Snipers don’t use Shotguns and neither should Coaches

When I was younger, my dad used to take me and my brother out hunting. This was years before we moved to Ireland. We were still living in East Africa at this stage. Every second or third weekend, my dad would take me and my older brother out to hunt. Our prey were either wild hare or Guinea-fowls. Both of whom camouflage seamlessly into the wild which makes it harder to spot them in their environment.

We used to hunt with either a shotgun or a small rifle. Both of which would do the job against small animals, but would not stand up to the bigger, wilder animals that roamed the plains of Africa. When it came to using the shotgun, there was no aiming process. Instead, we would have to be relatively close, point the shotgun in the general direction and pull the trigger. A cartridge would explode and out of it, hundreds of tiny pellets would scatter all over, flying wildly and covering a wide area of space. If we were lucky, we would snag some dinner. If not, we would reload and start the process again.

Contrast that to using the rifle. We could be further away from our prey, patiently scanning and timing. We would select a single target, lock in on it, and pull the trigger. The result was a single calibre bullet that hit its target with deadly precision, assuming of course that you aimed correctly.

The difference between the shotgun and the rifle was that the shotgun fired across a wide area of space, blindly, hoping that it would hit a target and there were plenty of targets to hit, but the accuracy was rather small. The rifle on the other hand had a singular focus, and covered less area of space, but more often than not hit its target. This was largely dependent on whether you aimed correctly or not.

What on earth does my hunting experience have to do with coaching?

As coaches, we want to help our athletes get better. We try and fix every problem that we see our athletes make. We want to share with them in one day or session what we took years for us to learn. Athletes, especially young athletes, are unable to do so. In order to understand why, let’s take a quick look at how the human brain works – we’ll try and keep it brief.

In “Thinking Fast and Slow”, author Daniel Kahneman, explains how there are two systems working in our brains. He refers to these systems as System 1 and System 2. Instead of looking at them as two systems, let’s look at them as two of my friends – Sarah and Carla.

Sarah is fast, quick-witted, and likes to get things done instantly. She is constantly observing her environment, taking in a lot of information, processing what is important and ignoring the rest. Sarah can multitask and has automated most of the daily processes so she can get things done without applying a lot of mental energy to each task. However, as she is not careful, she often rushes through these processes making rash decisions and more mistakes than necessary.

Carla is cool, thoughtful, analytical and prefers to take her time. She is lazy and prefers to hang out with Sarah, as Sarah does a lot of the work and thinking for both of them. Carla can perform complex tasks and follow detailed instructions. She is able to think critically, analyse information and solve complex problems. Carla does not like to multi-task; she would prefer to devote her full attention and effort to specific tasks. As a result, she is precise, careful and methodical. She doesn’t jump to conclusions and comes up with the best solution in most cases.

Sarah is System 1, the subconscious mind, and Carla is system 2, our conscious mind.

Sarah relies on instinct built up through experiences to anticipate possibilities so that she can come up with quick conclusions and act instantly. She is relying on her long-term memory. Carla on the other hand exists in the realm of her working memory meaning that she is only able to focus on what needs to be done in that specific moment. Carla can only hold between 3 – 5 new pieces of information at any given time.

However, when we are able to chunk information together, Carla is able to hold more things. Because to her, it is one chunk of information as opposed to several individual pieces of information. This is why phrases such as KISS (keep it simple stupid), TEAM (together everyone achieves more) and ASAP (as soon as possible) are easier to remember than other phrases or quotes which don’t have an anagram to it. On a separate note, it also explains why Tony Start loved his anagrams. He was able to chunk information and remember more.

We can always keep chunking, which is what happens in the learning process. New information gathered is processed by Carla and then connected to existing information that we already have. This way she is connecting information with what Sarah already knows. When this happens, Sarah can now perform them automatically.

Let’s take this as an example – When Carla was first learning to ride a bike, she remained vigilant, stayed present and consciously focused on repeating the movement patterns required. Whenever she wobbled or fell over, she repeated the action again, learning from past mistakes. As she repeated it over and over again, she begins to chunk information together into categories. She is processing what is working and what is not working, storing them in her database and connecting them to information that Sarah already knows. Over time, this activity begins to become automatic. She doesn’t need to focus so much on staying balanced or pedalling, instead, she can now adjust her headphones, listen to music and possibly answer a phone call. All whilst keeping her hands off the handlebars.

Photo by Daniel Bernard on Unsplash

How is this relevant to Coaching?

Coaches – If you can stay with me just for a few more minutes, I’ll try and bring it all in together.

We’ve highlighted that Carla is lazy and would prefer to get by with minimal work, allowing Sarah to do most of the work that is needed instead. However, there are some things that we need Carla to do, and not Sarah. We’ve also explained that Sarah is the one that new information goes to first. She throws most of it out, as she thinks it’s irrelevant. This means that Carla is not getting any of the information that is being thrown out.

To illustrate this point – Think back to a time that you were at a party talking to a group of friends, totally immersed in the conversation. Suddenly from across the room, you hear someone say your name and you turn to see who it was. You’ve probably experienced such an event, even if you were never at a party in your life.

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

When you were talking with your group of friends, Sarah was picking up all sorts of information around you. However, as we’ve stated before, she tosses out anything that she thinks is irrelevant. Your name is not irrelevant, so when she heard your name, she flagged that as relevant and diverted your attention there.

So the first step is figuring out how to get Sarah to pass on the information to Carla. When she does send something to Carla, it is imperative that it is not too much information, otherwise, Carla would either refuse to deal with it or else she will try to do it all and fail miserably. Giving Carla too much work to process is not productive. She procrastinates and forgets about it or suffers from paralysis by analysis.

When we use a shotgun and provide our athletes with a variety of different feedback points, they are unable to prioritise and decide which one is important. Sarah throws most of this feedback that is being provided away, as she flags them as irrelevant. You can spot this happen in practice if you observe body language – your players will lose focus and begin to tune you out. You will notice a look that indicates no one is home. That means the information is not actually getting to Carla where we want it to go.

There are two main ways that I use to get Sarah to pass on the desired information to Carla. The first is through asking my athletes deliberate questions, and the second one is by emphasising one or two points throughout the entire practice.

By using a sniper approach to proving feedback, we, as coaches can choose to focus on primarily two or three things, allowing the players to actively focus on this. They may struggle initially (just like in the example of riding a bike) but once they are able to chunk it and transfer it to the long term memory, we can proceed and add something new. In addition, because we are only prioritising two or three things, we are more likely to see the players make an effort on these things in practice. That is we’ll see Carla do more work. You’ll notice this as you see your players engaged in the action, talking to each other, trying to solve problems, discussing solutions and then working together to apply it on the court.

Using a shotgun covers more area, which gives the impression that more was done. Using a rifle covers less area, however it is more accurate. This is a classic example of where less is actually more

Common Practice Observations

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a practice from a team nearby. In one segment of the practice, the coach was working on a full-court defensive press.

The drill was set up in a relatively simple manner. The offensive team started with the ball under their basket with players already in their press break positions. The defense lined up accordingly in their starting positions. Once the ball was passed in, the top two defensive players would double the ball.

As the coach explained the drill and the rotations, I got the impression that he was working on how to rotate from a defensive point of view after the ball was passed out of the double team. The entire drill lasted about ten minutes and during that time, I counted 17 different technical or tactical feedback points. None of these had anything to do with the rotations out of the second line. This is an example of a shotgun being used.

I want to say upfront that what the coach was saying was not irrelevant, at least not according to him. The players were making a bunch of mistakes (wild hares running all over the court) and the coach was attempting to shoot them all using his shotgun. He may have felt that he was doing a good job in correcting the players errors.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking to Carla. The players were receiving so much information that Sarah was never sending any message to Carla. They didn’t understand the overall objective of the drill and what the key points of emphasis were in that segment. A rifle would have been much more useful in this case, as he would have been carefully selecting the key points of emphasis and firing on that. Carla would have been engaged in the drill and begun the conscious process of chunking things together.

The mistakes would still end up happening, as she needs to take time to collect data and chunk. However, the experience would be compounding and players would be actively learning. In the long-term, this is much better for players than blasting a shotgun randomly and wildly.

Snipers don’t use Shotguns, and neither should Coaches

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