Caitlin Clark’s Untold Secret Revealed

Plus, The Value of Indifferent Transfer

by Ellington Darden, PhD

Caitlin Clark and her basketball playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes were featured throughout the sports world during 2024 March Madness. After the National Championship game, she was the number-one draft pick by the WNBA’s Indiana Fever on April 15, 2024.

It was her training techniques with Iowa in practice, however, that really caught my attention (1). Armed with a PhD in motor learning and exercise science from Florida State University, I want to discuss my insights on her publicized reasons for success.

Then, I want to share what I consider the untold secret of her greatness – and reveal how she can become an even better basketball player.

Motor learning, the domain dealing with movement skill acquisition and its transfer, is fundamentally about efficient learning (2, 3). Caitlin Clark’s training regimen, as directed by Lindsay Alexander, Iowa’s associate strength and conditioning coach (1), is lacking in sound motor learning principles. These methodologies not only risk diminishing skill acquisition but also increase the likelihood of overtraining and injuries.

Alexander’s approach to creating a more durable athlete involves a mix of activities such as strength training, rapid repetitions during exercises, plyometric jumping, and running drills. But there are crucial aspects of motor learning and transfer that seem to be overlooked in this regimen.

Types of Transfer

Activities used as practice may help, harm, or have no effect on competitive performance. Such transfer is discussed in three ways (2, 3):

  • Positive: When the activities of practice and competition are identical.
  • Negative: When the activities of practice are almost the same as those in competition. Almost-the-same activities cause the neuromuscular pathways frequently to crisscross.
  • Indifferent: When the activities of practice are unrelated to what happens in competition.

For the most positive transfer between the teaching session and competition, what is done in practice must be exactly, precisely, and specifically the same as that to be done in competition.

It seems obvious that rehearsal for any skill should be exactly the same as the performance itself. Yet such positive transfer of skills is often ignored by coaches who do not fully understand the confusion caused by negative transfer. To make practice almost the same as the game situation inches a mistake, a big mistake often made by coaches and athletes.

Negative transfer is akin to the frustration experienced in basketball shooting contests at carnivals. Despite the seemingly simple task, players often struggle to succeed due to the subtle differences in hoop size and height, leading to confusion in motor memories.

The key to the sideshow’s confusion and money-making success is directly related to specificity, or the habit of specific practice. The standard basketball goal is 10 feet above the floor and has a diameter of 18 inches. The height of the basket at the sideshow is usually 11 feet, and the hoop’s diameter is slightly smaller than standard. The situations are almost identical, and this is what causes the confusion.

Bull Fighting and the Brave Matador

One of the oldest tricks in the word of sport, if bull fighting can be called a sport, is directly related to specificity. The night before a bull is to be fought, his horns are shortened by approximately a quarter of an inch. The next day, and before he has become accustomed to his shorter horns, he goes into the ring to fight and die.

And there stands the brave matador, being barely missed by the enraged bull, being missed by one quarter of an inch, being missed by the amount that the bull’s horns were shortened.

The bull knows exactly where the tips of his horns are, as he must to use them effectively, and shortening his horns by as little as a quarter of an inch will cause him to miss his target entirely.

Did you ever get a grain of sand inside your sock? It feels like a boulder and changes your entire style of walking and running. When you finally remove it, it turns out to be so small that you can barely see it.

True specificity is just that exact, and hitting or missing the target or goal can easily be determined by a quarter of an inch or a grain of sand.

Arthur Jones
From “Specificity in Strength Training,”
Athletic Journal 57: 70-75, May 1977.

Value of Indifferent Transfer

Most athletes do not understand the advantage of practicing something that’s unrelated to competition. Yet such a little-understood concept offers much to the coach and athlete who are looking for an edge over their opponent.

Unrelated practice falls under the heading of indifferent transfer. Take billiards for example. Billiards has nothing to do with basketball. There’s no confusion in learning both, at the same time.

Note: I’m not suggesting that Clark add billiards to her basketball training. What I’m saying is if she did, there would not be a crisscross-confusing effect involved. Basketball and billiards are indifferent to each other.

Now apply that same concept to muscles and strength training. Muscular strength is the foundation of most movement skill – and strength plays its part in competition by indifferent transfer. The most effective exercises for achieving maximum muscular strength are unrelated to most athletic skills.

If it were possible to design a strength-building exercise in such a way that it simulated a skill, the use of such a device would harm rather than help the player. The more it resembled the skill itself the worse it would hurt the athlete.

Fast repetitions with a barbell and jumping on and off of boxes (plyometrics) are not recommended ways to increase strength. Nor should a basketball player run with ankle weights or throw heavy balls. All of these activities are potentially dangerous.

Strength training should differ from skill practice in form and method of execution. The lifting and lowering of any strength-training tool should be performed smoothly and slowly for approximately 40 to 70 seconds per exercise. Extra attention and time should be directed to the eccentric or lowering phase of each repetition. Lifting and lowering fast in the strength room is not a way to be fast on the basketball court. That concept is a huge misnomer.

It’s the indifferent transfer of strength training that furnishes the stamina and conditioning necessary for the positive transfer from practice to competition – safely, without injuries. That indifferent transfer of strength training combined with the positive transfer of practicing every movement of the game as it is to be played will lead to improved basketball playing.

A Pair of Indifferent Strength-Training Workouts for Basketball

Perform each workout once a week. The exercises and style of lifting and lowering are described in Ellington Darden’s 2024 book: Still Living Longer Stronger.

Workout A
Leg Extension on Machine
Leg Press on Machine
Calf Raise on Machine
Negative-Only Chin
Negative-Only Dip

Workout B
Leg Curl on Machine
Deadlift with Barbell
Seated Calf Raise on Machine
Biceps Curl with Barbell
Bench Press with Barbell

I believe that Caitlin Clark performing the above workouts for six weeks could add at least 6 pounds of muscle to her body. Caitlin is 6-feet tall and weighs 154 pounds. So, she could weigh 160 pounds and be a stronger, faster athlete.

Caitlin Clark’s Untold Secret

What’s Caitlin’s real secret to her basketball shooting ability? It is not her strength training, plyometric jumps, repetition performance, or running drills. Yes, those practices do contribute some to her overall performance. But most of them do so, in spite of the way they are coached.

Caitlin’s untold secret is what’s called “deliberate practice.” This concept was popularized by the late Dr. K. Anders Ericsson (4) of the University of Stockholm, who was a professor of psychology at Florida State University for 28 years. Ericsson initially studied exceptional violinists in Germany. Then, he examined other musicians, as well as champion chess and bridge players, and great swimmers and golfers. He concluded they all had mastered extreme skill acquisition through deliberate practice.

He defined deliberate practice as very specific activity, or doable skill chunks, combined with prompt, accurate feedback.

Ericsson determined that expert performance was due to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, beginning early (4-8 years of age) and continuing through age 20. According to Ericsson, to be a champion requires deliberate practice of 2.5 to 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 10 to 15 years. “Exceptional performers are not just interested,” Ericsson said, “they are passionate.”

Deliberate practice is Caitlin Clark’s untold secret. It’s the key to her shooting ability. Caitlin started shooting a basketball when she was 4 years old and currently, she’s 22. Her lifetime practice hours are likely 20,000. That’s twice Ericsson’s vital number. Add perseverance to her enduring traits. Indeed, Clark perseveres with passion (5).

Redefining Excellence

Caitlin’s dedication to deliberate practice has undoubtedly honed her skills. But incorporating elements of indifferent transfer into her training regimen could further enhance her performance. By diversifying her strength-training workout to encompass exercises unrelated to basketball, Caitlin could fortify her capabilities and potentially elevate her game to unprecedented heights.

While Caitlin Clark’s shooting prowess is undeniably impressive, there remains untapped potential for improvement through an experienced understanding of motor learning principles. By integrating deliberate practice with elements of indifferent transfer into her training, Caitlin could transcend her current achievements and redefine excellence in basketball.

References

  1. Minsberg, Talya. “The Secret to Caitlin Clark’s Shooting Power,” New York Times, April 5, 2024.
  2. Singer, Robert N. Motor Learning and Human Performance, First Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
  3. Magill, Richard, and David Anderson. Motor Learning and Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2020.
  4. Ericsson, Anders, and Robert Pool. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Vintage, 2017.
  5. Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner, 2018.”

Ellington Darden is the author of more than 60 books on strength training, bodybuilding, and fat loss. Some of his most popular manuals are The Nautilus Bodybuilding Book (1982), The New High Intensity Training (2004), and Still Living Longer Stronger (2024).

2 Likes

It certainly undermines the value of things like shadow boxing or high stepping through tyres or practising sports with heavier bats, balls etc

Swinging a heavy bat is still a ritual at most major league baseball games. Most batters do it in the on-deck circle. Yet research has shown repeatedly that doing that does not help the ability to hit a baseball. In fact, it confuses the batting skill.

Overall, baseball players and boxers are two of the worse believers in myths and superstitions.

TLDR: General training is useful.

Also there’s far more to skill acquisition than the 10 000 hour rule. Ericsson’s suggestion is useful, to a tee, but also heavily reductionist

About 15 years ago, i was using a weighted golf club thinking it would help me get more distance

dumbest thing i ever did, screwed up my game…went from a 7 handicap up to 15 handicap…stopped and threw the weighted club in the trash, relearned the basic fundamentals and got back down to an 8 handicap

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In terms of the concept of specificity in sport, I couldn’t agree more.
In recent years a lot of coaches bought into the SAQ stuff, thinking that countless reps through speed ladders and over hurdles would help improve their athletes and game players foot speed and overall speed. It turned out to be a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. Nothing beats practicing the game skills and attributes and then incorporating them into increasingly difficult game like situations.
The only issue with this goes with the 10,000 hour rule…and those activities where too much practice can have a detrimental effect on the health of the body. No one will argue that practicing chess or the violin is going to take less of a toll on the body than the various physical demands of sprinting or playing basketball.
Also the 10,000 hour rule has been debunked to some degree. “The Sports Gene” an excellent book by David Epstein goes into this quite well. No one disputes that specific, deliberate practice is necessary, but 10,000 hours is quite an arbitrary number, and doesn’t take into account the Mozart like prodigy, that may be an expert after only 4,000 to 5,000 hours, or the bang average golfer who may never get a respectable handicap, even after 20,000 hours of practice.

10,000 hours of deliberate practice, beginning early (4-8 years of age) and continuing through age 20. According to Ericsson, to be a champion requires deliberate practice of 2.5 to 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 10 to 15 years.
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Agreeing with @sgg and adding :

On the subject of sports :
This is a very early starting age. Many are not serious about a specific sports until post 10yrs of age. They are however active and sporting in general from an early age.
2.5hrs to 4hrs per day is a lot of time and hard to do physically. It is more valid in a skill/technical discipline. Note that swimming is low impact and is also suited to multiple training modes (weights, other cardio). Which pushes up the possible hours due to less repitition risk. Golf is low energy high skill.

On the subject of non sports people.
The age and durations qoted are highly feasible for obvious reasons. And I never suffered an injury playing chess.
Academic actvities are also highly suited to the 10,00 hours rule or similar.

The 10,000 hour rule is IMO actully least suited to sports.

All the other parameters for transferrence (or not) by Dr D are emminently logical and in usage.

1 Like

Excellent thread by Dr. Ellington Darden!

This subject has been discussed little, but has much intrigue!

My question is how best to implement motor learning for football linemen!

I’ve long thought motor learning properly implemented would make football offensive linemen invincible!

With financial greed corrupting college football at every level, my interest in college football has decreased significantly recently. On the other hand, professional football is all about money and fame! No thanks either! However, this topic is still very interesting. Perhaps another sport?

From the New York Times article: on Caitlin Clark

“She also works with Ms. Clark and other players to enhance their cardiovascular health by doing drills known as intervals or tempo runs: Players run at hard paces and then take short breaks to recover. Over time, this kind of training makes it easier for their bodies to recover quickly from high-intensity activity.”