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The Curse of Knowledge
by Brian McCormick, CSCS, M.S.S.
Performance Director, TrainforHoops.com

Everyday, on multiple sites, basketball coaches seek information. They want to know more, devise more options and find answers to questions. However, is this quest detrimental? Can coaches know too much about the game?

I observed a college coach for a season because of my familiarity with several players on the team. The coach grudgingly allowed me into numerous practices and I attended several games. This coach is a highly regarded former player who won a championship as a player. But, the coach is an awful coach. The coach knows the game and is a better player, even now, than any of the players. But, the coach cannot communicate with the players on the floor. The coach suffers from the "Curse of Knowledge."

In Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, they describe the "Curse of Knowledge:"

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Out knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.

The assumption is that better players make better coaches because they presumably know more about the game. However, this is often untrue. Many former players cannot teach the same skills they instinctively perform because they cannot re-create the learning experience. Often it is the average player who had to work at his or her game just to make it that makes the best coach; Billy Donovan, for all his success as a player, had to work at his game to make it.

When I took my first coaching job, I taught myself to shoot left-handed. I did not worry about my success or attempt to become an ambidextrous shooter. Instead, I wanted to understand the learning process, so I could assist the 13 and 14-year-olds on my team. Now, I pursue different activities to stay involved in the learning process and put myself in the shoes of the players I train and coach. I want to enhance my communication ability by avoiding the "Curse of Knowledge." I want to be the novice, not just the expert.

Knowledge means very little if you cannot communicate what you know in a way that the players understand. Often, coaches are visibly frustrated on the sideline because players make mistakes which make no sense to the coach. I struggle to teach zone offense. I love to play against zone defenses. I think they are easy to play against. Most zone defenses are fairly predictable, which makes it easy to anticipate and read the defense to find an opening. I know where and how to move to get the defense to move in such a way to open the pass I want to make.

However, coaching players who lack this innate understanding is difficult and frustrating. I find it difficult to teach players with far more ability than myself who struggle to see the spatial relationships and defensive patterns. They lack the understanding and, because it is easy for me, I struggle to put myself in the confused, novice state to explain my thought process in a manner the players understand.

While coaches seek more information on drills and strategy, most coaches know enough about the game to be a successful coach. However, many coaches cannot communicate their knowledge. To hide the communication breakdown and the lack of understanding, teams run more plays and do more drills. Coaches make the game more complicated, hoping the additional strategy compensates for the poor understanding and execution: if you play five defenses, even if you play them poorly, maybe it is enough to keep the other team off-balanced.

Rather than searching for new information, coaches should examine their coaching strategy. Are you cursed by your knowledge? Can you put yourself in the shoes of a player who is new to the game? Can you explain basic skills or strategy to someone who thinks a pick-and-roll is akin to calculus? If you cannot put your instructions into language the player understands, adding more information or knowledge is not the answer. In most cases, your role as the expert is established. The need is to transfer your expert understanding to a novice performer. This is the challenge of coaching. It is not a battle to know more than your rival coaches.

I get emails all the time asking my opinion on running the Temple Match-up Zone or Vance Walberg’s press or the Swing Offense or the Blocker-Mover Offense. I have no opinion. I could not tell you how any of those work. And, I do not believe that makes me a bad coach. I know I do not need to know everything about the game to be a great coach. I believe in the philosophy of former Chicago Bears’ Head Coach George Halas: "You do what you do well and you do it over and over again."

Variety is the spice of life. However, too much knowledge can sometimes confuse the mission or the teaching. If your team is struggling, it does not mean it is time for a new strategy. It might be the "Curse of Knowledge." Rather than adding more sophistication, it might be time for less sophistication to ensure your players understand.

Use your expert knowledge, but communicate to the player’s level of understanding. This does not mean "dumbing down the process," but creating effective lines of communication through the use of better demonstrations, less technical verbiage and more time on instruction.

Most coaches suffer from the "Curse of Knowledge" at some point. Many coaches blame players for their lack of understanding or competence: "Why don’t they get it? It’s so simple!" But, the great coaches examine their explanations, demonstrations and instructions and find a way to reach the players at the players’ level of competence, rather than expecting the players to reach the coach’s competence level.

McCormick is the Performance Director for TrainforHoops.com and produces a free weekly newsletter. To subscribe, email hard2guardinc@yahoo.com with "Subscribe" in the Subject line. He is also the author of Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development available at www.lulu.com/brianmccormick.

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