My first real coaching job when I was fresh from the factory was in Hillsboro, ND, as an assistant football, basketball, and baseball coach for the high school teams. In my role as an assistant basketball coach, I had the opportunity to work under Elliot Rotvold, who is still the head boys’ basketball coach for the Burros. I quickly learned that Coach Rotvold is really, really good at his job; he was as good of mentor for me as a young coach as he continues to be for the kids he coaches. Observing Coach Rotvold on a daily basis was a great way for young coach to learn that coaching wasn’t a separate entity from teaching; coaching IS teaching, just with a ball instead of a textbook. More on that in a bit…
In one of my graduate classes recently, we used a textbook written by Wayne Callender, a nationally known guru for a school approach called Response to Intervention (RTI). In brief, RTI is a system designed to support both teachers and students while meeting students “where they are” in the classroom. Without getting into the how/why/etc., I’ll just say that RTI is a research based strategy that’s proved effective in many different schools.
At any rate, one section in the book jumped off the page at me as being directly related to coaching. As I read through the section, Coach Rotvold immediately came to mind. When I got to Hillsboro, we had some good athletes/basketball teams, so we were able to run a lot of basic motion offense to let the kids be creative. Then, a few years later, we found ourselves with a group of kids who were all under 6’0″, so we completely lost our post presence. Coach Rotvold decided to put in the standard issue Flex offense, which required some extra teaching that year. How he taught the kids a new offense aligned exactly with the principles of instruction laid out by Callender’s research.
The first part of Callender’s explanation is listing the four conditions necessary for a student’s practice to improve his/her performance.
1. The learner must be sufficiently motivated to improve performance.
More importantly, don’t forget that different kids are motivated by different carrots. Coach Rotvold knew how to sell the Flex to the kids who wanted better individual games, to the kids who wanted to learn enough to play varsity basketball, and to the kids who would do anything to help us win games.
2. The learner must have all the knowledge necessary to understand the different ways the new knowledge or skill can be applied.
Coach spent a lot of time teaching the kids the various ways to read and come off of a screen before we attempted to run full reps of the offense. To go along with that, we had drills that incorporated setting screens, cutting to and away from the ball, and (of course!) crisp passing.
3. The learner must understand how to apply the knowledge to deal with a particular situation.
This is the area that I thought Coach Rotvold did a great job. After teaching the various ways to come off a screen, Coach showed the kids how each method applied to the way a kid was being defended. Then, to match that movement, Coach made sure that our screeners knew how to fill the empty space left by the cutters.
4. The learner must be able to analyze the results of that application and know what needs to be changed to improve performance in the future.
Most coaches know the importance of this step. If we couldn’t get somebody open, was it because of a poor screen? A poor cut? A poor pass? Bad timing? The trick to getting a peak performance from the kids, though, is for the kids to recognize what went right or wrong without being told by a coach. It was easy to see that Coach Rotvold was a classroom teacher because he would often wait for the kids to answer his questions before just telling them what went wrong (or right).
The second part of Callender’s explanation is describing the teacher’s role in this process.
1. Select the smallest amount of material that will have the maximum meaning for the learner.
This is individualized learning. For our kid who wanted to play college basketball, Coach spent time teaching him how to square to the basket while catching a pass to speed up his shot. For our kid whose release took a long time, Coach spent more effort teaching him to set up his screener. For the kid who really didn’t care how many shots he took, Coach made sure he could set solid screens.
2. Model the application process step-by-step.
Coach Rotvold was a shooter in college, so it was fun to watch him demonstrate. Kids were given visuals as to how each cut, each read, and each screen should look. As we get older, we know that our skill modeling may not be up to speed (literally!), but it’s important for kids to get the visual. If you as a coach can no longer physically model the skill, make sure you have an assistant or upperclassman who can.
3. Insist the practice occur in the teacher’s presence over a short period of time while the student is focused on the learning.
This is the area that athletics tends to do better than classroom work. Unlike homework that gets sent home for practice, most skill learning in athletics takes place at practice.
4. Watch the practice and provide the student with prompt and specific feedback.
Again, typical of any good coach running a good practice. Coach Rotvold is really good at recognizing the longevity of the play. If one screen broke down, he could point out to the kids whether the mistake occurred during that particular screen or if it occurred because the previous screen was poor. Either way, the kids both heard and were shown the error immediately.
These steps are pretty basic, but I find them to be good reminders, especially to coaches of higher levels. Too often, varsity coaches want to ignore skill teaching to focus on teaching strategy…or they want to teach skills to a group of kids not interested in learning those skills. Using those steps above provides a good template for coaches to become better coaches.