Don’t Assume Playing = Learning

Coaches are, by default, teachers. Their goal is to transfer information necessary for skill acquisition most efficiently. How to best transmit the information the coach may possess and impact learning by the student is a constant subject of debate, as it should be. Teachers and coaches should constantly test and experiment with new and better methods of instruction. A quick search of learning theory will result in multiple instructional approaches positively impacting the student. Yet, despite these studies that reflect positive results from various methods, there is a penchant for coaches to quickly discount other learning methods that may conflict with their own. Coaches should fight the tendency to “cherry-pick” studies that correlate with their preconceived notion of the “best” practice methods. Confirmation bias prevents progress in how we teach and stifles creativity. 

Volleyball coaches have been bludgeoned into the concept of only one acceptable learning method. Current coaching dogma in the volleyball community has created an environment where it is taboo for coaches to enter a ball as they run a drill, get on a box and hit a ball to defenders working on defensive skills, or toss a ball to a hitter so they can focus on spiking mechanics as the coach runs their practice. 

The current acceptable way to run a practice involves lots of small group or 6v6 play. Every activity must be game-like, the score must be kept, and coaches must quietly observe, allowing players to learn through the acquired experiences. I do not have an issue with any of the above activities. This genre of activities is an essential staple in my training sessions. However, I am keenly aware of other approaches to skill development that merit consideration and implementation into training sessions. Although random, game-like activities are an essential component of learning, it is important to consider how these activities are implemented and accept that many learning specialists suggest that “blocked” training, although not the primary approach to learning, is an essential component of the learning process.

Coaches should consider whether some of the learning theories of these renowned psychologists, presented below, merit consideration in their practice environment.

Dr. Anders Ericsson

The late Dr. Anders Ericsson studied how experts became experts. Dr. Ericsson noted that one of the common themes of developing expertise was the concept of “deliberate practice.” The critical components of deliberate practice include specific goals, intense focus, immediate feedback, repetition focusing on skill refinement, and structured activities to target specific outcomes.

  1. Well-defined specific goals: Deliberate practice involves setting clear goals to improve specific aspects of performance rather than just engaging in an activity. The goals provide a target to work towards methodically.
  2. Focused practice: Requires full attention and conscious actions to improve the targeted aspect. Engaging in an activity without this focused effort does not qualify as deliberate practice.
  3. Feedback: Deliberate practice involves receiving continuous feedback on performance from coaches, teachers, or self-observation to identify areas needing improvement. Feedback guides future practice.
  4. Getting out of the comfort zone: Deliberate practice entails operating at the edge of one’s abilities and constantly pushing beyond one’s current skill level rather than just repeating what one has already mastered.
  5. Breaking down tasks: Complex skills are deconstructed into smaller, manageable components (drills, routines) that can be practiced systematically.
  6. Repetition and refinement: The components are repeatedly practiced with targeted feedback to refine and improve performance incrementally.

How Implementing Ericsson’s Ideas Will Impact Your Practice:

  • Each activity in a training session should have well-defined goals. If you want to play short court 2v2, that’s great! However, will there be a specific focus? Are the players working on reading the hitter, defensive court coverage, etc., or is this just an activity lacking success criteria other than the scoreboard?
  • The coach assists the athlete by providing specific and timely feedback. I tend to use feedback “on the fly” that provides the player with information as the play continues. There is no need to stop an activity for the coach to pontificate on some aspect of the game.
  • The athlete’s focus on the task at hand should be very high. Obtaining this high level of focus can be challenging for players of all ages, especially younger athletes. Coaches must create scenarios and activities that mandate a high level of focus. 
  • The athlete should be challenged to go to the edges of the current ability, risking failure in the process (see below: Bjork’s “challenge points.”)
  • The components of a skill should be targeted and perfected. For example, a blocker works on specific aspects of their footwork or net penetration. We have all used feedback in training sessions. Have we used feed-forward? Plot the items of emphasis we want to improve upon in a training session before practice.

The question for coaches is, how many of your training sessions incorporate components of deliberate practice? 

Renowned UCLA professor Robert Bjork has studied the best methods in skill acquisition. In the video below, he presents his thoughts on skill development. His ideas focus on implementing “Desirable Difficulties” into learning routines.

Dr. Robert Bjork, UCLA Professor of Psychology

How Implementing Dr. Bjork’s Ideas Will Impact Your Practices

  • Space out the repetitions: For example, working on serve-receive for three five-minute sessions rather than a single fifteen-minute time block will be more productive.
  • Vary the Conditions: Have passers receive float serves, spin serves, receive line and x-court, short serves, and deep serves, as opposed to the same server that serves the same type of ball.
  • Interleaving: Have the player focus on their passing; however, they must also incorporate other skills. For example, if the focus is passing, the player will pass and proceed to attack against defenders, then return to passing.
  • Providing Appropriate Knowledge: Make sure the player has a knowledge base that provides a cognitive foundation for their actions. Then, instead of telling the player what to do, pose questions that force the athlete to recall the foundational knowledge. (See below, “long-term memory”). For example, ask players how they might change their court position to be a more effective defender to test their knowledge of the keys to reading around the block. Spending time before practice to focus on items of importance in the upcoming practice might assist the athlete.
  • Incorporate Challenge Points: provide an environment that challenges the athlete to the edge of their current abilities.

Dr. Paul Kirschner is well respected for his work in cognitive load theory and his battle against constructivism. Constructivism means that students acquire knowledge based on their experiences. They “construct” their learning environment based on what they experience and see. In this unguided environment, the teacher is in a support role. Experienced players can shape their learning in a self-guided manner, assuming they have a foundational knowledge of the activity. However, this approach is less effective with younger players due to their lack of knowledge. 

Dr. Kirschner states, “Not only is unguided instruction less effective, there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions on incomplete or disorganized knowledge.” Kirschner believes the teacher (coach) must be actively involved in the teaching process and lead the student step-by-step through a complex activity.

Acclaimed jazz pianist Bill Evans talks about the need to approach an enormous task in small increments and develop the necessary skills to make a larger task meaningful. It compares to starting a building on the second floor without the foundation passing inspection.


*Cognitive Load Theory

“The basic idea of cognitive load theory is that cognitive capacity in working memory is limited, so learning will be hampered if a learning task requires too much capacity.” The recommended remedy is to design instructional systems that optimize working memory capacity and avoid cognitive overload. *

This photo demonstrates the information being provided to the athlete.

(Intrinsic Cognitive Load) Coaches should make the essential information easy to understand. (Extraneous Cognitive Load) Coaches should filter information that is not relevant at this time. (Germane Cognitive Load) Coaches should layer new information on previous retained information.

The above photo tracks your players’ information flow. The goal is to process and store new information in the long-term memory. Coaches should remember that Working Memory has limited capacity (5-9 items). To facilitate retention, try to “chunk” the essential information into small portions.

Here are my takeaways if I can provide an overview of the diagrams.

  • Working memory can only hold around 5-9 new elements (chunks of information) simultaneously and for around 20 seconds before needing to refresh or transfer that information to long-term memory.
  • Unlike working memory, long-term memory has a much larger capacity to store vast amounts of familiar, schematic information for an unlimited duration once properly encoded and retrieved.
  • Cognitive load theory distinguishes three types of cognitive load on working memory:
  1. Intrinsic load – The inherent complexity of the material itself
  2. Extraneous load – The unnecessary processing demands created by poor instructional design
  3. Germane load – The cognitive resources devoted to actively constructing and storing the new information in long-term memory

For effective learning to occur, instruction should manage intrinsic load, minimize extraneous load imposed by suboptimal designs, and promote germane load that facilitates schema* construction and transfer to long-term memory.

How Implementing Dr. Kirschner’s Ideas into Your Practice

  • The goal is to transfer information from the working memory to long-term memory, where it can be easily recalled.
  • Working memory has a limited capacity for new information (5-9 items). Consequently, the coach should focus on the essential aspects of an activity to avoid overloading the working memory.
  • The information presented should be specific, allowing the athlete to focus on the essential aspects of a skill (keywords vs. long-winded explanation).
  • In a multi-player random activity, the coach should prioritize the feedback, focusing on the essential information. 
  • Continuous rehearsal is necessary for information stored in long-term memory to be recalled consistently and quickly.

Grand Takeaway

You might notice some degree of overlap in these scholars’ theories. As professional coaches, we take responsibility for providing our troops with the best opportunity to learn and improve. Magical drills or any number of game-related activities do not ensure progress. Practice sessions should be organized with learning principles as a focus. As former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Don’t confuse activity with getting something accomplished.”

I would encourage the following:

  • Build a foundation of knowledge, movement, and skill development. Players should be aware of the direction they are pursuing with skill development.
  • Incorporate activities into your practice that pushes the athlete to the edge of their current skillset.
  • Repetition is essential to maintaining and quickly accessing information in long-term memory. The goal is to build positive habits that players can implement without conscious thought. Thinking on the court slows reaction time. This is acceptable when learning a skill; however, thinking inhibits fast reactions and decision-making during competition.
  • Use both feed-forward and feedback to facilitate learning. Have pre-practice meetings to present new ideas. Make use of feedback during and post-practice. Remember that practice is the time for repetition—limit stoppage of activities.
  • Every activity should have success criteria, which should be presented in advance of starting the drill or activity.
  • Keep a majority of activities to game-like situations, however, slowing down and working on specific items in a blocked fashion is in line with Ericsson’s ideas.
  • Leaning against the wall while practice unfolds is not a good teaching strategy. A coach should always be contributing to instruction or a positive learning environment.
  • Be open to new ideas about teaching and learning. Avoid being judgmental of others who might be taking a different path. Instead, be curious about their methods.

*Schemas are the cognitive structures making up an individual’s knowledge base.