John Wooden’s accomplishments as an NCAA basketball coach were remarkable. Even more astounding is that his legacy of coaching and inspiration has carried on after his death in 2010 at the age of 99.
Perhaps his most quoted statement had to do with his laws of learning. He said, “The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I create eight laws of learning — namely explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition.”
Many a coach in many a sport has implemented this approach. For hockey coaches, however, the repetition part is a little more complex. It’s the nature of our sport. Using an unnatural body motion - skating - on thin blades and an awkwardly long implement to control and propel a chunk of rubber, hockey players are forced to multitask like no other sport. Sometimes we don’t realize just how difficult it is.
How to tell? Go to a public skating session and observe adults who are clearly new to skating try to do anything on their skates, like turn or go backwards. A fundamental problem is how a new skater, child or adult, can control the fluidity of motion on skates.
To create habits as Wooden describes them requires hockey coaches get kids to repeat the skills in a far more uncomfortable environment than a basketball court. Baby, it’s cold and damp out there! But here’s the problem: there’s a huge difference between drill repetition and skill repetition. Repeating a drill over many practices, as coaches tend to do, may very well ensure players learn the drill and do it right, and eventually faster and more skilfully. It’s also boring and not very challenging.
Skill repetition is what we’re aiming for and certainly what Wooden referred to. If you do the same drill over and over, yes, the skills will be repeated and perhaps learned. Hockey though requires skills be acquired in a variety of ways and situations. Crossover turns, for instance, can indeed be done around a circle ad nauseam. That same skill should also be repeated around a dot, or two dots, or a player, etc. In other words, the skill’s fundamentals don’t change; the “environment” does.
Wooden was right. We need to teach using repetition at all levels. Even tactics like 1 on 1s need to be done multiple times under various conditions for players to understand and apply the tactics and skills required. The coach’s challenge is to find innovative ways to do it so that by the end of practice, no one pays any heed to the cold and wet.
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