Todd Beane

On Player Development: I Am Full of Garbage

Todd Beane
On Player Development: I Am Full of Garbage

“You have to teach them the basics first.”

I hear this quite often from youth coaches.

With respect I reply, “No, you don’t.”

You may choose to teach the basics first, but you do not have to do so. You may choose to teach a specific skill before you allow a child to perform it, but you do not have to. You may find this to be true, but it may not be an absolute. You may believe that learning is sequential, but I do not have to agree.

In this gap between what you believe and I believe, I find coaching fascinating.

If you believe that as a coach that you must demonstrate the details first, then perhaps you are fundamentally devoted to explicit instruction. Explain, demonstrate, practice, and have players execute under supervision. You are not alone. The disciples of explicit teaching in our schools and explicit coaching on our fields are many.

In fact, our public school system is founded on this approach. Teachers instruct first. Students then demonstrate (or not) the knowledge acquired. I made my way through an entire high school and bachelor’s degree curriculum following the clarity of explicit instruction. It was certainly predictable.

But does instruction have to come first, sequentially, and explicitly?

Smart Phones and Smart Kids
My child at age four took beautiful photos with my phone.

I never gave him one lesson and knew less about the phone than the toddler. Explicit instruction was not even an option.

If you are a more seasoned (older) person like myself, you have been raised in the “do not touch” era of child development. Things would break and you needed an adult to show you first before you touched the TV, the fork, and the hockey stick. You needed to learn the basics before you were permitted to venture into the wild territory of the unknown. OK, maybe it was just my upbringing from a pretty traditional New England family, but I am sure there are a few more older dogs like me who know to what I am referring.

If you are less seasoned (young) person, you are encouraged to “touch everything.” You touch the screen and see what happens. If it does not result in a favorable outcome, you do not panic; you touch something else until you do what you set out to accomplish. You do not wait for Dad, your teacher, or a coach. You sort it out. And when you need help, you find it. Instructions come on line, in person, and through all sorts of innovative channels.

My son reminded me recently as I drove him to 3rd grade, “Dad, we were born with phones.” A nice way to say, “Dad, you’re inept.” Point well taken. Not one of my six children need any explicit instructions on how to operate any technological device and thank goodness for that as I have very little to offer in terms of instruction or guidance.

 Poetry and A Garbage Can

Indulge me. A poem by Wallace Stevens.
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

I placed a garbage can in Spain and round it was upon my lawn. It raised the curiosity of my boys who immediately ventured to see if they could kick a soccer ball into it. That can took dominion. A chip, a drive, a shot, a pass. What would work? What would bring success? Attempt after attempt they theorized and executed. Trial and error with error yielding to success eventually. Within 25 minutes, they taught themselves to chip the ball into the garbage can.

I came out to praise them with pride. And as I went back to my chores, I asked them if they could do that with the other foot and shuttled off quietly as they took on the challenge.

I share this as this could have played out much differently. I could have called my boys to watch me chip, explaining how to bend the knee, position the foot, and strike downward onto the ball to force it to rise in an arc. I could have delivered explicit instructions. I do know a bit more about football than I know about my phone.

After all, “you have to teach them the basics first.”

A classic study on implicit learning by Masters (1992) discovered that novice golfers taught how to putt through typical golf instructional phrases only performed equal to a group required to learn without any instruction. When both groups were assessed on what they understood about golf putting, the instructed group possessed more explicit knowledge, that is, they could verbalise more tips and rules about how to putt. In contrast, it was reasoned that the uninstructed group learned implicitly, suggesting they knew what to do, but were unable to verbalise how they did it. Interestingly, this is a characteristic possessed by many elite performers. (Damian Farrow, Australian Institute of Sport).

Poetry and anecdotes aside, where does this leave us?

I suggest that we may not want to blindly adhere to coach centric explicit instruction anymore than we should carelessly chip quality instruction into the garbage can.

I do not believe that players learn sequentially. I certainly do not believe children depend exclusively upon on adults to be capable in any endeavor.

If we meet our mission to nurture talent, we must understand what to provide and when. We must not let children fail in utter frustration depriving them of the support and knowledge we can share with them for their benefit. Nor should we feed our own egos believing that we are the sole source of infinite wisdom.

At TOVO International, we favor implicit instruction first and explicit instruction as determined by the individual needs of the athlete. We play purposefully and observe, observe, and observe some more. If a player can chip a ball on his own then we have done our job through a policy of non-intervention.

Sometimes we are at our best when we are small. We serve through our silence.
When we see a player fail repeatedly we must rescue them from the loss of hope. A well-timed comment may shift failure into opportunity: the opportunity to acquire a skill to be more capable and confident.

So, if you ask me if I believe that children need the basics first, I would suggest that they do not.

If you ask me if we can learn from poetry, smart phones, garbage cans, and caring adults I would say…

“I am full of garbage and full of plenty more ideas to rethink the way we develop talent.”