Train to Win By Training Ugly

A youth basketball team runs its plays in a 5 v 0 environment, and without any defenders everything is executed flawlessly.   Then the coach inserts a defense (5 v 5), and things don't look so good.

Which is better for the long-term development of these players?

As coaches, we always want to see things look right - exercises, sport skills, plays.  It makes us feel like we are on the right track and everything is working out well.  Parents usually see things the same way.  If their child looks competent at practice and during skill work, they must be doing well..  If they're struggling, that is a bad thing.

 The problem with this approach is that we are emphasizing performance in practice over learning.   And it is really learning that we are trying to accomplish during practices and training. 

"Performance is what we observe during practice, learning is the progress observed later on." - Dr. Elizabeth Bjork

Research by UCLA psychologists Dr Elizabeth & Robert Bjork are uncovering fascinating truths about learning.  Most notably that once we go on auto-pilot and appear competent in a task, progress has stopped and no real value comes from continuing practice or training in this fashion.  It is when we appear to be struggling, and because of that are truly locked in to the task at hand, that we make the greatest long-term improvements.

Think of a baby learning to walk.   We all tried and failed countless times to be able to take those first steps.   It likely wasn't pretty for a long time, and no one really taught you how to walk, but by fighting through the struggle we ultimately succeeded.

All human movement skills work the same way, even (especially!) athletic performance.

The Bjorks recommend that we incorporate what they call 'desirable difficulties' into practices and training.  

What are desirable difficulties?

Anything that takes you out of auto-pilot, which is the enemy of growth and development.

Adding more weight to an exercise, adding an extra defender while practicing plays, adding variety or a new stimulus to skill work are just some examples to take you off the auto-pilot road to nowhere.   Your brain will remember the skill better, and will be more likely to perform it correctly under the stressful demands of game conditions.

When putting together a training session or team practice, we want to look for places where our kids will be mentally challenged to succeed.   We want to avoid circumstances where they can achieve competence with little or no real challenge.

Here's a few Do's & Don'ts for creating this highly charged development atmosphere:


- Put enough of a challenge out there that performance is never perfect and players are engaged in trying to overcome the challenge.

- Mix things up, add a variety of challenges to avoid auto-pilot mode.

- Whenever possible, give the whole skill or scenario all at once and fine tune with corrections one at a time.  

- Mimicking of game conditions as often as possible.   For example, instead of shooting 50 free throws in a row you'd shoot two, then do some other work, then come back and shoot two, repeating multiple times.


- Break down every skill into easy, bite-sized chunks so things always look right.

- Run the same drills, in the same order, day after day, for long periods of time.

- Make players complete a very high volume of the same skill continuously without any new stimulus introduced.   Shooting 100 free throws in a row is a good example of this.

- Seek perfection in training or sport skill as a marker of quality progress.

"Struggle is the price of admission we pay in order to grow"

Any time you learn a new skill or improve on one it is going to be a struggle at times.  The greater amount of struggle you encounter in practice or workouts, the more you are getting out of it and the more development you'll receive.

Many organizations today, most notably USA Mens' Volleyball, embrace the challenge of 'training ugly' to achieve greater success in competition.

Thinking back to the start of this post, we posed the question of whether its better to master plays without a defense or to try and execute under duress with defenders on the court.  By now you probably know which works better, but here's a real-life example.

Many years ago my freshman basketball team was preparing to play rival Fitchburg, who notoriously crushed teams with their full-court press.   My coach prepped us for this game by making us practice getting the ball up the court in a structured fashion, without any defenders, over and over until we knew exactly what to do in any scenario.

The result?

We were losing 46-10 by halftime, having given up an historic number of layups off that dreaded press.

Build Your Skills One Step At A Time

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