Friday, September 19, 2008

A technique for making every moment of practice count

Last month, I received an email from a trainer who encouraged me to read a book she thought might be of interest to coaches.

By "trainer" I don't me the kind who works for a sports team or helps guys with conditioning. The author of the book is a biologist who has worked with dolphins. [Stick with me here. I know it sounds crazy.]

I started reading the book -- "Don't Shoot the Dog" -- as I do all books, looking for relevance and applications for coaches. I found it in the book's second chapter on "shaping," which "consists of taking a very small tendency in the right direction and shifting it, one small step at a time, toward an ultimate goal. The laboratory jargon for the process is 'successive approximation.'"

According to the author, "a well-planned shaping program can minimize required drilling and can make every moment of practice count, thus speeding up progress tremendously."

She then outlines her "10 Laws of Shaping," which are, essentially, her recommendations for using shaping techniques for improving performance. I've listed the seven most relevant ones for coaches below along with some detail from the book:

1. Raise criteria in increments small enough that the subject (i.e., the player) always has a realistic chance of reinforcement. When you increase demands, you should do so within the range the subject is already achieving.

As a coaching example, if a player is easily making 15-foot jumpers, you should move the player back a foot. Moving him back three feet, however, is a big mistake.

"The fastest way to shape behavior is to raise the criteria at whatever interval it takes to make it easy for the subject to improve steadily. Constant progress, even if only inch by inch, will get you to your ultimate goal faster than trying to force rapid progress at the risk of losing good performance altogether."

2. Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time; don't try to shape for two criteria simultaneously.

"I don't mean you can't be working on many different behaviors over the same period. In tennis, [you might work on] the backhand, then the forehand, then on footwork, and so on. It relieves monotony. Good teachers vary the work all the time.

But while you're working on a given behavior (e.g., backhand), you should work on one criterion at a time, and only that one.

Often when we seem to show no progress in a skill, no matter how much we practice, it is because we are trying to improve two or more things at once. Practice is not shaping. Repetition, by itself, may ingrain mistakes just as easily as improvements.

So you need to ask 'Is there some way to break it down and work on different criteria separately?'"

3. Don't change trainers (i.e., coaches) in midstream. "While in the midst of shaping a behavior, you risk major slowdowns if you turn the training over to someone else. Everyone's standards, reaction times, and expectations of progress are slightly different.

Of course, a [player] may have many different teachers -- we have no trouble when one trainer teaches us French, another arithmetic, another basketball. It is the individual behavior being learned that needs one teacher at a time."

From a coaching perspective, perhaps this supports the theory that a staff should have coaches who specialize or are solely responsible for one area of the game -- defense, big men, offense, special situations, etc.

4. If one shaping procedure is not working, try another. "No matter what the behavior, there are as many ways to shape it as there are trainers to think them up. It is amazing how tenaciously people will stick to a system that isn't working, or that works badly, convinced somehow that more of the same will get results."

5. Don't interrupt a training session gratuitously; that constitutes a punishment. "In giving a lesson, the trainer (i.e., coach) should keep his or her attention on the class (i.e., the practice) until the training period is over. This is more than just good manners or good self-discipline; it is skilled coaching.

If the trainer starts chatting to some bystander (or reporter or booster) or leaves to take a phone call, the contract (with his players) is broken.

Of course, if you want to rebuke a [player], removing your attention is a good way to do it. Removal of attention is a powerful tool, so don't use it carelessly or unfairly."

6. If a learned behavior (e.g., making a layup) deteriorates, review the shaping. "Sometimes an apparently well-trained behavior just breaks down. What is needed is not justification, but an effective fix.

The quickest way to correct this kind of deterioration is not to butt at it head on, but to recall the original shaping procedure and go all the way through it very rapidly, reinforcing under new circumstances. [This is what] we called 'going back to kindergarten,' and the technique often brought poor behavior up to par in 10-15 minutes."

7. Quit while you're ahead. "When you stop is not nearly as important as what you stop on. You should always quit while you're ahead. You should move on on a high note -- that is, as soon as some progress has been achieved.

What happens all too often is that we get three or four good responses and we're so excited that we want to see it again and again. So we repeat it, or we try to, and pretty soon the subject is tired, the behavior gets worse, mistakes crop up, corrections and yelling take place, and we just blew a training session.

As a [coach], you should force yourself to stop on a good response. It takes guts sometimes. Shaping behavior is the opposite of training by drill and repetition. You must count simply on your willingness to quit while you're ahead. A Zen phenomenon."