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The Talent Code by Daneil Coyle: A review for coaches

Posted by Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group on Sep 6, 2010 7:58:00 PM

by Art Horne

Like many coaches and athletic trainers, finding time to relax and devour a novel is a real luxury and one that I don’t overlook.  For those that can’t find time, I hope the summary below of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code provides a glimpse into his work and its relationship to basketball. 

Deep Practice

Throughout the book, Coyle travels to “hotbeds” around the world where masters of skill have evolved to dominate their sport and particular skill.  Coyle recounts his travels to the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a club which has produced the likes of: Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Mikhail Youzhny, and Dmitry Tursunov.

“Walking up, I could see shapes moving behind clouded plastic windows, but I didn’t hear that distinctive thwacking of tennis racquets and balls. When I walked in, the reason became evident: they were swinging all right. But they weren’t using balls.  At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya – rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros.”

“It looked like a ballet class: a choreography of slow, simple precise motions with an emphasis on tekhnika – technique.  Preobrazhenskaya (the lead coach) enforced this approach with an iron decree: none of her students was permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of their study.  It’s a notion that I don’t imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. “Technique is everything.” Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and speedily reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. “If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!””

Back to Basketball

This brought to mind my contention with summer pick-up games amongst college teammates.  Many coaches feel the need to have their athletes play these games as way of developing their basketball skills. However, I have encountered not skill development, but instead the exacerbation of knee pain, a continued emphasis of conditioning in the off-season rather than a pure strength focus among the number of problems that go along with summer play.  The main issue in my mind is this: many schools have incoming freshmen attend summer school in an effort to get them up to college speed, attend voluntary workouts and relieve some class load prior to the busy basketball season. With that said, the NCAA does not permit coaches contact with these freshmen until the start of school and thus anywhere from 6-8 weeks of pick-up games (2-3 times a week to be modest) including 6-8 weeks of poor habits are engrained in these young athletes.  Instead of pick-up, I propose that athletes are encouraged to immerse themselves in deep practice where priority on specific skills for specific players would be emphasized.

“For most of the last century, many educational psychologists believed that the learning process was governed by fixed factors like IQ and developmental stages. Barry Zimmerman, a professor of psychology at City University of New York, has never been one of them.  Instead, he’s fascinated by the kind of learning that goes on when people observe, judge and strategize their own performance when they, in essence, coach themselves. Zimmerman’s interest in this type of learning, known as self-regulation, led him in 2001 to undertake an experiment.”

Summary of Experiment:

Question: Is it possible to judge ability solely by the way people describe the way they practice?

  • The chosen skill to observe and test was the volleyball serve
  • Experimenters gathered volleyball players of all levels and asked them how they approached the serve – goals, planning, strategy, etc, - twelve measures in all.
  • They then predicted who would be the best at that skill and then had them execute the serve to test the accuracy of their predictions.
  • Result: “90% of the variation in skill could be accounted for by the player’s answers.”

“”Our predictions were extremely accurate,” Zimmeran said. “This showed that experts practice differently and far more strategically.  When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves. They have a strategy they can fix.”  “Through practice, they had developed something more important than mere skill; they’d grown a detailed conceptual understanding that allowed them to control and adapt their performance, to fix problems , and to customize their circuits to new situations.”

Back to Basketball

How many of your basketball athletes attempt foul shooting with the same organized and strategic approach? Is their routine the same whether alone of in front of millions on TV? How many have a clear goal before they step foot in the gym? How many become upset when that goal is not reached or simply wandered out happy they’ve completed their allotted number for the day?

Repeat it

 “There is no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do – talking, thinking, reading, imagining – is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.”

“Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however doesn’t obey the same math.  Spending more time is effective – but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day.  Ericsson’s research shows that most world class experts – including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes – practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.”

Sweet Spot

Can be described as, “that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

  1. Pick a target, 2. Reach for it, 3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach. 4. Return to step one.

Back to Basketball

How many of your athlete’s lace up their sneakers thinking about finding the sweet spot? Thinking about pushing themselves to the edge of their own comfort? About failing and then implementing a plan to resolve their failure, then going back and pushing themselves further again?  It’s been said you should try, fail, try again, fail better.  Someday you’ll get it right. There is a clear difference between working on your shot and working on your “post up -up fake - drop step and kiss off the glass while getting bumped by a defender.”  Good players work on their shot; players that get paid work on the latter.


Take Home

  1. Master the basics. Technique is king. This is hard in American culture where high flying dunks and trash talk seem to dominate the hard wood. The nice thing about mastering the basics is that it can be done by oneself and does not require another person. Immerse yourself in Deep Practice.
  2. Develop a comprehensive plan when approaching skill development: this is most difficult since it requires athletes to first see themselves, and their skill set honestly.  Many avoid post moves because it’s simply not as sexy as the three-point splash. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen big men out in three point land jacking up shots for hours during the summer even though they’ll never get out of the paint during the basketball season.  Your plan must come with honest self-monitoring, goals, strategy, planning and adaptation. Simply “putting up shots” will only make you better at “putting up shots” and never translates to making a mid-range jumper coming off an up screen on an in-bounds play.
  3. Enjoy the process. Your athletes need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I don’t mean while running a suicide during practice when you’ll yelling at them, I’m talking about pushing themselves to near failure during their own independent skill development time. Pushing themselves to find their sweet spot time after time after time.

Now go get some shots up or get better today.  The choice is yours.

Topics: Basketball Related, Art Horne