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Reflections from a Basketball Decision Training Basketball Camp

Guest contributor, Brendan Gill, outlines his and his daughter’s experiences, from attending a basketball camp featuring Basketball Immersion concepts. Brendan is in his 23rd year as a high school teacher; eight years as a varsity coach plus many years as a youth, middle school & club coach as well as five years as a club soccer coach. Follow Brendan on Twitter @scribeteach

Walking into a basketball camp featuring Basketball Immersion concepts, coffee in hand, I started thinking about how not only is it the first basketball camp, I am working in quite some time, but it’s the first real public gathering I’ve attended since the start of the pandemic.

It’s early summer 2021 and things are really starting to open up. I even brought my middle school-aged daughter to the basketball camp, which was really the purpose of attending. But there’s no way I was just going to be a parent hanging out. I wanted to participate in the camp as a coach as I didn’t want to let my daughter be the only one who would be learning so much over the three days.

Here are my takeaways and experiences.

Right away, Chris made it clear to the players that, indeed, this would be a learning camp, not a “let’s just play 5-on-5 for 6 hours” camp. Right away, it was clear that coaches would also be learning. 

For the players, playing is great; camps where players get to play 5-on-5 does offer benefits. And coaches, of course, want their players to learn in any practice, clinic or camp. But the level of deep learning that happened at the camp last June in Los Angeles, for both players and coaches who came to work the camp, was beyond what I had experienced at any clinic I’ve worked or attended. As a parent, it was beyond money well spent. As a coach and teacher, it was a masterclass in teaching. 

It was challenging, there were definitely some coaches who shifted their paradigms during the camp and I can definitely say it was on par with the best learning experiences I’ve had, be it in a gym or a classroom. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one ready to jump into the deep end of learning. Another coach, a college player heading into his senior year, is a product of more traditional coaching methods. In many ways, the college player’s experience ended up being the perfect way for him to begin his coaching journey as he was exposed to a wide variety of coaching methodologies that Chris uses:

  • Interleaving
  • Feedback-based
  • BDT Concepts
  • Constraints  led approach
  • Getting players to ask questions/centering the learner

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Members can access our Camp Series video series that outlines what and how we teach here: Camp Video Series List

It really was being thrown in toward the deep end and the college player was both overwhelmed (again, it was his first coaching clinic) but he knew enough to be appreciative of what he was being taught, knowing that it flew in the face of much of the orthodoxy he’d been taught. He said that he’d never really been coached with anything that we were teaching the players. Orthodox teaching and coaching methods are still effective. But there can be better ways. As Chris has said, there’s value in “giving up a known good for an unknown better.”

Early in my coaching career, I made the mistake of not seeing the gym as another classroom, another place where learners thrive. Thus, why apply known and effective pedagogy about teaching and learning? I was coaching, not teaching. More than that, I was looking for compliance, using transactional coaching methods. As a classroom teacher, clearly, I wasn’t doing an effective job of teaching. 

Thankfully, over some time, I flipped that. In a conversation with Chris during the clinic, he said that being exposed to, among others things, a constraint led approach during his Master’s program in college was his “lightbulb moment.” Seeing that in action, watching how Chris set up a drill or small-sided game and then getting to implement these methods with players was a priceless education for me. 

The pace of the camp was intense: this was both deliberate and excellent. This meant a high amount of both reps and opportunities for mistakes and learning, both for coaches and players. These short bursts (while not the same structure of bursts that Alex Sarama uses, yet still similar in intensity and duration) were designed to keep interest high while not overloading the cognitive challenges the players were facing. In a very effective way, this made the delivery of feedback easy as the goals for the games are easy to identify, again, both for the players and coaches. 

In the classroom, it’s easy for feedback to overwhelm the learner. After all, my job as a teacher is to teach, inspire and guide. As is often noted, “assessment” comes from the Latin meaning to “sit beside.” By structuring games with goals that needed clear and simple feedback, Chris created both coach-led and player-led opportunities to quickly recreate a drill or game. 

In that process of working with players and demonstrating possible solutions, Chris would engage players in a way that encouraged them to ask questions. One of the radically under taught skills in education is teaching students how to ask questions. (While it is often a natural process for students to ask questions, generating questions as a learning outcome isn’t a common standard). Studies even show that as students get older/go through their K-12 education, not only are they talking less (as teachers are talking more), they are asking fewer questions. Basically, students are learning to be more passive as a learner as the teacher delivers content and the students receive it. 

Obviously, it’s a gross exaggeration to think that happens in every classroom. But parallel experiences like that do happen in the gym as, typically, the coach gives directions, tells players how to rotate during a drill and then gives feedback at the end. This model, however, falls short in involving the player in the process. Chris challenged players by having them figure out the rotation during small-sided games (SSGs). At times he would elicit a response by asking players “what did you feel?” as they tried to recreate a specific solution/skill. This centers the learner, allowing them to experience a more authentic and connected experience. This is not to advocate for a shift where coaches don’t need to teach and coach, where they simply show up, toss out the balls and let players run practice. But the clinic that Chris led was definitely a player/learner-centric environment.

2021 is my 24th year as a classroom teacher. Early on, as is common for many teachers, the first few years are about struggle. An important shift for me occurred when I started reading research about feedback. As an English teacher, I want the feedback I give to students to be actionable; I want students to be able to use feedback to improve, especially when it comes to their writing.

Learn more about what it is like to attend a Basketball Immersion basketball camp from a college head coach who attended a camp here: The Basketball Podcast: EP24 Marwan Elrakabawy on Attending a Basketball Immersion Basketball Camp

Marwan Elrakabawy

But students are smart and long ago they figured out how to let the teacher do most of the work. For example, when providing feedback on an essay, it is common for teachers to point out errors (grammar, spelling, logic issues, etc.) that the student put to use. While this is indeed part of what teachers should be doing, when students sit back and, essentially, ask for the answers without much struggle, that is not an optimal learning experience. Students will gladly let the teacher be the one who is providing all the feedback. 

Also, that’s a transactional, not transformational, environment. Engaging learners in a way that asks them to be a part of the assessment and evaluative process is going to produce deeper learning, learning that sticks. If the coach is the only one giving feedback, that doesn’t do much for creating an environment where, again, players will have much autonomy. As coach Brent Tipton has said, teach players “where to look, but not what to see.” What tasked with determining “what to see,” players will learn more.

When teachers only provide feedback at the end of an assignment, particularly when it’s a letter or percentage grade, it’s fairly common that students just do not read the feedback and focus only on the grade. That means there are missed opportunities both for learning and for autonomy during the process by students and players.    

Boston University assistant coach Brianna Finch has talked about how the amount of feedback is tied to the type of drills or games she is using. Teaching, training, or competitive drills might need different levels of and types of feedback. Some drills don’t need any feedback.

As a coach, it’s not that we need to give more feedback as not all feedback is meaningful. (“You probably should just shut up rather than provide meaningless feedback.” – Jason Watson, Univ. of Arkansas Volleyball coach). Challenging players to self assess and create their own feedback, at times before the coach interjects with their feedback, can go a long way toward making the learning experience more effective. As Daniel Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) has written, autonomy, mastery and purpose is what learners are yearning for. By creating experiences for players to self-assess and generate their own feedback, Chris helped create an environment not only where there were clear and specific goals, but players could create (autonomy) the conditions necessary for mastery. That still leaves purpose, but that’s why the players were at the camp in the first place: to improve.  

At the end of the three days, I knew I was ready for more. It was an experience where I needed time to process what I learned and also wished I had taken notes at the end of each session while the ideas were still fresh.  I cannot wait for another opportunity to work at a camp that Chris leads as, just like my experiences in the classroom, I am a life-long learner and I want to get better as a coach. I even tell my students that my goal isn’t to be a great teacher (as that implies a finish line), I just want to be better each year.

But that’s still not the best part of the camp. That was the easiest thing to spot. My daughter, smiling after the experience, asked if she could attend another camp led by Chris.

Bring Basketball Immersion coaches to your organization to run a player development basketball camp for your players and coaches.

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