Playing to Learn while Learning to Play

Basketball coach and trainer Brian McCormick has been reading the book "The Art of Learning," which you can see might have implications for how basketball players are trained. This is quoted with permission from McCormick's newsletter:

Chess Champion Josh Waitzkin describes his initial experiences with his first chess teacher. The teacher taught him chess opposite the approach of many youth teachers. Apparently, in the world of competitive youth chess, most players learn intricate opening maneuvers to snare their opponent early in a match. These maneuvers are memorized scripts, almost like the football teams who script their first 15 plays before a game.

Waitzkin's teacher, on the other hand, taught him through playing. Rather than play with a full chess board, they played with three pieces: two kings and a pawn to start. Once Waitzkin was comfortable with the movement, value and power of a pawn, his teacher changed the pawn to a bishop and a rook and so forth, until Waitzkin internalized the movement, value and power of each piece.

While the other young players often won quick, decisive victories through their memorized script, if an opponent was able to survive the scripted opening, he had an advantage because the scripted player lacked the internalized knowledge, like Waitzkin.

Waitzkin's teacher effectively used game play to build a passion for the game as well as knowledge of how to play the game, regardless of situation. He did not need an orchestrated opening to win; he could win through his playing ability. Of course, this teaching was a process and did not occur overnight; however, Waitzkin's multiple national championships are testament to his playing ability.

On the court, few coaches use the method of Waitzkin's teacher. Most coaches are like the other youth players, using practice time to memorize a press, a press break and set offenses to overwhelm the opponent. Players do not play on the court so much as they follow a script. And, when an opponent survives the initial onslaught of pressure, these players often lack the basic fundamentals to play in another way.