Finding Your Groove

The Training Edge


Regular Moves
The Coach's Dilemma

Decision Sets
Overload Safeguards

Additional Reading

Without the right skills, finding your groove won't do much good. Your groove can help you play your best, but if your skill level is low, even your peak play will be poor.

The better your skills, the better your play. This makes training an essential part of your performance package.

With today's thick playbooks, you must be able to learn new techniques quickly. The following training approach will accelerate your learning, help you handle poor teachers, and ensure you make good decisions under pressure.


Confusion is death to the training processes. If you are confused, you stop learning. It's that simple. To take in information, you must avoid confusion.

In competitive sports there is always something new to absorb. It might be the latest scouting report, a new defensive assignment, or an adjustment to a rules change. Unfortunately, the information is often thrown at you. It's just too much, too quickly. Confusion hits.

Confusion during training comes from overloaded. If your system can't integrate all the new information, it shuts down. Worse yet, there is no such a thing as a little overloaded. When you hit overload, learning stops. That's why it's so disruptive.

I'm Not Confused


Lou said, "I don't get that. It does feel like I go into overload sometimes, but I always seem to recover. I'm not stuck forever."

The good news is that confusion is not permanent. Given enough time, you can pull yourself out of overload. Repetition helps. Simplification helps. Eventually the mind untangles the new move and integrates it with your other skills. But it does take time.

The fact that you can recover means that some process happened in your mind that allowed you to absorb the information. That's the process you're about to learn. It will be your overload countermeasure. Used properly, they can improve your learning speed times 2, times 4, or times 20. (When you're in overload, zero times any factor is zero.)

Let's step back and see what we know:

1. Overload stops learning. That's pretty extreme. It points out how critical it is to avoid overload.

2. Countermeasures exist. This is great news. At least the problem isn't permanent. You will eventually come across upon the adjustment, but it takes time.

If you know the right countermeasures up front, you can stop overload right away.

Let's look at a few examples of overload, just to refresh our memories.

Overload examples:

  • "Making the shift to pull to the left. The right side of the line felt natural; the left took some time to get used to."

  • "Their new defense was confusing. Our whole decision process changed. It was covered in the play book, but our minds seemed to go blank."

  • "The position change really threw me. I was awkward and stumbling all over the place."

  • The next sections offer specific steps for avoiding overload.

    Structuring your training to avoid confusion requires that you break the problem into two types of learning: regular moves and decision sets.

    Regular Moves

    A regular move is any response that you don't have to think about. You don't make decisions; you just do it. A regular move would be riding a bike, throwing a ball, or pivoting off your left foot.

    Once you learn to ride a bike — no matter how difficult it may have been initially — you don't have to think about it each time you start pedalling. Regular moves don't require on-going decisions.

    For example, learning to throw (regular move) should be separate from learning to play short stop (decision set); learning to put top spin on your ball (regular move) is different from learning to out maneuver your opponent. (decision set).

    The Sevens Rule

    The rule for learning regular moves is that you can only string together seven movements or fewer. Seven moves are the limit.

    The concept of natural overload at greater than groups of seven surfaced in the fifties and has had impressive results with information recall. (G.A. Miller, "The Magic Number Seven, plus or minus two. Some limits on our capacity for processing information." Psychological Review, 1956, 63, 81-96.)

    Trying to learn more than seven steps at any one time creates confusion and stops the learning process.

    When the routine you're learning is more than seven steps, and quite often it will be, you need to break your movements into groups of seven or smaller and study them in these smaller groups.


    If you had to carry all these groups of sevens around in your head, you'd go crazy.

    This is where our minds and muscle memory help us out. Once a sequence of moves is clear, our minds consolidate them into a single move. Seven becomes one. Extending this out: 7 becomes 1; 49 becomes 7; 343 becomes 49; etc. Consolidation is the secret that allows you to absorb tons of information without overloading.

    What does this mean for your training?

    As a new movement begins to sink in, the process accelerates rapidly. Routines that were initially seven steps become one step. Then the next seven steps consolidate into one step, and then the next seven. One more regrouping allows you to study seven more combined steps, bringing the count of the steps you're actually studying to forty-nine. With the next combination, you're handling three hundred forty-three steps (seven groups of forty-nine each). Not only do you learn the steps in a fraction of the time, but you are able to do it without ever being confused.

    Most people's trouble with fundamentals stems from trying to learn too much (over seven moves), too fast. By simply breaking your activity into groups of seven and learning the basic moves first, you'll find your learning ability rise dramatically.

    Steps for consolidating routine moves:

    1. List out the smallest moves. If a move doesn't feel natural, break out the smaller steps. For example, you can break "turn" into pull the left shoulder back, shift weight to the right foot, twist the left foot on the heal, and pull the hips around.

    2. Consolidate. If your list of small moves feels confusing, regroup them into separate moves. Then take the individual moves and study them one at a time.

    Overloading On the Overload Technique

    Okay, that's a lot of information at one gulp. Let's work through an example to get a better sense of the technique.

    A shot putter's example of regrouping:

    Brian was having trouble learning a new throw. He understood all the little moves, but just couldn't seem to put it all together. He then went through the breakout, regroup, and consolidate process.

    Brian's original list:

  • Grip the shot.
  • Move right foot forward.
  • Bend the wrist.
  • Keep three fingers forward.
  • Start pivot with the left foot.
  • Move right foot forward again.
  • Lean back.
  • Start pushing up.
  • Move left foot forward.
  • Move left foot forward again.
  • Move right foot forward again.
  • Keep pushing.
  • Release.
  • Extend.
  • Settle down to pad.

  • You can almost feel yourself going into overload just looking at his list.

    After Brian's regrouping:

    Movement Group 1:

  • Grip the shot.
  • Keep three fingers forward.
  • Bend the wrist.
  • Lean back.
  • Start pivot with the left foot.

    Movement Group 2:

  • Move right foot forward.
  • Move right foot forward again.
  • Move left foot forward.
  • Move left foot forward again.
  • Move right foot forward again.

    Movement Group 3:

  • Start pushing up.
  • Keep pushing.
  • Release.

    Movement Group 4:

  • Extend.
  • Settle down to pad.

  • By breaking up the list Brian felt the overload lift. He could work on any of the four movements and still feel centered. (Nothing was removed. The list was just restructured according to the Sevens Rule.)

    The heading, Movement Group, was clunky. Brian gave each move a more meaningful name.

    Movements renamed:


  • Grip the shot.
  • Keep three fingers forward.
  • Bend the wrist.
  • Lean back.
  • Start pivot with the left foot.


  • Move right foot forward.
  • Move right foot forward again.
  • Move left foot forward.
  • Move left foot forward again.
  • Move right foot forward again.


  • Start pushing up.
  • Keep pushing.
  • Release.


  • Extend.
  • Settle down to pad.

  • That felt better. A final consolidation replaced the individual moves with their headings. This resulted in four key moves.

    Consolidated list:

  • Pivot.
  • Advance.
  • Throw.
  • Follow-through.

  • Organizing the training according to the Sevens Rule allowed Brian to practice without confusion.

    Dance Steps — The Coach's Dilemma

    Dance instructors are the worst.

    Dance teachers fall into the typical coach's trap. They assume that because a move is easy for them, you should be able to grasp it instantly. They will group hundreds of moves into directions like, "Just twist, three-step, pivot, and reverse." They are the masters of overload.

    It's not to say dance teachers are mean people. Their personal grace at moving through a dance step makes it difficult for them to step back and say, "lean forward, that's good, and again, and again, and again..." They just want to move faster than that.

    If you don't believe the absolute adherence of dance instructors to the overload principle, pick up a dance tape at the library and try to follow their instructions.

    Getting Along with Your Coach

    Coaches also fall into this trap. It seems that the more they know, the more difficult it is for them to break moves into real fundamentals. If your coach can teach at the fundamental level, you are lucky.

    If your coaches push you into overload, feel free to call them "#*%&! dance instructors."

    Is That It?

    Well...pretty much.

    Some learning consolidation isn't as obvious as breaking out smaller moves. You may not know enough to identify every aspect. The move might ultimately involve dozens of muscles, as in a twist of the foot, and a slew of subtle movements that aren't obvious.

    For that reason, some movements require repetition and more time to learn.

    An example:

    Tony said, "I didn't get the left pivot right move. I broke down the steps as much as I could, but it still didn't feel right.

    I figured it needed repetition. I'd practice it in slow motion for a couple minutes at a time in my room. When I tried it on the third day, bam! I had it. It felt absolutely smooth.

    Decision Sets

    At this point, you understand overload as it relates to learning routine movements. That in itself is a big step, for moves make up a good portion of your performance.

    One other type of overload impacts your ability to do well in strategy games, decision sets.

    A decision set is any action that requires a decision. If an action involves choices, such as, where to throw the ball, how to respond to your opponent's defense, or how to cover your teammates' actions, it's a decision set.

    In order to avoid overloading your decision process, you must not exceed three choices. Where the Sevens Rule for movement stated seven moves, decision sets follow the same process, but they are limited to three.

    The Three Choices Rule

    Although the choices must be limited to three, it doesn't mean the problem has to be simple. Any number of choices can be combined and subdivided, as long as the decision at any given moment focuses on three options.

    The "Three Choices Rule" is derived from a study of chess masters, which showed that at any given moment the best players only considered three choices, even though the total possibilities were in the thousands.

    In sports, a surprising number of decisions are made during normal play, providing plenty of opportunity for confusion. Each sport has its decisions: where to make the play, which way to go with the block, whether to press or fall back, or how to counter the opponent's move.

    Winning teams and players make good decisions; losing teams get confused.

    An example:

    The shortstop, Tony, realized that sometimes all the options flooded his thinking. It threw off his game.

    He figured the Three Choices Rule could help him handle the decisions better. Tony began by listing the main events.

    The main events:

  • 1. Grounder hit to me.
  • 2. Fly ball hit to me.
  • 3. Ball hit somewhere else.

  • As he prepared for the play, these were the only things going through his mind. The simplicity of it kept him clear.

    When the ball is hit to him on the ground, the first choice splits into:

    1. Grounder hit to me.

  • la. Can I handle it?
  • lb. Do I have time to make the play?
  • lc. Is the other baseman covering the bag?

  • The next split might be something like:

    1. Grounder hit to me. 1a. Can I handle it? No.

  • laa. Try to knock it down.
  • lab. Back up the play.
  • lac. Get ready for the cutoff throw.

  • Each choice would have its own set of three options. Although the total number could be quite high, Tony would only consider three actions at any given decision point.

    If at any time your choices go over three, you stand a chance of being confused. In football, it's common for a defense to suddenly become confused when faced with an unexpected offensive wrinkle. Extra decision options are added to their Decision Sets, and it pushes them into overload.

    Some teams keep their composure by ignoring the changes and leaving the adjustments to the coaches. They may also have "bucket categories" into which they put information they can't handle. As long as they keep their choices limited to three, they will continue to think clearly and quickly.

    It often takes practice to reduce complex situations into three choices. The good news is that you usually know the issues well beforehand. In fact, these decisions will probably haunt you again and again, until you work them out.

    An example:

    Bill said, "I like to draw up the decisions for the quarterback. At no point is any decision difficult, it's just a bunch of simple options."


    Not everyone will help you prevent overload. Overly enthusiastic coaches will introduce overload accidentally, and competitors will add wrinkles to through you off.

    If you're on the receiving end of the overload, there are several safeguards you can take to protect yourself.

    Bucket Categories

    The primary safeguard is to create bucket categories into which you can place everything that confuses you. Everything that goes over the limit of three choices, you temporarily put into this category.

    Eventually you will need to work these instructions into your detailed grouping system, but for the moment, the "bucket category" will keep you from getting confused.

    In football, for example, "formation i, double split right, unbalanced right," becomes "some kind of split." As a defensive player, you may not have the perfect adjustment, but you've avoided overload and can continue thinking clearly. It's like shifting into a zone defense when you see something you don't understand.

    "Some kind of split" is the bucket category that holds every spread formation you don't recognize. Though it's simpler than what you may need to know one day, it will keep you from getting confused.

    The "bucket category" also works for Regular Moves. You simply create larger categories that can hold all the minor details you don't grasp right at the moment.

    In complex moves, for example, a larger body movement can be your bucket category. It might mean grouping confusing instructions into hip and head movements. Tilt, twist, pull, and push could reduce to "head bob." In this way it's possible to retain a good deal of information and not be overloaded by details.

    If you're an instructor who must teach a diverse group, there's a fair chance that you'll overload some of the students. You can include predesigned "bucket categories" in your instructions and prevent much of the confusion.

    To do this, include in your presentation several general movements that are familiar to the beginners. These moves become their "bucket categories."

    Bucket categories examples:

  • Three step drop. —> Get back to here.
  • Position your body at 30 degrees. —> Keep an eye on the quarterback.
  • Bend, stop, push, extend. —> Use the legs.

  • Remember, bucket categories aren't a perfect substitute. They're a temporary measure to avoid overload.

    As soon as possible you need to apply the Sevens and Three Choices Rules to break up the activity, consolidate the moves, and learn the movement properly.

    What's Next?

    You now know a great deal about training and avoiding overload. It's time to move to the heart of great performances, finding your groove.

    Additional Reading

    Make the Most of Your Mind by Tony Buzan. Simon and Schuster, 1984 and The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan. Penguin Books, 1993.
    * Mr. Buzan's method for sketching out complex situations both reduces overload and helps discover strategies hidden in a heap of options. His books should be required reading for all coaches.

    Precision Pool by Gerry Kanov and Shari Stauch. Human Kinetics, 1999.
    * It's nice to have a way to practice finding your groove without waiting for the rest of the team. Pool is a great mental exercise sport.

    Also, there's a lot of information in this book. Without knowing the training techniques consolidating steps, it would likely put you in overload. It can help you practice handling overload in the comfort of your local pool room.

    Out of Overload: A Guide for Technical Managers by James Davis, 1999.
    * Offers a more in-depth treatment of overload issues. Good for coaches and strategists. Presented as an on-line book.

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