Our most colloquial term referring to motor performance is “muscle memory.” This term is accepted generally and practically, but learning occurs in the brain. When we talk about “muscle memory,” we refer to motor programs stored in our procedural long-term memory. Because learning occurs in the brain, we cannot see learning. Instead, we infer learning based on performance.
Learning requires improvement, consistency, stability, persistence and adaptability. Performance is temporary. Kobe Bryant shoots 7/25 on one night and 14/19 on the next night. Did he learn better shooting technique in between the two games because his shooting performance improved? If he shot 6/21 in the next game, would that indicate forgetting?
No. His performance varies due to performance variables: fatigue, defense, shot selection, time constraints, travel, pressure, etc. His technique — his motor programs — do not change from game to game; his skill is learned. His performance varies due to external and internal factors. This is an important concept in learning and coaching. How does a coach react to a player’s performance? The coach’s reaction or instruction can become a performance variable and affect performance positively or negatively. The coach’s instruction is a learning variable, as the instructions affect the player’s learning.
One measure of learning is adaptability. I have written previously about this concept in terms of movement away from the ball and used Vern Gambetta’s idea of adapted vs. adaptable. An adapted player learns his offensive set and can execute the set as though following a set of instructions; an adaptable player learns the skills and adapts those skills to different situations. When I played, I adapted to the pattern of the Flex offense in junior high school; I did not learn how to use a down screen generally, just within the context of the offense. My skill was not adaptable to different situations.
A coach’s instructions affect the player’s adaptability. When coaches limit players, they affect their adaptability. When coaches use only block drills, they affect their adaptability. If a player learns a chest pass in a two-line drill with no defense, is that skill adaptable to different situations? Will he use the skill in a game situation when pressured by a defender? We assume that skills transfer; we assume that because a player can make an unguarded two-hand chest pass to a stationary target, he will be able to pass off the dribble to a moving target when defended. These assumptions account for many breakdowns in skill execution and coaching. If the player adapts and executes the pass in a game under time stress, then we say he has learned the skill. If his skill is useless to him because of the load or time constraints, he has not learned. He is able to perform the skill under certain situations, but he has learned the skill only in those specific situations.
Assuming a high school varsity player has learned his shooting skills, how should a coach react to a mistake? Many coaches and parents immediately yell at a player who misses a free throw to use more legs. This instruction interrupts the skill execution. A varsity player has learned the shooting technique — he may need to improve, but his technique is consistent, stable, persistent and adaptable: he shoots the same way every time. If his technique changes on one shot because of fatigue or balance or defense, he returns to his technique and does not change permanently; his technique persists over a period of time; and he can shoot in different gyms against different defenders.
When the coach tells the player to bend his legs, the player changes from an automatic processing to a controlled processing. The conscious overtakes the subconscious execution. In a time-stressed task, this leads to err because it takes too long to think consciously and make a decision. In a skill such as shooting a free throw, the conscious thinking diverts the player’s attention from the rim (external) to the bend of the knees (internal). The player becomes more acutely aware of his body and tries to control the shot, which often leads to sub-optimal performance. When I shoot free throws, and allow my mind to wander, I hit 20, 30 in a row. As soon as I realize that I am shooting well, and try to analyze the shot to feel something or to learn something to share with the players who I train, I inevitably miss because my conscious mind controls the action. By thinking about other things, I divert my conscious mind away from the task and allow the subconscious to control the process. Because the skill is well-learned, the subconscious generally leads to make after make.
A bad game is a bad game. A poor performance may illustrate the need for additional learning; a player may need different practice to adapt the chest pass to game situations, especially in the half court. The poor performance illustrates a limitation in the player’s learning, and a coach can use a more random, varied practice to transfer the player’s learning to the game, or the adaptability of his skill.
In other instances, a bad game is a bad game. If I am a 90% free throw shooter, and I make 5/10 in a game, the worst thing that I can do is change my free throw shooting because of the poor performance. Performance is temporary. If I have learned the skill well, my skill is stable and that one game is not going to alter my performance moving forward. As long as my mind does not interfere (affect my confidence and attention), I would expect to shoot 90% in the next game. This is the idea of regression to the mean.
Learning is relatively permanent and requires practice (of course, learning can be negative, as one can acquire a skill at a below-optimal level). Observation of skill execution must differentiate between a poor performance (temporary), an unlearned skill (and therefore inconsistent in its execution) and a skill learned with less than optimal technique. Practice should be aimed at establishing the correct technique and making the skill more consistent, more stabile, and adaptable.