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The science behind the training methods Micah Lancaster used with Brandon Ingram

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We’ve all seen the crazy-looking drills Lakers forward Brandon Ingram has been doing with trainer Micah Lancaster, but there is a method to the madness.

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NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Last Wednesday on the Laker Film Room podcast, Pete Zayas and Darius Soriano had skills enhancement trainer Micah Lancaster on to discuss his ongoing skills development with Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram. Micah is the founder of I’m Possible Training and, in addition to Ingram, has worked with guys like Victor Oladipo, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kyrie Irving, and Dwyane Wade.

Image via ImPossible Training

From the beginning of the interview, it was obvious that Micah’s thought process and execution is at a different level than most people in the field (his ongoing and burgeoning success is a testament to that), and to me, there were three things that really stood out:

1 - His initial assessment

2 - “Uncomfortable” training

3 - Sensory training and Brandon’s “internal” feel

Let’s start with his initial assessment:

1. Micah’s Initial “Diagnostic”

Micah uses the same initial assessment for every player, regardless of position or perceived (key word here) strengths or weaknesses. He takes each player through the same diagnostic to inform a 600 item checklist he has created.

This repeatable diagnostic does three things:

First, it limits bias. As Micah was talking about his assessment, he explicitly uttered exactly what I was thinking , “I don’t want to be biased.” It mirrors a saying in the medical world — “don’t chase a diagnosis” — that warns against letting your own biases or inclinations color how you’re seeing a patient’s symptoms.

That “chasing of a diagnosis” opens you up to confirmation bias and selective attention where you start picking out things that match your initial thoughts and ignoring/discarding ones that don’t (all too human of a trait). Like the crowd who constantly harps on Lonzo’s shooting percentages while going completely silent when his incredible prowess in other parts of the game are mentioned:

Rather, you want to use an objective and repeatable testing set that gives you unbiased data. From there you can decipher and figure out what’s going on.

Second, Micah’s consistent assessment makes the test valid across multiple players, irrespective of position. Remember, Micah’s goal isn’t to maximize Brandon’s skills as a wing or in his specific role on the Lakers, it’s to maximize his skills, period. Therefore Micah’s diagnostic isn’t tailored to a specific position or role, rather it’s encompassing all basketball skills and he can give the test to every player without worrying that it will compromise the validity of the test.

”The things I would do with Brandon, I would do with anybody,” Lancaster said.

For example, if a teacher gave a different test to every kid in the class, how could the teacher figure out who actually studied and did well and those who didn’t? The different scores could be attributed to the difference in the tests. It’s only a valid assessment if each kid got the same test, and that’s exactly what Micah does.

Third, it makes Micah a better skill enhancement trainer. Every time Micah completes this test with a player, it gives him a greater sample size and reference point in being able to detect weaknesses and deficits because he’s comparing the same data set across multiple individuals. Micah continues to increase his database of knowledge while getting more nuanced with what to look for.

So that’s the initial diagnostic, let’s move onto what he actually does during skills enhancement:

2 - Uncomfortable Training

Here’s what Micah said about his training style with Ingram:

“(I’m) trying to put him into uncomfortable positions … (I) want him to be able to shoot in imperfect situations. Forcing him to be off balance and regain his balance when he shoots, making sure he can’t find a rhythm before his shot, making sure his release is the same and comfortable even though I might put his feet in an uncomfortable position.”

In the neuro-science world, this type of training is called “variability of training.” It accomplishes two critical things:

First, it’s been shown to expedite learning new skills and movements (aka motor learning, click here, here, here, and here for more info). To understand why, let’s quickly review how movement neuro-science works:

When you want to move a body part, like let’s say clench your fist, it may seem instantaneous, but it’s not. There’s a signal that travels along nerves from your brain to the spinal cord and down your hand. Each of these nerves is known as a motor (think movement) neuron and the entire chain is a motor pathway.

Don’t worry about any of the words here. Just take note that there’s a signal traveling down a descending pathway.
Image via GetBodySmart

The more complex the movement, the more motor neurons and pathways are involved and have to be sequenced. When Ingram sets up for his jumper, gathers, finds the rim, and then shoots – there are countless motor pathways directing that movement sequence while he integrates information/feedback that he’s getting from the outside world (more on that in a bit, Micah touched on it).

When Ingram is learning a new skill, his nervous system is “exploring” which pathways work the best for him through a constant series of trial and error. As Micah introduces variability, it’s increasing the amount of trial and error information that Ingram’s nervous system has. Like life, mistakes are the biggest teachers.

The more trials and errors Micah can create, the quicker Brandon’s motor system can learn which ones work, which one’s don’t, and self-reinforce the most effective pathways (click here, here, and here for more info).

Image via Neuroscience News

That’s why Micah is intentionally having Ingram shoot out of different foot positions, regain his balance, mess up his rhythm, etc. Not because he’s a Celtics secret agent, but rather because he’s flooding Ingram’s nervous system with trial and error reps.

Therefore, when Brandon’s faced with those non-ideal situations in-game, it’s not a novel experience and his motor system already knows exactly what to do.

“Imperfect training allows for better results in an imperfect game,” Lancaster said.

I think of it like this: Imagine you have a certain route that you take from home to work each day. You get extremely comfortable and efficient at taking that route, you know have all the lights timed and potholes mapped. Then comes a day where there’s an accident and that route is completely blocked off and you panic because you’ve never explored any other routes.

What if instead of taking that same route every day, you made it a point to take multiple different routes in case your main route or multiple routes were backed up? Instead of panicking during an accident, you’re already familiar with those other routes, and you go about your business. That’s what Micah is doing with Ingram — he’s teaching him those other routes and how to be adaptable.

Second, “variability of training” increases the level of stress that Ingram has to deal with. Brandon shooting a set jumper he’s worked on millions of times is a seamless, comfortable movement. Brandon shooting a shot off a staggered leg position with a defender in his face and nudging his hip introduces uncertainty and stress into the equation.

The right amount of stress actually improves performance but too much and performance is completely hindered (click here, here, here, and here for more info) – it screws with your movement, thinking, focus and so on (think James Harden in big playoff games).

During excessive stress, the brain region responsible for high level thought and executive function (called the prefrontal cortex) downshifts while activation in the brain region responsible for stress and emotion (the limbic system) upshifts. The limbic system “hijacks” the brain and you go into “survival mode” full of default responses.

Again, don’t worry about the details. Just take note of how the arrows are spreading out from one part of the brain to the rest.
Image via Brain Basics

This “hijacking” is why you’ll see Player X drilling 1000’s of jumpers in an empty gym on IG but when the lights come on during the game, it doesn’t translate –- their system isn’t acclimated for that level of stress and their brain goes “forget this new stuff, I’m defaulting you to the stuff that I know,” aka the old broke jumper.

Through “uncomfortable training,” Micah is gradually acclimating Brandon’s system to dealing with stress and discomfort. Therefore, as he gets into training camp and games, the stress level isn’t 0 to 100 but rather it’s just enough that it actually improves performance. Think of dealing with stress like training a muscle, its all about graded exposure. Micah’s training begins that process.

The last aspect I want to touch on deals with the sensory pathways of the nervous system, aka sensation.

3 - Sensation & Brandon’s “Internal” Feel

Micah mentioned something that really perked my ears:

“We’re really focusing on...sensations the player (Ingram) may feel,” Lancaster said.

The reality with movement is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum — the sensation we feel from the outside world and our internal state influence our movements.

Here’s a sample of the complexity:

Micah is introducing sensations that BI will feel during the game (again in a variable manner to harness the “variability of training” principle. In the podcast, Micah used the example of med ball squeezes). As Brandon’s sensory system gets used to those inputs, it integrates that feedback into the movement rather than throwing it off.

For example, if someone blew in Brandon’s ear while shooting (or you know, just leaning over, minding his own business) it might throw him off initially. With sensory integration, that response converts from “WTF is that” jumper hitch and clank, to “no big deal,” fluid jumper, swish.

You might be thinking “well, I see lots of people intentionally creating contact when training athletes. Micah ain’t special.” The difference is in the why. Micah mentioned multiple times that he’s using sensation as a means for Brandon to integrate that feedback and develop an internal sense of comfort during movement. A rare thought process.

All in All

To sum up the basis of Micah’s training with Ingram, it’s this:

Micah used a repeatable diagnostic exam to tease out Brandon’s weaknesses and work on them. He knows that defenses, especially in this data driven league, are ushering players into spots they are uncomfortable with –- whether that’s a specific type of shot (different motor pattern), type of play (like forcing a player to react or make decisions) or situation (more physicality, tugging on the jersey, high pressure situations etc).

The players who are able to navigate and excel in that that grey area and become comfortable with the uncomfortable are the ones who turn into stars. Their motor (movement) system is adaptable yet efficient, sensory (sensation) system is tuned in, and their prefrontal cortex (executive function) system isn’t overwhelmed by stress.

Micah’s training with Ingram integrates each of these things and I personally can’t wait for the team to bear the fruits of their labor.