I love basketball. When I was in college I played much more than I studied. (It wasn’t even close!) Now that I’m a parent, I’m having just as much fun, if not more, coaching my kids. For a learning nerd like me, there is an extra sense of pride when I see a player do something new in a game that they learned in practice.

I’ve been playing basketball for so long now that I’ve forgotten when or how I learned everything I know. As is often the case, teaching beginners forces you to stop and consider which things they need to learn and the best order to teach them in. (At least you should be thinking of this!) The goal here is to find the sweet spot of learning that sits between what they can already do and things just beyond their current skill level.

Sweet spot for learning - Zone of Proximal Development

As I prepared to coach my daughter’s 3rd and 4th-grade team this year, my mind was full of thoughts and ideas. Fortunately, we had a lot of the same girls from last years’ team so I had a pretty good grasp on what they could already do. A definite advantage that allowed us to skip most of the typical evaluation time we would have needed otherwise.

If you have ever played yourself or had kids who played, you’ll probably recognize many of the drills used by most coaches. Lots of things like dribbling around cones and playing Red Light, Green Light. They may be fun and keep the kids from getting bored, but as far as I can tell Lebron James has never had to weave between any cones when he’s facing off against the Lakers. (Let me know if I’ve missed that?)

Games approach to teaching basketball skills

One of the things I like about basketball is how simple it is. You try to put the ball in your hoop while trying to keep the other team from putting it in theirs. There are just a few basic skills to master: dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, and defense. But if you’ve ever seen the highlights on ESPN, you know how incredibly difficult and complex those elements can become when they’re being done at a high level.

No matter whether you’re playing in the NBA or the local grade school league, if you’re taking time to think about your next move it is already too late. The player who reacts first almost always wins.

Our girls have reached a point where the better teams are starting to run an offense. Before now, they just weren’t ready for it. I briefly considered dedicating some of our limited practice time to teaching them an offense but ultimately decided against it.

As I searched YouTube for appropriate drills that were both fun and skill-building, I found Kirby Schepp’s video “A Games Approach to Basketball Skills”. Kirby is the head basketball coach at the University of Manitoba and is part of the Canadian Men’s National team program.

The beauty of Kirby’s approach is that he doesn’t spend any time talking or lecturing his players about what they should do. In a sport like basketball, there are way too many “what ifs” or exceptions to any rule you try to teach. What he does is put the players into certain situations, usually via games and just lets them go. When something happens that presents a teachable moment, he asks them questions like “What happened?”, “Why do you think that happened?”, and “What could you do differently next time?”

This is something many instructional designers could learn from. Just get right to it and give your learners a chance to fail in a safe environment. In the beginning, the girls on our team didn’t always like this. In the beginning, I told them every week that practice is where we learn the most and that nobody is doing anything wrong. They just haven’t learned a better way yet. Like Kirby, I tried to present those moments as questions more often than simply telling them something. It is amazing how much they can learn, by simply freezing the action and asking a good question or two. And how often they got there on their own.

Which way do you think leads to better, more powerful learning? If someone is sitting there talking at you about it, or when you’ve just been absorbed in doing it and coming up with the answer on your own?

Coach Schepp is a big believer in drills that have progressions. Which means they can adapt as you go along and add more difficulty as the skills of the players advance. He breaks basketball skills down into basic components and builds from the ground up. For example, master a skill while you’re going slow. Then speed it up. Then speed it up and add in an opponent. Then add in some teammates, and so on.

The other aspect I really liked was how he put these skills into realistic games that replicated the things you would need to do in a real basketball game. In our practices the girls were having so much fun, they didn’t realize how much they were learning. Sneaky, right?!

I think I stole every single drill he has. Or least everyone he has that I could find on YouTube!

As the season progressed we were doing pretty well. Only a single, two-point loss to one of those team’s running an offense. I was second-guessing my decision. Maybe they were ready to run an offense and we missed the boat? Fortunately, we got our chance at a rematch in the championship game this past weekend.

Since putting in an offense was out of the question, this late in the game, we stayed focused on the same super simple basics we’d been working on all year. Beat the other team to the ball when it is bouncing around, take the ball as close to the hoop as possible to shoot it, and don’t let them get close to their basket.

This game removed any doubt I had. Our opponent ran one heck of an offense. They ran it and ran it and ran it. Sometimes it seemed like they had the ball forever. But they didn’t get many baskets because they were too busy going to designated spots on the court. (And our girls were determined not to let them get anywhere close to the basket!) While they were working through the multi-step process of running their offense, our girls weren’t thinking. They were just reacting within a super simple framework. Get the ball near our hoop and keep it away from theirs.

To be honest, that is a little over-simplified. I can’t take much credit. I wasn’t 100% certain we were on the right path. We had a team of talented players who worked their butts off, which makes every coaches job so much easier – just ask Phil Jackson.

The point I’m trying to make is that teaching realistic skills in this progressive way is the right approach. It’s the right approach for basketball and I’d suggest it is a good approach for the majority of other learning contexts as well.

So next time you’re considering any type of training ask yourself how you can throw your learners right into a realistic scenario. (Safely, of course.) In the right scenarios with the right support, you’ll be amazed at how much people can learn themselves. Don’t just do something because everyone else is doing it.

Like basketball, learning is often messy and that’s ok. With the right team working together focused on the right things you just might win your own kind of championship like these amazing girls!