Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Blitz Basketball: Random and Block Drills
- Pre-planned vs. Game Agility
- Modeling Youth Leagues on Video Games
A Quick Word
Several weeks ago, I linked this article about “Designing a System of Play” on the Youth Basketball Coaching Association web site. Afterward, I received a question about the e-book and my book, Blitz Basketball:
My question pertains to the “Audit” section. I know Blitz was designed to be implemented as a streamlined system that took into account all of these factors that are mentioned in the book….I guess my question is, “How do you know at what point to take something out of your practices to focus on another aspect?” How do you select a beginning practice structure and which % of defensive tactical instruction would go to on-ball vs. team defense concepts?
I favor individual defense to team defense, except transition. I work on different elements of transition defense every day. I went an entire season without running a shell drill. We talked about mistakes made during 3v3 or 5v5 scrimmages and used those to teach rotations. I use general rules and trust players: protect the basket, stop the ball, find the shooters, match-up. It is the same in transition as it is in the half court, though in the half court you can flip-flop “stop the ball” and “protect the basket.” In transition, in a 2v1, I protect the basket – I do not want a player to run to the ball and allow a pass over his head for a 1v0. That is my general instruction.
In scrimmages, if we miss it, I stop and ask why. Who messed up? Who was supposed to protect the basket? Who was supposed to drop weak side? Oh, you were glued to their 50% 3-pt shooter. “Okay, I can live with that decision” or “Okay, next time take away the layup and trust your teammate to get the shooter. Who would be that teammate?” Then we are right back into the scrimmage. I think the shell drill is too scripted.
After I answered the question (which continues below), I watched some NBA games closely. Nothing about NBA offense or defense fits into the shell drill. The rotations are unlike those that I learned during my playing career, and the offense is unlike a stationary shell-drill offense. I prefer to scrimmage live and adjust to situations and teach through actual situations with the basic, general philosophy that we protect the basket, stop the ball, find the shooters and match-up. Everything flows from that basic philosophy.
I suppose that I move back and forth between block and random drills as necessary. I want to stay random and variable, but when we are making mistakes, I return to a block drill. If we are playing “2v2 Rugby” and miss 8 lay-ups, we go to a lay-up drill and work on the footwork or balance or whatever the issue may be. If we make all our lay-ups, maybe we skip layup drills on that day or work on layups in a 2v1 drill or off a post feed or something that extends the skill to another dimension. The next day, if we miss a bunch, we attack the problem and the cause of the mistake.
I think games – whether practice scrimmages or actual games – give you the feedback to know where you should devote more time and where you can devote less. However, I do fundamental, basic drills every day for passing, finishing, transition D, shooting and/or dribbling. The drills change. Hopefully they progress, but they are always there, even if we simply play tag as a warm-up as a ball-handling drill.
The coach followed up:
I always debate with myself about how much defensive instruction is necessary; we spend all of our time on team defensive concepts while the teams that beat us usually can beat us off the dribble as opposed to running an offense. I guess in my mind I am trying to play devil’s advocate to myself. Do you use 3v3 as the majority of your breakdown drills focusing on help defense or defensive rebounding?
Early in the season, I use more 3v3. Toward the end of the season, I play more 5v5 and break down to SSG when necessary to fix or clean up something. The best defensive teams tend to struggle against teams that just go – UCLA is one. Often, the players are well-drilled on specifics, and the coach is good at game-planning and taking away the opponent’s options, but when the other team is unpredictable, the specifics do not work as well. Players need the general at that point. They have to be able to adapt.
As defense has improved, coaches’ first response was to run more and more plays. I don’t care if you run 100 plays, I can sense a pattern or know your best players and from where they want to shoot. If I play you twice, I will know your calls. We can structure a defense to take away your first options. Now, more and more coaches are returning to less structured offenses, like the Dribble-Drive-Motion that are less predictable and harder to scout (if run well).
If you have no offensive pattern, it is harder to prepare. The defense has to rely on its general rules or philosophy and its individual defense, rather than its collective. I favor simplicity and teaching players to make their own decisions so they can adapt within the game rather than waiting until half time or a timeout for me to tell them what to do. If the players are adaptable and have a general guiding philosophy, it is easy to get more specific with a particular opponent. However, it’s tough for a team based on scouting reports and specific instructions to change to a more general defensive philosophy against a less structured offense.
Pre-planned vs. Game Agility
Long-time readers know my disdain for pre-planned agility drills, especially in terms of testing. In training, pre-planned agility drills have a place at the beginning of training, or as warm-ups, but they are not the endpoint. Players need reactive agility training. In “Modification of agility running technique in reaction to a defender in rugby union,” in Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2010), Keane W. Wheeler and Mark G.L. Sayers found the results to support my beliefs.
Wheeler and Sayers used a kinematic analysis to compare the foot strike in pre-planned and reactive drills: “The position of foot-strike and toe-off was also examined for the step prior to the agility side-step (pre-change of direction phase) and then the side-step (change of direction phase).” There was greater lateral foot displacement during reactive compared to pre-planned conditions. Also, “the anticipation abilities during reactive conditions provided a means to differentiate between speeds of agility performance, with faster performances displaying greater lateral movement speed.”
In pre-planned drills, athletes can prepare for the change of direction. They can slow down, shift their weight, lower their center of gravity and more in advance of the direction change. In games, however, these actions often occur on the step before or the side-step, if at all. Rather than make these adjustments, the study showed the athletes used a wider step to absorb and apply force in the change of direction movement. This wider step or greater lateral displacement moves the foot outside the knee and the knee outside the hip.
I know academies that believe this is incorrect, even though it is what you see if you watch players in slow motion. They teach, at slower speeds, a change of direction with the knee in a vertical line with the foot. They believe this is the proper technique. However, how does one generate the force to switch directions with the knee over the foot? What is the player pushing against? How does he stop his upper body momentum over that foot? It works in slow or pre-planned drills because players shift their weight, lower their center of gravity, slow down or make other adaptations to perform the drill as instructed. However, based on this study and observation, this does not and cannot work at game speeds. One needs to create an angle to push off in the desired direction. If that is the movement that occurs in games, that is the movement that one needs to train.
Recently, a squash coach tweeted that he never uses unplanned agility drills. He made this comment in relation to an article on ACL injuries, as though the lack of unplanned agility drills would prevent injuries somehow. However, how do you train for the game if everything is planned? Games are not planned. The techniques used during a game and in a pre-planned drill are not the same.
Additionally, an important aspect of agility is the perceptual-cognitive element. In this video with Vern Gambetta on “Game Speed,” he talks about ankle mobility and leg strength as important elements of game agility. However, he also repeatedly mentions awareness, reading the game, anticipation and other perceptual-cognitive elements.
Pre-planned agility drills eliminate the perceptual-cognitive element. For testing purposes, this makes the test more reliable, as it eliminates variables and supposedly shows a player’s directional-change abilities. However, the perceptual-cognitive component is a part of game agility; to eliminate it changes the skill. One cannot take a pre-planned test of agility like the box agility drill and make accurate predictions about one’s game agility because of the differences: game agility incorporates perceptual-cognitive skills and different movement kinematics.
Rather than do drills like T-drills or box agility drills, I favor tag. Tag naturally includes reactions to other people. Allison McNeil, Head Coach for the Canadian Senior National Team, recently tweeted about “Rock, Paper, Scissors Tag.” In RPST, the two players face each other and play RPS. Winners run to their left (switch the direction each game so players have to turn in both directions), and losers are “It” and chase their opponent. While this does not incorporate a game-specific decision, like some other tag games, it does force players to make a decision and react.
Modeling Youth Leagues on Video Games
I saw an interesting article about education and video games titled “A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool,” and the same concepts apply to coaching. People seem concerned about lazy children or disinterested children and blame video games. However, video games are designed to motivate and engage children. Our question should be why sports are not doing the same.
A friend emailed me about the state of girls’ basketball in Los Angeles. Programs at high schools with 3000 students cannot find enough players to field junior varsity teams. These are formerly good programs, including one who produced a recent D2 All-American and another smaller private school with at least two alumni playing D1 basketball. How is this possible?
[Video] games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.
Is this how we organize sports? Do we insert players into an achievable challenge level? Generally, youth leagues are determined by age. Club teams and school teams generally select teams based on a combination of age, size and skill, but those players who do not make the team are cut. There is no avenue for a player cut from his school team – a sophomore cut from the junior varsity cannot return to the freshman level because of age.
Youth leagues are plagued by talent discrepancies because of the dependence on age, and the differences in physical maturity of children of the same age, not to mention experience and skill levels. Theoretically, a league of 10-year-olds should be fairly even. However, what if some children started as 8-year-olds? What if some 10-year-olds are 4-5 inches taller than some other 10-year-olds? What if an 11-year-old plays in the league because of a grade holdback or a 9-year-old plays up for the greater competitive level? Soon, a league filled with players of the same age has great talent, experience and physical maturity levels.
What if leagues developed a less competitive developmental approach prior to a competitive league season? An NJB organization in the Bay Area used the Playmakers Basketball Development League as an introductory league for players joining the NJB. Rather than go straight into a competitive 5v5 season with returning players, they had the opportunity to gain experience and coaching in a 6-week development league during the fall prior to the winter competitive season. This inserted the players had an appropriate challenge level and gave them some small goals to accomplish before the regular season. Beyond the preparation, this creates a pleasurable experience for the players because they are not overwhelmed by the experienced players in their initial foray into basketball, and their effort and practice can be rewarded, fueling their motivation to continue.
Martial arts use the video game approach. Students enter into a rank system based on experience and demonstrated skill level and progress to more advanced classes based on their demonstrated skills. During competitions, martial artists are divided based on age (in some cases), weight class and skill ranking (black belts vs. black belts). Is it any wonder that more children are turning away from sports like baseball and basketball to do jiujitsu?
Coaches dislike the AAU system because it de-values competition, as players always have another game to play. However, in video games, there are always do-overs or new lives. This does not mean that the video-game player is uncompetitive; however, he is fueled by the process of attaining mastery in the game, not just winning, which is the mindset many coaches advocate for basketball players.
Video games are attractive because they are fun and motivating. It is easy to see one’s progress because of the levels and there is always a challenge awaiting the gamer. Can we say the same about youth basketball leagues? Are there rewards for skill development? Does anyone really notice a player’s marked improvement as a shooter or ball handler? Are the games always challenging? Are the practices? Are the drills? If a player shows up to practice and does the same drill every day, is that motivating? I know a college coach who has been doing stationary passing drills in practice for a month during the off-season. The team does the same drill every practice. There is no progression. There is no new challenge. Does that make a player better? Does that motivate the player to reach new levels of performance?
The 180 Shooter Practice Tracker program is designed around this idea with corresponding t-shirts to represent the levels of shooting progression. Each level is identified by different facets of successful shooting that correspond to the five levels in the 180 Shooter book. The idea is that as players improve and reach a new level, they earn the right to wear a different colored t-shirt based on their successful progression from a stationary form shooter to a catch-and-shoot on the move shooter, as an example. The program’s goal is to create incentives for players to track their shooting progress, as I believe the tracking will enhance their shooting development through more deliberate practice as opposed to just shooting around.
To earn a new belt in martial arts, you have to demonstrate certain skills. To progress in the 180 Shooter program, you have to demonstrate certain skills. It’s the video-game approach of inserting the player at an appropriate challenge level and rewarding effort and practice with new challenges and a symbolic reward, whether a belt, t-shirt or new level of a video game.