Drills, Skills and Goodheart’s Law

Almost every volleyball clinic or training program divides learning into modularized skills. Drills that purport to teach and reinforce specific aspects of the game are in abundance on the internet, and between collegial consultations between professional coaches. Why is this done?

Beach volleyball has a particularly chaotic element in it, as every event is dependent on the prior event. Breaking them into independent “skills” that presume reproducible conditions isn’t realistic, and does not take into account the sheer range of human forms and capabilities. Coaches are prone to be affected by Goodheart’s Law – a concept in economics that states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Put into volleyball terms, by creating intermediate measures of skill, and making them targets for athletes to hit, they cease to become good measures of the overall ability to play volleyball.

Part of it stems from being able to game the system — if the model that being able to spike the ball hard is a requisite target to being considered a good beach volleyball athlete, the satisfaction of meeting that target in idealized and isolated scenarios starts to outweigh focusing the frustration of the messier chaotic elements of the full game. The ritual of hitting lines remains popular, regardless of the dubious learning value, or efficiency in preparation because of this targeting. Likewise, coaches that focus on meeting measures in modular skills can feel accomplished, even if the blocked drills don’t transfer into games, or that the quest for “correct” motor solutions occlude the more efficient ways to score points. Developing the discipline to identify if one is simply meeting a measure as a target is both sociologically and psychologically difficult, but should be part of the repertoire of effective teaching.

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