Cognitive Development

Basketball players must learn to pay attention and to concentrate on many different stimuli – whether it is what an opponent is doing, remembering and implementing team rules in a certain situation or knowing how much time is left on the clock.

Sometimes the stimulus is a single thing, but often they have to focus on more than one stimulus at the same time, with more or less intensity, and for a longer or shorter amount of time.

Basketball may help players to develop their skills of selecting and processing external information. From all the stimuli that they receive, they must select only those that are relevant and that can be associated with what they have already stored in their memory. Given the fluid nature of the game, they must learn to process this information and then make quick decisions.

Many of the stimuli that a player will receive are irrelevant to the game, for example, the sound of the crowd, the lights, advertising banners (particularly if they are moving) and what is happening on an adjacent court.

Other stimuli could be relevant (e.g. what an opposition coach is saying) but should the player focus on that or ignore it?

These cognitive processes: selection, association, storage, use of stored data, and decision-making: can be developed better if the coach promotes them by making suitable demands depending on the players’ capacity.

For instance: if the coach of a mini-basketball team sets up an activity that demands from the players a great amount of attention (several stimuli at the same time), that may result in an information overload. This overload will complicate subsequent cognitive processes, and that will negatively affect their decision making process.

Stimuli can be a wide variety of different things. The logistics of an activity (where the pass is made, who cuts where) and the rules of an activity are stimuli, particularly when the activity is new.

The markings on a court can be stimuli particularly if there are a lot of different markings (as players must then identify which are relevant to them). Again, similarly to learning a new activity, once the players are familiar with the court markings it becomes much less of a stimulus because the players don’t have to pay particular attention to it.

Another example: if the coach of a team of girls between the ages of 13 and 14 wants the players to learn several new concepts at the same time, these concepts may not be associated and stored properly. Thus the learning goal will not be achieved, and the cognitive efforts made by the players will not be worthwhile.

In the same way, if the stimuli offered by the coach are inadequate, this will not stimulate the appropriate cognitive processes of the young players.

For example: monotonous practices with unexciting drills, or contents that are too simple, without allowing players to contribute with their own initiatives, do not lead to better cognitive development of children and teenagers.

This can be very challenging for the coach where they have players of varying abilities, because an activity that one player finds hard, another may find too simple.

To address this, coaches may instruct players differently. For example, the coach may use an activity where players dribble the ball. For the less skilled players, this may be the only instruction. For more skilled players, the coach may have them dribble with their non-preferred hand or may have them dribble two basketballs.

Through practice the players will learn to prioritise the various stimuli that they receive, based upon how much of an impact it will have on their performance. Particularly, whilst players are learning, some stimuli will automatically have a high “ranking” and the voice of their coach will be one of those things.

Unfortunately, the voice of their parents will often be the most dominant stimulus, with players hearing that above everything else. Coaches need to establish clear rules for the parents of their teams, asking them to keep their comments constructive and general (e.g. “well done”, “good play”).

The 4 Styles of Learning

Confucius is quoted as stating “What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand”, which probably suggests that he was a kinaesthetic learner, and quite possibly good at sports!

It is generally accepted that there are 4 styles of learning and that each individual has a preference for how they best receive and process information. This has immediate ramifications in either a classroom or a practice session in terms of how well they will understand, act upon and process instructions.


Visual learners have a preference for learning by pictures, shapes,
patterns or watching.


Auditory learners want useful direction. They focus on sounds and rhythms
to learn movement patterns along with verbal direction.


Reading or writing learners prefer descriptions and instructions
in written form.


Kinaesthetic learners need to experience what a certain movement feels like
and prefer a dynamic environment.

The choice of preferred learning style is not conscious, rather it is part of an individual’s personality. People can learn regardless of how information is presented, but a person will learn quickest, and most efficiently, when information is available in their preferred style.

It is important that coaches understand their own preferred learning style as most coaches will present information to athletes in the coach’s own preferred.

learning style or in the style in which it was first presented to them. At the end of this chapter is a simple test that can give an indication of your learning style.

What is your athletes’ learning style?

Some research has suggested that whilst only 5% of the overall population identify as Kinaesthetic learners, 18% of athletes identify as kinaesthetic learners¹. Indeed kinaesthetic learners suited to sport (or at least more suited to sport than learning in a traditional classroom setting) as the physical nature of sport and learning “on court” through doing various activities certainly suits the kinaesthetic learning style.

An indication of an athlete’s preferred learning style may be determined through observation. For example:

  • Athletes that sit back and watch when new training activities are introduced before stepping on the floor may be visual learners;
  • Athletes that ask for copies of a playbook are likely to be read/write learners;
  • An athlete that comments to the coach “show me” or “I see” is likely to be a visual learner;
  • An athlete that says “it doesn’t feel right” may be a kinaesthetic learner;
  • Athletes that ask a lot of questions may be auditory learners.

Particularly when coaching juniors, it is highly likely that a coach will have a number of different preferred learning styles amongst their players as well as the coach having their own preferred learning style.

How to Cater for Different Learning Styles?

There are a number of things that coaches can do to cater for the varied learning styles that their athletes may have:

  • Where athletes tend to stand back and watch an activity before joining it (likely visual learners), do not put these athletes first in line or use them to demonstrate a new activity, but let them observe first;
  • Have a whiteboard courtside at training and use it to draw or describe activities – this can be done by coaches or players and will particularly help read/write learners and possible visual learners;
  • Provide copies of training session plans to your team prior to training;
  • Provide players with key words and concepts and teaching points after training sessions;
  • Prepare a short playbook that sets out key concepts and teaching points;
  • Watch a game with your team and discuss with the team how your team’s rules would apply to situations in that game;
  • Have one of your games or training sessions filmed and then watch it with your team and discuss the key teaching points and concepts;
  • “Coach on the Run” – stop practice as little as possible and allow athletes as much opportunity to perform and practice the physical skills.

Identifying possible disconnect with an Athlete’s Learning Style

The attentiveness (or lack of it) and behaviour of players is the best indicator of whether or not the player is engaged in the teaching that the coach is undertaking.

For example, if the coach is giving a lengthy explanation of a team concept, auditory learners may remain focused, however visual, read/write and kinaesthetic learners may lose attention. This is not wilful disobedience, it is simply that the player has difficulty engaging with the presentation of information.

If the coach accompanied the lengthy verbal explanation with diagrams on a white board, that may help to keep the engagement of visual learners. Similarly, writing key teaching points and key words on the white board may help to keep the engagement of read/write learners. They will also be assisted by being given written information by the coach, or given the opportunity to write their own notes.

Kinaesthetic learners simply want to get on the floor and “do it”. Using them as demonstration athletes, whilst giving the lengthy explanation, will help to keep kinaesthetic learners engaged.

All athletes will be helped by the coach presenting information in positive, action-oriented language. For example, a coach may scout an opponent and then determine how they want their team to play to counter what the opponent is likely to do.

The coach should take their athletes through the principles of play that the coach wants the team to do. The coach does not necessarily need to give a lengthy explanation of why they want the team to do it. Detailed information about what the opponent may do may be given after they have become familiar with the particular action that the coach wants them to do.

For example, a particular opponent may use a lot of ball screens and may have the screener “roll” to the basket when the screen is set on the side of the court. The coach does not have to tell the team that information.

The coach can simply say which defence they want the team to use when a ball screen is set. Because the opponent uses ball screens frequently, the coach may present this as one of the three key things before the game. With a different opponent (that doesn’t use ball screens) the coach may not emphasize it.

How to determine a player’s learning style?

A good way to get an indication of the learning styles of your players is to show them a video of a player executing a skill. A video of a professional player doing something in a game works very well, and can be obtained easily through YouTube and other sites.

Show the video to the players and ask them to go onto court, when they are ready, and attempt to perform that move. This works better if the move is a little complex (e.g. multiple dribble moves) or unusual. Let the players watch the video as much as they wish.

Usually you will find a range of reactions from players:

  • Watching it relatively little (compared to team mates) and getting out on the floor to attempt to perform the move – these athletes are probably kinaesthetic learners;
  • Watching relatively longer, or returning to watch the video after initially attempting the move – these athletes are probably visual learners;
  • Asking questions (of either the coach or team mates) or talking to team mates – these athletes are probably auditory learners
Jones, DC (2010), Hey Coach, One Teaching Style Does Not Fit All, World Swimming Coaches Association, Vol 10, no 4:4-6