Why Messy Learning Should be a Part of your Coaching Philosophy

“You don’t have to perfect skills before you start applying them.”

Learning basketball is messy. Playing a basketball game is messy. A lot of times that means that coaches just need to get out of the way. It’s easy to want to give players too much structure and too much guidance, but we have to give players opportunities to make mistakes, to figure things out and to become independent learners and performers.

The reality is learning is messy. It is uncomfortable, messy, and complicated. In basketball it is a mixing of skills, decisions, verbal and non-verbal feedback, physical practice, staring, video learning, individual time, and team time.

Most coaches like structure. Having a sense of control over players, practices and games bring comfort to the coaching process. Overly structured practices and game plans can stifle creativity. The reason is that players adapt to the structure and expect to be given the formula for every situation.

My understanding of messy learning has evolved from my belief in using a games approach to coaching basketball. Teaching, while players play the game, leads to many unstructured, unplanned moments. Further research into the concept of messy learning brought an understanding that the most effective learning is quite often unstructured and rarely goes in a straight line.

messy learning

The Challenge for a Coach

Using a lot of structure, and blocked drills, creates order. This may seem like a good thing as a coach, however, players in these blocked drills follow a formula. Learning the formula allows them to go through the motions without having their brains on. The first few repetitions may involve some thinking, but after they figure out the skill or drill, there is very little thinking because each repetition is the same as they have done already.

In random practice this does not happen. There is no formula to learn and repeat mindlessly. Each repetition is unique. Each repetition involves a new formula. The challenge for a coach is that using random practice and a games approach have less checks and balances. Techniques and tactics take longer to develop. It is harder to judge progress. Players have to think on each repetition because each repetition is unique. This engages players in thinking on each repetition. This leads to more mistakes. Players appear less polished. For coaches this approach appears risky.

Coaches often want to present their coaching in a safe mode of “how I did it” or “what works for me” because of the pressures in coaching. Parents, administrators, and players are often indoctrinated in a traditional approach to coaching. Reaching beyond traditional methods opens yourself to criticism and doubt from outsiders, and influences that impact your job status, evaluation and perception.

Creating an Environment for Messy Learning Requires Planning

What appears to be messy is actually a process of learning at a deep level for coaches and players alike. Coaches need to be strategic and organized in their planning and offering of effective learning experiences. This is true in all coaching situations, but especially so in creating situations that require critical and creative thinking and problem-solving.

Why should basketball learning be messy?

  1. Players learn more deeply when they can apply skills and tactics in game-like drills and challenges. The game is messy, so it makes sense that a practice should mimic a game.
  2. A live game does not allow us to structure it like a practice. A basketball game is variable and unpredictable during the action. To be effective at playing the game, we need to simulate that environment in practice.
  3. Increasing cognitive effort in the learning process, increases retention. Messy learning creates more thinking opportunities. This leads to deeper engagements.

What does a messy basketball drill look like?

I am not a theoretical coach. I am a practical coach. That’s why I always want to help connect the dots for you as a coach and provide a practical example of what I am explaining. Many of you value on-air drills so I wanted to provide an example of how to make an on-air drill messy by applying random practice concepts and creating intentional chaos.

The 3-on-0 Progression Drill

We love this drill because it is messy!

Sometimes coaches mistake a games approach to coaching basketball philosophy as one in which we roll out the balls and whatever happens, happens. This is not true. Everything we do in a practice is structured so that certain things are likely to occur.

In the 3-on-0 Progression…

We are working on specific offensive actions out of a modified triangle offense, and the application of skills in those actions. In some cases we have not taught the skills before we taught the actions so we use this drill to teach skills, timing and possibilities.

Players are encouraged to learn through a process of exploration and discovery.

We promote collaboration as the drill requires leaders and followers to be active participants in each others learning. 

Players are encouraged to be independent in their decisions as we do not script how they must score.

The drill also creates an energy as players are active and communicating to accomplish their tasks.

The Struggle of Messy Learning

Players will struggle in 3-on-0 progression. They will never look perfect. Even my fourth players, who have done 3-on-0 progressions many times before struggle. That is the point!

The struggle, if managed properly, will bring about retention and transfer to games.

Some players struggle with messy drills, especially if they have only experienced traditional instruction. To help players manage the transition to a more self-directed learning, you will have to encourage them to:

  1. Make mistakes.
  2. Figure things out.

Before players get to me, they have often been well-trained to be traditional learners. They expect to be told the answer. They expect to practice in structured drills. They expect to be told mistakes are bad, and be punished for them. As a coach, to encourage messy learning, you need to change a player’s mindset about what practice is.

The first change is to educate players that mistakes are necessary for learning. In fact, I feel it is my responsibility as a coach to create challenges that cause my players to make mistakes. If they can do something perfectly than I need to figure out a layer to add to a drill to make it more challenging. A player’s struggle, and the process of fighting for their learning, are a key part of player and team development.

The second change is to encourage players to figure things out for themselves. I don’t believe there is a perfect technique. I don’t believe there is only one decision that is always right. There are possibilities that players must discover, and the coach is responsible for creating an environment where players can discover those possibilities.

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