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Deflections: Learning is not automatic

Quickly now: what do building a desk and learning a tactic have in common?

You’re shopping online for a computer desk. You find one and decide to go straight to the store to see it. When you arrive, a teenage employee is assembling the floor model without the instruction sheet. In minutes, the completed desk is as it appeared online with nary a loose part. You buy it.

When you unpack the flat box and lay out the dozens of parts and hardware, you’re confused. But then you hark back to the kid in the store who assembled it before your coffee got cold. So how hard could it be?

Two hours and some choice words later, you’re nearly done. Well, except for a few screws and two pieces of what could be a drawer or siding that haven’t yet found a home. What went wrong?

Repetition. The store kid had probably done the assembly dozens of times. From a learning perspective, he was on autopilot. He didn’t even need the instructions. You, however, had only the 2D picture of the finished product in your mind along with hieroglyphic instructions and zero experience in building this desk. Even if you could take apart car engines, this desk was still a new experience for you.

Players learning a new skill or tactic, like you with the desk, will rely on clear instructions and a mind’s eye picture (or video or demo, given it involves movement) of what the tactic needs to resemble. They can’t do it though if you throw it all at them in one lump, and most decidedly not if you expect execution in practice with any speed.

It would be tantamount to you being instructed by the furniture store to race the teenage employee to complete the desk assembly on your first try – or fifth, or sixth. Yes, you’d do better, but no, you won’t catch up to the kid for a while yet.

Essentially then, you can never sacrifice technique for speed if you seek proper execution. This applies to learning how to beat a defender one on one or do a breakout or any other game-related planned event.

At a more basic level, it’s akin to asking kids to weave through a pylon course then take a shot. (Let’s set aside for now that pylons are a horrible nuisance and over-used.) That’s all well and good if they're good puckhandlers with decent turning or scooting skills to both sides, not to mention having the ability to shoot immediately after completing the course. But if they can do all that, what's the point of a simple pylon course? And how fast do they need to go through that course, with no resistance or challenges, before technique falters?

The desk assembly illustration is not so far-fetched. Skill acquisition and the confidence to apply skills under duress, however one defines it, are not specific to sport. All physical skills need to be practiced at a pace that allows for proper execution before we can implement the multitude of variables kids face in games.

Keep that in mind next time you try to build something for the first time and someone stands over you demanding to know why it’s taking so long.


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