11 Ideas to Improve Active Learning Time in Practice

August 1, 2016

The more time a basketball player can spend successfully engaged in the learning process, the more learning will occur. One way to increase the skill level of your players is to increase the amount of time your players are engaged specifically on the skill or tactic to be learned. The goal of a practice should be to have the highest number of players active as much of the time as possible. Maximum advantage needs to be taken of each learning opportunity. This concept is called Active Learning Time (ALT). I define ALT as

“The amount of time a player has successfully covered content at an optimal level of challenge that will be used in competition.”

Accounting for ALT in your practices can increase your coaching effectiveness.

There are other concepts impacting coaching effectiveness. These include the practice environment or culture, the coach’s knowledge of the content and the skill and age of the learner.  The concept of increasing active learning time is however often the most neglected concept of effective coaching.  ALT looks at the relationship between what coaches are doing and the amount of time players spend on learning.

While learning can occur during periods of listening, questioning, and answering, the majority of learning in a basketball practice occurs during physical practice of technical skills and tactical decisions. Players learn by doing…not by listening, waiting in line, standing around or being off task. The major component of a practice that keeps players engaged in physical practice is time-on-task. As a coach we need to design our practices to maximize active learning time by increasing each player’s time-on-task (ToT). When a coach uses active learning strategies they will spend less time relaying information and more time helping players develop their skills and tactics.

Active Learning Time in CoachingBasically a coach plans a certain amount of time for practice (Quality of Task). The coach engages their players (Specific Feedback) for a percentage of that planned time. The higher the engagement (Optimal Challenge) for a longer period of the planned time the more learning and development will occur. Analyzing ALT can provide valuable insight to a coach looking at improving their effectiveness. If there is a pattern of a higher percentage of the planned practice time being taken up by waiting time/management time and low physical engagement there is room for improvement for a coach.

On my world travels I was fortunate to attend practices in different countries at different levels of basketball (Year Off from the Job I Love). I watched forty-five practices including NBA, NCAA and Euroleague level practices. These practices were often in high level facilities, with reputable coaches armed with large staffs of assistant coaches, managers and support personnel. The number one takeaway from the majority of these practices was how little physical practice occurred in many of the practices.

Practices were low on physical practice because of three factors:Impacting Time on TaskHow to Increase Active Learning Time?

ALT is influenced by four variables. The formula for increasing ALT involves manipulating these four variables. The four variables are manipulated through a coach’s preparation, instruction and ability to optimize challenge. I have created a guide with practical ideas for improving your practices through maximizing ToT. Want to Implement these Ideas in Your Practices? Download this free guide. For specific actionable ideas that you can use to improve physical practice engagement.

  1. Management Time – The time players are not receiving instruction or involved in physical practice.
  2. Instruction Time – The time players are receiving instruction about how to perform or refine skills or tactics.
  3. Waiting Time – When players are not involved in any of the above three variables. For example waiting for a turn, off-task behavior, waiting for the coach to give instruction.
  4. Activity Time – The time players are involved in activity that is directly related to the drill’s objective.

Active Learning Time

How Do You Measure Time-on-Task?

  1. Select a player.
  2. Use a stopwatch (I use my iPhone) to record the player’s activity time.
  3. Start the stopwatch when the player is active in the activity. Pause the stopwatch when the player is inactive in the activity.
  4. Record the final activity time number at the end of the activity.
  5. Divide the number by the total number of minutes in the practice.
  6. This will give you the total percentage of time the player spent active in the activity.

It can be more complicated, as you can track management time, instruction time, waiting time and activity time, but for our purposes as a coach it needs to be practical.

What I Learned from Measuring Time-on-Task at Forty-Five Practices Around the World?

  1. A majority of the practices poorly accounted for ToT and ALT.
  2. There was a positive relationship between small-sided games and higher ToT.
  3. The highest ToT percentages 

I have outlined three activities from the practices I observed around the world to give you some examples of some of my recorded time-on-task findings. The first two activities resulted in low activity and the third led to a much higher activity time.

Drill #1: Three Spot One-on-One Drill (NCAA Practice)

Start Time of Drill: 12:11 pm
End Time of Drill: 12:21 pm
Drill Duration: 10 Minutes
Drill Design: The drill was done with the whole team at one end of the floor.
Player Selected: #12 (6’7 forward who played 27 minutes per game the previous season)
Time-on-Task: 13.06 Seconds (One possession of offense and one possession of defense)
Percentage of Drill Active: 2.2%
Reasons for Low Activity?
• Coach talking.
• Coach making whole team run for one players mistake.
• Fifteen players at one basket.
• Coaches involved as passers.

Drill #2: 5-on-0 Full-Court into Transition Defense vs. Coaches (Pro Practice)

Start Time of Drill: 10:33 am
End Time of Drill: 10:55 am
Drill Duration: 22 Minutes
Drill Design: The drill was done on one court with 18 players and 5 assistant coaches or staff. Two trips of the court were taken running offense followed by the 5 coaches/staff grabbing a ball and attacking to force the five players from the team to recover defensively on a third trip.
Player Selected: 4 players selected (#15, #00, #8, #18)
Time-on-Task: #15 (1.47 seconds), #00 (2:43 seconds), #8 (1:24 seconds). #18 (3:11)
Percentage of Drill Active: #15 (8.12%), #00 (12.3%), #8 (6.4%), #18 (14.5%)
Reasons for Low Activity?
• Coach talking.
• Slow pace.
• Eighteen players on one court.
• Players skipping repetitions.
• Coaches involved in transition defense.

Drill #3: 4-on-4-on-4 Offensive and Defensive Situations (Pro Practice)

Start Time of Drill: 4:35 pm
End Time of Drill: 5:01 pm
Drill Duration: 26 Minutes
Drill Design: The drill was done on one court with 15 players and 2 assistant coaches or staff. Two teams played 4-on-4. An offensive or defensive situation was discussed followed by a competitive application of that situation. If a team scored they kept possession and would play offense vs. the defensive team waiting at the opposite end.
Player Selected: #9
Time-on-Task: 10:58
Percentage of Drill Active: 40.5%
Reasons for Higher Activity?
• Less stoppages of play due to shorter coaching interventions.
• Faster transitions.
• Competitive offense vs. defense situations.

A Practical Strategy for Improving Active Learning Time?

You might be wondering what is a good percentage of ToT? Should 75% of a practice be filled with activity. Unfortunately most ALT and ToT research is done in classrooms or physical education classes. The results of those studies are varied. A sports practice is a much different environment. 

Classroom Management Time

What we should focus on as coaches is increasing the amount of activity time by decreasing the amount of management time, instruction time and waiting time in our practices.

Another thing to keep in mind is that physical engagement does not guarantee that learning has occurred. Learning is a more complex process. Learning involves a permanent change in behavior so it requires experience and not just physical practice. We practice the way we do, not just because we want to maximize active learning time, but also, because of athlete satisfaction. Our players enjoy fast game-like practices. Learn more about how we practice and How to Improve your Practices.

The main question you should ask yourself as a coach is, if your goal is to improve your player’s performance, is your preparation, instruction and practice design contributing positively to maximizing active learning time? If not, what factors can you change to improve your coaching effectiveness.

Want to Implement some of these Ideas in Your Practices? Download this free guide. For specific actionable ideas that you can use to improve physical practice engagement.

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