This blog arises as a result of reflections I’ve been having after some of the players training in our academy lost confidence in a shot during a training match and asked me if we could do a series of bucket exercises after the practice in order to regain confidence. Why does a player need the bucket to regain confidence?

Let’s try to go back to the beginning of all this. Why did someone decide that to hit well, repetitions of a shot using a bucket were necessary? I wonder if our human being-machine approach, that is, continuing to think that humans behave like machines and that continuous (decontextualized) repetition will improve a motor skill, has contributed to the use of the bucket. Phrases like ‘the key to learning is repetition’ have been misinterpreted. Repeating the same thing doesn’t necessarily lead to learning unless there’s a certain variability that introduces new information and prompts adaptation. I would prefer ‘In order to learn repetition without repetition is very important.’

Returning to the topic why players who need to regain confidence in a shot ask for bucket repetitions: Have we sold the idea to players that there’s a perfect way to hit the ball? Is that why the player needs repetition with the bucket to find that perfect way? But is it realistic to consistently hit the ball perfectly in a match? The player probably has believed so and might even get it with the bucket, but then comes the match and most situations are very different from those the coach has trained with the player and the bucket, and the player starts to feel that they hardly hit any balls as they did with the bucket. But of course, they keep seeking those feelings because they’ve been told (and felt) that the ball should be hit that way to be correct. In the end, we end up with confused, frustrated players who lose confidence in matches because they don’t have good timing.

My Spanish friends addicted to the bucket

I have two friends from Spain who have been playing padel and competing for about 20 years. Both have trained in academies where the bucket is the main training tool. During my last visit to Spain, I found a coach who was not very popular in the area but had a holistic training approach. He didn’t usually use bucket with robotic repetitions. I talked to my friends and invited them to train with this coach. After several sessions, they told me: ‘Wow! These trainings are really, really good, thank you very much for the recommendation, Nacho.’

After talking to both of them a few months later, they still recognized that the trainings were changing their way of playing, and they were very happy. However, both admitted that they missed the bucket they used with other coaches because those repetitions with the bucket gave them a lot of confidence in their shots. My reflection upon hearing this is as follows: I have no doubt that it’s true, that these players probably regain confidence by hitting with the bucket. But my question is, why do you need the bucket to regain confidence? Is it because the bucket is mandatory to regain confidence, or because a dependency on it has been created to have confidence? It will probably be a mix of both and will depend on the player. However, I can assure you that with many of the players I have trained, including myself, they have not needed the bucket to regain confidence in the game, probably because bucket repetitions were not present in most of the trainings, and they have found a way to regain confidence during the game without having to go to the coach to feed them balls.

Jack Nicklaus, a retired American widely considered to be either the greatest or one of the greatest golfers of all time expressed the following about his coach:

“Jack Grout taught me from the start. He said I need to be responsible for my own swing and understand when I have problems on the golf course how I can correct those problems on the golf course myself without having to run back to somebody. And during the years that I was playing most of my competitive golf, I saw Jack Grout maybe once or twice a year for maybe an hour. If I was in the Miami area or something, I’d run down and see Jack and we’d spend about an hour and we’d spend five minutes on the golf swing and an hour catching up. But he taught me young the fundamentals of the game. He taught me how to assess what I was doing. When I made a mistake, when I was doing things, how do you on the golf course fix that without putting yourself out of a golf tournament and then teaching yourself”. 

Let’s think about this experiment, We take 10 children, 5 of whom are trained with an approach emphasizing the importance of timing and hitting the ball at the sweet spot; a basket is frequently used for this purpose. The other 5 are guided to understand that achieving perfect timing is unlikely during games; match situations are applied. During a match, which group will lose confidence more easily when not having good timing?

Consequences of the bucket in the game: confidence, timing, adaptation and decision making

I will dedicate one entire post to reflect about the side effect of the methods coaches use, which is something we rarely consider. But now let´s just introduce the topic with this specific case of the bucket. The coach tends to focus on the visible and immediate result of the training. For example, in this case, a coach who uses the bucket a lot sees that the player hits the ball much better. As it is so, he keeps doing it because he sees that the player “improves.”

Let’s consider the (unlikely) case that this type of training makes the player better in matches. But as a consequence of what? What are the second or third-order effects that this type of training has on the player? Usually, the coach does not think about this, and probably does not see it (many times it is very difficult to see). For example, in the previously mentioned case of the players from our academy, with a strong tennis background, they have acknowldeged that they learned to hit very well the ball with lots of decontextualized repetitions. But what happens now with the dependency they have on the basket when they don’t hit well? Or what happens to their adaptation ability during a match when they lose the confidence in a shot? Or what happens to their decision-making ability in real contexts? This makes me wonder about the side effects of training has had on some players when, to my surprise, they do not know what to do on those days when they lack confidence. What is obvious for some, playing with greater margins, reducing speed, for them, who are probably used to relying on the basket to get the confidence back, is not.

Some players think that we don’t like the bucket, but that’s not the case. My point of view is that the bucket is not being used properly. Using the bucket must have a very clear purpose, and not just creating robotic exercises where players run around the court, receiving balls predictably and hitting them without any sense. The bucket plays a very important role in training if the purpose for using it is clear, both for the player and for the coach. The bucket can be a good training tool or becomes a generator of frustrated players who think they will hit the ball in matches as they do when they receive it predictably and in a series from the coach. I have not yet seen a single player hitting the ball with the same confidence, speed, and precision in trainings with the bucket as in trainings in match situations.