

Will it cut down on the number of specific reps that player gets vs spending the same amount of time doing the skill in a blocked drill? Absolutely. Will it promote better long-term learning and retention? Absolutely. Why? Because you’re learning how to apply multiple skills at the same time. You're learning how to adapt, you’re learning how to anticipate and you’re learning how to perform the skill in its truest form.

Now can you take an absolute beginner, teach them the basics, give them 10 reps and then throw them into a few hours of 2v2 and expect them to be successful? In my personal observations - yes. I decided to run my own experiment with blocked vs random on kids who knew absolutely nothing about playing volleyball. I also did it with last year’s Varsity team, my club team last year and have come to this same conclusion every time. The only difference was those past teams had learned some skills in a blocked format previously. By using the incoming JV freshman, I knew I had a group of players that were starting from square 1 so I’d get an accurate result on whether random is superior to blocked with beginners.

We did some open gyms and a Summer league with these kids. It was the typical everybody plays ping-pong, swings their arms, underhand clubs the ball over the net when they’re attacking. You know, everything that will make your blood boil as a coach. We’ve gone with a completely random style of practice. I spent maybe 15 minutes of technical instruction in a blocked format to introduce different skills and about 30 minutes teaching rotations, base defense and serve receive concepts. The rest has been 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, 5v5 and 6v6.

And now for the results after 5 open gyms (1.5 hours each) and 5 weeks of league play...... I’m also going to throw out the fact that this is a Varsity league (small schools, no national level club players), not a JV league. We play 30 minute timed games against 4 other teams in each night in a round robin format. Week 1 - we lost every single game by 25+ points. Weeks 2 and 3.. same thing. Week 4.. Lost most of the games by 15 points but won a match. Then last week, we went 3-1 while getting all 16 players into each game. That seems like a pretty dramatic turn around and proves to me personally that random is FAR superior to blocked practice because it promotes TRUE learning and retention. Just my two cents

Matt said it and I agree. The national teams train this way – while still refining and tweaking each player’s skills. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Peter Vint of the USOC when discussing the myths in our sport and moving our training to more whole, random and ugly ways with the game teaching the game – “All it takes is a leap of faith…”  I have faith in how our national teams are training – both mentally and physically, and hope you readers do too.