• BJ Mumford, B.S.S

How to build a pyramid, and the myth of multitasking

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Imagine yourself sitting on the couch watching an episode of your favorite TV series, eating a snack, and scrolling through Facebook to catch up on the events of the day - all at the same time. Easy, right? 

We have all become accustomed to doing multiple activities at the same time due to the speed and ease of accessing various types of media. However, I have noticed an increasing trend toward kids attempting to apply that same expectation when learning a complex skill, changing a habit, or just managing their daily activities.

So, I’m here to remind you that multitasking is a myth! Your brain is incredibly fast at switching tasks, but it is never paying focused attention to 2 things at the same time. 

If you find yourself applauding the illusion of multitasking, asking kids to focus on 2+ instructions at once, or correcting a different piece of a complex athletic movement every time they perform it - you are part of the problem!

Last week I came up with a question during a 1on1 workout and ended up asking the same question of 8 different players over the next 3 days.

The question was: “How do you build a pyramid?”

Answers ranged from the design: “Start with 4 sides and build toward the center”, to the materials: "Use concrete”, and everywhere in between. With a few follow up questions we were able to agree that “1 brick at a time” was the most foundational and simplest answer. 

Many players tried to jump the analogy and conclude that when shooting you should start with your feet and build upward (which is correct!). The more subtle point I was making was that no matter how many steps of preparation are required before, or how many tasks are needed afterward…

 You can only lay 1 brick at a time…

You can only master 1 piece of a complex skill at a time

You can only change 1 part of an old habit at a time


Now, I am certainly not the first to use this type of analogy, but where most people in sports apply this to the player's need to focus, my thoughts immediately turned to how the coaches impact this process! 

Most coaches are guilty of throwing multiple bricks at a player who is trying to build their pyramid one brick at a time, but keeps having to watch for new bricks that they have to either dodge or catch. If they dodge (ignore the instruction/ correction) they are admonished for not listening, and if they catch it (change their focus) whatever they were focusing on before is lost.

This means that if you are asking a player to both do the technique correctly and make the shot, they will fail. We must redefine success when attempting to focus on anything with conscious effort!

In basketball “ball through basket = success” is so heavily ingrained that it takes a conscious effort by the player, and many reassurances from their coach, for them to let go of their need to make the shot and focus on only one thing.

Creating a 3-5 word cue (TAGpoint) as the new definition of success, and explaining to the player that you don’t care if they make the shot or not, can produce amazing results in a very short time, as well as often visible signs of relief in the player! Often having that intense, singular focus for only 3-5 repetitions is sufficient for them to get it, and be ready to move on to a new definition of success.

The illusion of multitasking can be created by applying layer upon layer of complete mastery over each aspect of a skill. When mastery is achieved through focused effort, the unconscious mind can take over automating that aspect, allowing the player's focus to shift to the next layer.

This illusion is nothing more than the emergent property created by following the simple process of turning focused, effortful practice into unconscious, automated skill.

Similarly, players that develop layers of technique to the point of unconscious skill are then able to use their focused attention on making conscious decisions when reacting to teammates and opponents. When those conscious tactical decisions become automated to the level of instinct, a player moves on to higher-level strategic decisions and deceptive play while their body runs on autopilot sensing, reacting, and executing skills at the level of the unconscious mind.

At Play Practice Basketball we are contrarians in our philosophy of development because we apply equal focus to decision making and technical skills right away at the earliest ages, rather than waiting until technical skills are mastered to begin making decisions. This way the number of decision repetitions, level of awareness, and speed and accuracy of real-time instincts is accelerated.

Our approach creates a natural motivation toward learning technical skills, by providing the technique as a solution to a problem. When a problem is experienced in the context of competition - the player made the right decision, but couldn't execute the technique to their satisfaction - they are now motivated to master that technique.

If the coach suggested drilling that technique even 5 min earlier, before the player made the decision and understood the game context for using it, they would have been reluctant to work on that same technique with the focused effort required to achieve mastery. That is why we Play > Practice.

BJ Mumford, B.S.S 

Practice Design Specialist, and Confidence Guru

"We help kids bridge the gap between practice and games, giving them the confidence they need to compete at their next level.”

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