A coach will often have an athlete in their team who has poor technique (e.g. an individual skill such as shooting technique) or has a habit in how they play (e.g. a team skill such as not denying a pass on the perimeter). There may be a number of causes for a habit:

  • The skill was developed through repetition without specific instruction (this is often the case with individual skills);
  • Specific instruction from a previous coach (e.g. a previous coach may have specifically instructed not to deny passes on the perimeter);
  • They are unaware of the “correct technique” or that their current technique is deficient;
  • They lack the physical fitness to play to a certain style (arguably this is not a bad “habit”).

The cause of the habit is less important than the fact that the habit exists, however. A habit is not simply “muscle memory”; it is a physical response in the brain – the connection between brain cells (the “synapse”) strengthens and as we learn, the brain increases in size. The stronger the connection between cells, the more automatic is the performance of the skill until we reach the stage of “unconscious competence” when we are able to perform the skill without thinking.

Changing any technique is difficult and will take time. Below are some helpful tips on how to do it most effectively:

1. Teach a New Habit rather than change an Old Habit

Rather than changing an existing habit (which, simply put, requires changing the physical connection between some brain cells and replacing it with a new connection) it will often be more effective to teach a new habit:

  • Give the old technique a specific name (e.g. “Miss Shot”);
  • Give the new technique a specific name (e.g. “Good Shot”);
  • Teach the new skill as you would to a beginner;
  • Use descriptive teaching points that are different to any the athlete previously used (e.g. “high elbow”).

By teaching a new habit, you are creating new connections between brain cells rather than trying to change the existing (and strong) connections. Encourage the athlete in practice and in a game where appropriate (e.g. prior to a free throw) to say the new name or teaching point (e.g. “Good Shot” or “High Elbow”) to themselves as this can help to change their mindset and focus them on using the new technique.

2. Use visualization

When athletes use visualization to practice a skill it has the same effect on the brain (strengthening the connection between cells) as does physical practice. Particularly when trying to change an athlete’s technique, visualization can be very effective as it enables the athlete to practice the skill without the old habit impacting upon their performance.

Effective use of visualization also helps the athlete to complete the high number of repetitions that are required to make anything a habit because it means they can do it at home, at school or anywhere that they have some time to do a focused visualization of the skill.

To help with visualization, have the athlete perform the skill with their eyes shut and concentrate on how their body feels, the position of their head, arms, legs etc. This practice will also help them to identify (by “feel”) when they perform the skill incorrectly.

3. If you must correct an Old Habit, change only what is absolutely necessary

When working with an athlete to change how they perform a technique, change as little as possible and change whatever will give the best effect. For example, the best scorers in the world have a range of different techniques in how they shoot. Individual technique depends upon a number of factors, including flexibility and range of motion.

When trying to change shooting technique, the coach should focus on what is most important, not all the things that may be needed to replicate a “textbook” technique.

4. Reassure the athlete that it is normal to “get worse before it gets better”

Often athletes experience great frustration when trying to change their technique (particularly an individual skill) because they may go through a period where they are not as successful. For example, with shooting technique, they may go through a period where the new technique feels very awkward and even where they have less accuracy.

Feeling “awkward” is perfectly normal and can be an indication that they are moving from “unconscious incompetence” (in the new skill) to “conscious incompetence”. This is to be expected and is a part of learning any new skill. Having the athlete repeat the key teaching points (e.g. “High Elbow”) or name of the new skill can also help them to get to a level of consciousness.

5. Expect errors, particularly in games

To change or correct a technique takes a considerable number of repetitions. Some suggest that it takes 10,000 repetitions before a skill becomes “muscle memory”. There is no precise calculation and it will differ between athletes.

A coach should not be surprised when an athlete is able to perform the new technique in a particularly activity but then reverts to the old technique in a game (or contested activity at practice). Learning a skill is always in context, and an athlete may reach “unconscious competence” in an isolated activity without pressure and at the same time be “consciously incompetent” in a pressured situation.

To assist the progression from executing the skill without pressure to doing so with pressure, the coach should introduce game-realistic factors as soon as possible as the athlete learns the new skill and also make contested situations in practice as “gamerealistic” as possible.

6. Use video

Some athletes will be assisted by seeing video of themselves performing the skill at various stages of learning the skill.

First, seeing video may assist them to appreciate that they are executing the skill incorrectly. This may be done by also showing them video of the skill being properly executed or discussing with them the important elements of a skill (e.g. “high elbow”) and then comparing their performance to that.

Secondly, as the athlete is learning the new technique it may be useful for them to see examples (in practice or a game) so that they can see when they have done it correctly and when they have reverted to their previous habit. This can be particularly useful for team skills, which often involve positioning on the court rather than something the athlete can “feel” (e.g. elbow position after shooting).

7. Set “Process” Goals

As the athlete practices it is important that they experience “success”. With shooting, this can be seen as whether or not the shot goes in, however in the context of correcting technique it should be more about whether the new technique was used (this is an example of a “process”goal rather than an “outcome” goal).

The coach must give feedback on the “process” goals, which initially may require a high degree of feedback. For example, when an athlete learns to shoot a lay-up with their non-preferred hand they may both have the footwork incorrect and shoot with the wrong hand! The coach may require them to complete 10 lay-ups with correct footwork, regardless of whether or not the shot goes in. At the early stages the coach may need to tell the athlete whether or not the footwork is correct and they will then progress to when they know they have done it wrong.

As the athlete becomes more proficient at the process goals, outcome goals can also be introduced (e.g. correct footwork is 1 point, correct footwork and score is 3 points, incorrect footwork is -1 point whether or not the shot goes in).