A prominent shooting coach admonished other coaches for failing to teach the perfect shooting technique. The expert justified his opinion by providing an example of a player who went from making 82/100 to 92/100 in one day. The expert called this measured improvement.
Motor learning, in terms of skill acquisition, is concerned with two primary concepts: Retention and transfer. Retention is the ability to retain the skill performance after a period of no practice. In sports, we look at day to day for retention: Do your players retain the information or the learning from one practice to the next or is every practice like starting from scratch?
I worked with a teenager once whose parents wanted him to be a good shooter. I am not sure that the player cared. We worked out once per week, and every workout, we started from scratch. He did not practice on his own. When learning a skill, you have to practice more than once per week. With this player, there was no retention. He improved through the course of a workout, but the improvements were not retained the following week. Without retention, there was no learning.
Transfer is the ability to take a skill learned in one setting and execute the skill in a different setting. In sports, we discuss the transfer from practice to a game. If a player shoots 92% in practice, and 92% in the game, there is perfect transfer. If a player shoots 92% in practice and 60% in the game, there is little transfer. Without transfer, there is no learning.
Shooting coaches generally do not work in an environment that requires transfer. Parents watch their child make dozens of shots in a row in a shooting session, but struggle in a game, and blame the system or the high-school coach. If a player fails to transfer a skill from practice to game, coaches blame the player’s lack of concentration or a mental or psychological deficiency.
Rarely does one blame the practice. If I had a player shoot 100 shots in a row from the same spot at the same speed, by the end of the 100, the player will have improved. The player may retain the improvement from yesterday to today. However, in a game, does a player shoot 100 shots in a row from the same spot? This type of practice, called block practice, overestimates one’s learning.
Skills are stored in the long-term memory. When we warmup, the skill is recalled to the short-term memory. However, the short-term memory lasts for only 20-30 seconds. If one shoots 100 consecutive shots, the player must recall the motor pattern only once from the long-term memory. In a game, a player may go several possessions without shooting; the player has to recall the motor pattern from the long-term memory for every shot. This is the reason that everyone should shoot free throws like Steve Nash.
Therefore, rather than measure a shooting coach’s success with a player in an environment of block-practice drills, the learning must be measured in an environment where transfer is required, which is the game. If a player improves in practice, but not in the game, it does not mean that the coach’s system is wrong or that the player has a psychological problem. Often it means that the practice environment is ineffective. Random and variable practice has been shown to transfer better than block practice (see Richard Schmidt or Joan Vickers).
Improving in one day on consecutive free throws is possible; however, does it prove anything? Is there retention and transfer? Can the improved shooting transfer to different shots from different locations in a game environment? To demonstrate learning, one must see retention and transfer.