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WBCA Coaching Clinics On Motivation Illustrate Gap Between Theory & Practice

From Brian McCormick, contributing to Swish Appeal from Denver.

Coaching is a generalist profession - it requires a general knowledge of many subjects, like kinesiology, sports psychology, management, motor learning, and more.

Coaches are not experts in these different disciplines; they are experts in coaching, which is a discipline of its own, or maybe experts in basketball.

At coaching clinics, coaches are asked to speak to other coaches about their expertise within coaching. Some coaches speak about the dribble-drive-motion or the pack-line defense or post play. Some talk generalities, while others offer specific teaching points or drills. The presumption is that the speaker is an expert in his or her topic within the general discipline of coaching.

Despite this presumption of expertise, these coaches generally stick to acquired wisdom through the practice of coaching. They may or may not understand the larger subject.

When a coach speaks about drills, he or she speaks about a specific topic. However, drills fall into a more general topic within motor learning: the goal of a drill is the players' learning. While coaches are experts of the specific (post play), many failed to comprehend the general discipline (learning) underlying the performance of the specific throughout the WBCA convention.

As an example, several coaches spoke about motivation. Motivation is a topic that is important to coaches, and coaches are often expert motivators. Coaches often know far more about motivation than scientists or researchers, which is why so many motivational books are authored by coaches. However, motivation is a topic within sports psychology; in fact, most of sports psychology boils down to motivation.

Coaches understand the practical, and they speak about what they perceive to work within their situation. However, this is a sample size of one - they may believe their motivational techniques work because their players play hard, but the players may play hard in spite of their coach and his or her techniques, not because of the coach. I have seen teams who had such a tight bond with each other that they played hard for each other despite hating their coach and her behaviors.

While listening to the clinics, several coaches said things that would contradict sports-psychology theories. Does this mean that the profession and research behind sports psychology is lagging? Possibly. Does it mean that the coaches do not understand motivation because they do not use a theory? No. However, it does illustrate a weakness - the practical and the theoretical should align, rather than contradict. When there is a contradiction, there is a breakdown on one side or the other, or maybe a little of both.

One coach said that he does not believe that a coach can give or take away a player's confidence. Jeff Van Gundy said the same thing on television a couple weeks ago. I disagree.

From my practical experience working with hundreds of players, I know that many players' motivation and performance are directly related to their coach and his or her behaviors. Studies on the self-fulfilling prophecy have found that a coach's behavior toward athletes can have a profound affect on motivation and performance. If a coach believes that a player is unskilled, he or she will see any mistake by the player as proof of his or her belief. If the coach believes the player is skilled, the coach often overlooks a mistake as a one-time mistake or a symptom of competition.

The difference in the coach's reaction to that mistake has a profound affect on the behavior of the player. If the coach feels that the mistake supports his or her belief of a low-skill level, the coach likely takes the player out. The coach may not instruct the low-skilled player as much as the high-skilled player. When the player feels that the coach does not believe in him or her, he or she is likely to lose confidence and/or motivation.

I know a player who has a strong need for support and affirmation. These are the players who look to the bench constantly. Her coach was exceedingly negative toward her and basically told the player, explicitly and implicitly, that nothing the player did was good enough. The coach meant well; her expectations for the player were very high. However, the coach misunderstood the player's needs.

Some players need to be pushed and have a coach who demands greater performance every day. Some players need a big pat on the bag and an affirmation of the player's work or skill. When the coach refuses to give that affirmation, the player loses motivation. The player believes that nothing is good enough for the coach. At that point, the player has a choice: (1) ignore the coach and find a new way to get the affirmation or (2) lose motivation and spiral downward until she quits. If the player chooses number one, and succeeds, does that mean that the coach's motivational tactics worked or does it mean that the player succeeded in spite of her coach?

I do not expect coaches to cite the latest sports psychology research in their presentations, but I am surprised at how many of their viewpoints run counter to basic theories. A coach who really knows practically what to do would be expected to behave in a way that is consistent with the theories of motivation, or we would expect to find these theories which are thought to underlie human behavior. One who behaves in a way that contradicts the theories may be successful for some other reason, while making a false attribution of the success of their motivational techniques.

In another talk about motivation, a coach said that he does not like to have conversations with players; essentially, he believes that the coach tells the player what to do, and the player follows the directions. This idea, while popular among many coaches, runs directly counter to the popular Self-Determination Theory (SDT) explained by Deci and Ryan. In SDT, motivation depends on autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy within a team environment is the idea that the player has some control of his or her environment. Lynn Kidman uses the idea of empowerment, and talks about empowering players to make some decisions so they have some control. When a coach makes all decisions, and maintains strict control, players have no autonomy. This is expressed both on the court, in terms of coaches calling set plays every time down the court and attempting to control every play, or off the court in terms of the team environment.

For a coach to speak about motivating players, and completely ignore the idea of autonomy or empowerment, is to misunderstand the psychological concept of motivation. A coach does not need to know the technical terms or the name of the theory, but a coach should understand that players tend to be more motivated when they have feelings of control and less motivated when they have no feelings of control. One aspect of the SDT theory is that people start activities like sports with great intrinsic motivation. The goals, then, is not to motivate people, but to avoid de-motivating them. Unfortunately, by the time that a player reaches the college level, many have been de-motivated. Why? SDT would suggest that they have lost the feelings of relatedness, autonomy, or competence. When they get to the college team, they may feel like an outsider or they may not feel good enough or they may feel like they have to follow a rigid schedule that provides no freedom. To ignore these needs is to misunderstand motivation.

Similarly, the coaches typically demonstrated and spoke about uncompetitive, block-practice drills. Ironically, this was true even in sessions with titles like "Competitive Practice Drills." Block practice is when a player does the same repetition over and over; for instance, shooting 20 free throws in a row. Block practice leads to improved performance in the short term, but does not always transfer to novel situations like a game.

In discussions of post play drills, speakers discussed many drills without any defense. How does a player react to a defender in a game if they are used to practicing against air? The defense changes the performance of the move. A player who practices without defense is unprepared for the game. Similarly, a player who practices the same move over and over may exaggerate his or her learning. While a coach may not know the terms block practice or random or variable practice, a coach should have an understanding of the importance of varying repetitions. The goal of practice drills is to transfer to game performance. Unfortunately, when these drills fail to transfer, coaches typically blame something else - the player's motivation, concentration, work ethic - etc. rather than the practice methods.

Beyond the lack of knowledge of general disciplines that underpin coaching, the true take away from watching a number of very successful college coaches is that there is nothing new or special in basketball. Everyone does a variety of the same thing, and those things differ only slightly from high school. The real difference is that college coaches select their players and deal with the 1% rather than those who walk through the door on the first day of tryouts. Therefore, they can add some complexity and demands that a youth or high school coach cannot. However, the basic fundamentals and the basic concepts remain the same. Basketball is basketball. At the end of the day, the goal is to score points on offense and prevent the opposition from scoring. There are some different philosophies of how to do these things, but they generally fall within a small spectrum, and this spectrum changes very little from high school to college.

Brian McCormick, author of Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development and manger of Brian McCormick Basketball (, is an experienced coach and development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He has previously contributed to Swish Appeal with his thoughts on why developing coaching expertise at mid-majors is good for women's college basketball.

For more on his thoughts about motivation, see his recent post entitled, "Why Jeff Van Gundy was wrong about Raymond Felton and self-confidence."