Practice is supposed to be our classroom! The great John Wooden often said that he was a teacher and the gym was his classroom! When we go out to practice, we are entering our zone where we teach our players how to play the game.
Or do we?
Let’s be honest with each other for one minute, OK? Think back to your own life and your own athletic experience. Think back to how you learned to master a new skill. Think back to the times where you left practice or a game with the realization that you just learned something new or difficult or that you had been struggling with.
Did you learn those things because your coach gave you an in-depth explanation about how to do it correctly? Or did you learn it because you made some mistakes and from those mistakes figured out how to do it better yourself?
We all know the answer. You learned from your mistakes much more than you ever did from an explanation. And of course this applies to all aspects of our lives! How did you learn the stove was hot? How did you learn that drinking 15 shots of Jack Daniels was a bad idea? How did you learn how to hit a curve ball?
Which leads us to the point: In our modern world we have come to think that telling our players what to do is better than allowing them to experience it for themselves. We think they can learn how to hit from watching Youtube clips or ESPN highlights. Now that doesn’t mean that those things are useless but they need to be a supplement not the real lesson.
1. Your brain is like a muscle! It needs to struggle, to be challenged, to face difficulty if we want it to grow. If we never get faced with a problem we will never learn how to solve one. Your well meaning words of wisdom might help with a short term problem but will hinder any long term learning!
2. Growth takes time! Growth takes patience. The process of real learning takes time because you have to fail, ponder on solutions and try again. And then like on the shampoo bottle, repeat, repeat, repeat!
3. You don’t learn from watching other people do something. To learn you need the experience of doing it yourself. You need as many repetitions as possible and you need them as often as possible. Standing in line watching someone else learn doesn’t help you learn, ever! More repetitions = more learning!
4. You can get better at any skill if you do the work. And the work means just that. You need to attempt the skill, experience whatever level of success or failure you experience, process it and try again. Everyone learns at different speeds so as a coach you will have to allow as much time as each player needs.
So all this hippy stuff sounds great but we coach in the real world and this just won’t work, right? We only have so much time and we can’t waste it waiting for kids to learn on their own schedule. They need to speed up to meet our timeframe, right?
Here are a few things that will help coaches and parents alike:
Ask questions instead of giving answers. Ask your players what might have worked better or what they would do differently next time.
Use your games as a quiz to check progress. Look for improvement from game to game in the skills or situations that mistakes were made earlier. Rather than look at winning and losing as the measure of success look for the silver lining of improvement in skills and strategy.
Allow players the opportunity to fail more and learn more in practice. Too many kids feel that a mistake in practice is a terrible thing. We need them to see it as an opportunity to learn. First Attempt In Learning is a great one!
Ask three questions of your athlete?
What went well?
What needs work? (Not what went WRONG!)
What did you learn?
After you ask these questions, you can help your players develop strategies to improve through their own experiences. There is always something to learn, no matter the outcome of the games. it is up to us to give the kids the opportunity to learn, for themselves.
About the Author: Tory Acheson brings a wealth of knowledge to the Fastpitch Prep staff. He has coached at all levels of the game, including the last 25 years at the college level at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, Tennessee Tech and Kennesaw State. He began his coaching career at the high school level spending 9 years Whitnall High School in Greenfield, Wis. and is now working as a professional softball instructor.