Learning by Doing

Over the Christmas holiday, I did an experiment with my two sons. Sam just turned 13 and Andrew is now 9. They like to play – whatever is in season – they like to play. Neither has played much “organized” basketball (whatever that means) but instead enjoy playing with their neighborhood friends in our driveway.

One evening, long after the sun had set, I heard basketballs still being dribbled in the driveway. I walked through the garage to find the boys still shooting and I told them I would play “21” with them. Growing up, it was the game my older brother Jim tortured me with. He was a dead eye shooter and I was, well…I was good on defense. I didn’t win many games of 21 growing up on Brinker Street. It’s a simple game in which a free throw is worth 2 points and a layup is worth 1. If the shooter makes both shots they keep going. If the shooter misses the 2 pointer, they still get to attempt the layup for 1 point but then it’s the next shooter’s turn. The game is played to 21.

Because I love for my kids to stay curious about learning new things, I told them that the layup had to be left handed. They hesitated. I knew exactly why they balked at the idea. They didn’t want to miss, didn’t want to lose, and weren’t confident in their ability to consistently make a left handed layup. So, I tried something with them that would encourage them to go for it. I knew that I had to take away the fear of failure – it’s real and I understand it.

For our game on this night, I made a deal with the boys. If they attempted a left handed layup, they got a point. They didn’t have to make it – just attempt it. We played for another hour and every time they attempted a left handed layup, they got their point. A few things started to happen…

  • They got excited about trying a left handed layup. In fact, they saw absolutely no reason to shoot a right handed layup.
  • They made mistakes – both in jumping off the wrong foot and missing more shots than they were making.
  • They got better at it every game.

I estimate that they attempted one hundred left handed layups. By the end of the night, both boys looked very natural – and they started to have success. They weren’t perfect at it but they got a lot better. That wasn’t the best part. The best part came after I went inside only to find the boys wanted to stay out longer and keep practicing.

So, how do we apply this experiment to coaching and teaching?

  • Create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged (1 point for attempting the left handed layup).
  • Emphasize process over result (each of my sons took 100 shots).
  • Recognize that mistakes will be made. Encourage and reward a demonstrated commitment to trying something new regardless of outcome.

Below is the video of when I came back outside and saw the boys practicing.

-Mike Schall

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