There was an interesting comment on the Coaches doing “what works” post. Long-time reader Kelly said the following:

I’ve read and listened to Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Little Book of Talent’, where he talks about isolation repetitions to build talent. I tend to agree with him on this premise. I entertain other sports that uses isolation repetitions, such as, boxing, football, tennis, & recently soccer. My experience has shown that both game-like and isolation repetitions build talent. I’ve learned that the younger athletes should be more heavily involved with isolation repetitions. As athletes get older the more game-like works, being that the skills sets are established.

I’m going to mention a couple things in relation to this comment.

Anything beginners do will make them better

There’s a great quote from training legend Vern Gambetta where he observes the following:

When an athlete is beginning their career anything they do will make them better. Then comes a time of diminishing return, when practice must be guided & have a specific purpose.

I strongly suspect that a lot of the gains coaches see in beginners from isolated reps reflect exactly this fact. In other words, this is likely another example of misattribution, as outlined in the last post.

By the way, the comment above uses the phrase “the skills sets are established”. Do player really every establish skills? Are they not in a continuous state of development and refinement as players adapt to new challenges presented by the game?

Both game-like and isolation repetitions build talent

The world “talent” here is a tricky one. Let’s put aside diving into the definition for a discussion on another day, though. In the context of this discussion it equates to skill, so I’ll go with that.

The slightly revised statement that both game-like and isolation repetitions build skills is certainly true. Basically, anything that involves performing a specific action with some kind of feedback and/or instruction can build skill.

The question we want to ask is not about what can build skill. It’s what builds skill most effectively and efficiently. This is probably my biggest issue with the “what works” mentality. It’s kind of like someone coming along and saying they can show us how to do something faster and cheaper and we refuse because we’re too lazy, stubborn, etc.

I’m not saying all coaches have this mentality. Some have explored the research and have legitimate issues with it (though even there some just cherrypick things which support their own established view). I’m specifically talking about those putting forth the “what works” argument.

The hypocrisy of “what works”

The core of the “what works” mentality is an unwillingness to change. And the reasons for that run entirely counter to what we expect from our athletes. We want them trying new things that could make them better. How do we react when they take a “what works” mentality?

Thus, it’s hypocritical of us to have that mentality ourselves when presented with techniques that could make us better coaches. Don’t you think?

Also, if we refuse to upgrade our skills when a clear opportunity presents itself, that doesn’t sound like we’re doing the best we can for our athletes. If that’s the case, should we really be coaching?

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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