Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Hot and cold skill development
- The one-mile and two-mile tests and basketball conditioning
A Quick Word
I live in an old building, and the water never seems to work perfectly. I turn on the shower, and it is scalding hot or freezing cold. Finding that ideal temperature rarely happens. However, my girlfriend finds the scalding heat perfect. Everyone differs.
My MMA instructor used the idea of hot and cold as he explained skill acquisition. He uses a decision-training style of coaching; he starts with the hard-first instruction and game-like drills rather than a progression from easy to hard. Previously, when I took boxing or kick-boxing classes, the classes started with very basic instruction and drills: endless repetitions of simple combinations like jabs, jab-cross, jab-cross-hook, etc.
Previously, we did these as shadow boxing drills; then we moved to punching heavy bags; finally we moved to hitting the mitts. However, through this progression, which often took several classes, we never faced someone punching us. This is a common approach to skill building – instructors focus on how to perform a skill – the technique – and leave the why for later, once the technique is mastered.
In our second MMA class, the instructor went straight to knees. We reacted to an opponent moving toward us, slipped out to the side and hit a pad with a knee. We did not start with basic instruction on the proper technique of a knee. In fact, in two separate gyms, I have learned two different techniques for a knee, and this instructor did not differentiate. He demonstrated a straight knee and gave us the opportunity to practice the knees in a semi-live situation – facing an opponent moving toward us and throwing the knee after circling away. In a sense, we were learning several skills at once – footwork, circling, and the knee.
For beginners, this typically is not the favored teaching method. However, the instructor is constrained by time, but also realizes that combat requires an opponent. Hitting a heavy bag is very different than sparring with an opponent, and technique goes out the window when someone punches you in the face for the first time.
The instructor acknowledged our imperfections and compared it to the hot and cold of my shower. Some were too hot, while others were too cold. As we practice, the goal is to move closer to the ideal temperature or the ideal skill. Of course, that ideal is slightly different for every person, as some will have advantages of long limbs while others are stronger or more explosive. Each person has to find his skill execution where he is neither too hot nor too cold. Just like turning on my shower, this takes some practice and fiddling to find the ideal.
In basketball, shooting instruction works like this. A player picks up the ball and shoots. He has obvious flaws in his form. Most coaches immediately stop the shooting and instruct. Is there a better way?
Let’s imagine that a right-handed shooter with his elbow out close to a 90-degree angle is ice cold, while a right-handed shooter shooting on the left side of his body is too hot. Somewhere in the middle is the ideal for that player. However, each player’s ideal is going to be slightly different than the others. Just as my girlfriend likes her showers warmer than mine, she shoots with her hand further toward the middle of her body than do I.
As a player practices and gains accuracy, his technique moves closer to his personal ideal; he is neither too hot nor too cold. For most, this occurs when the elbow is close to being under the ball, allowing for a more natural vertical push.
If the coach steps in from the first shot with instruction, he uses a behavioral-style. This style of coaching leads to skills that are less robust, and skills learned in this manner are more likely to be affected by performance pressure, fatigue and more. While the instruction is necessary, and the coach likely has a goal in mind, allowing the player to find his own ideal shooting technique somewhere within reasonable parameters leads to improved performance and adaptability. Using “too hot” and “too cold” as cue words creates an imagine for the player, as opposed to relying on more technical instructions that concentrate on percentages and angles and more concrete terms. Players remember picture words or cues that deal with feeling easier than they recall terms of verbal instructions that focus on specificity.
The Mile or Two-Mile Test and Basketball Conditioning
As I drove past the track at my local university on September 1, the men’s basketball team was running laps, presumably completing its one or two-mile fitness test. There are two issues with this: (1) the mile or two-mile test is not an appropriate measure of basketball conditioning and (2) is the 1st of September the time to test players‘ fitness?
Furthermore, when I mentioned this on twitter, coaches argued two other reasons: (1) the test builds toughness and (2) early-season testing ensures adherence to a summer training program.
Why is the mile or two-mile a poor test of basketball conditioning?
In school, one does not take a test on biology to pass a math class. Basketball is a sport dominated by power and quickness, not aerobic endurance, so why use an aerobic test to measure basketball conditioning? The test should resemble the off-season training; if a team knows it must pass a mile or two-mile test, it changes the off-season approach. I know strength coaches who do not believe in the mile test, but the basketball coach uses it. The strength coach feels responsible for preparing players to pass the test, even though this has little benefit to the basketball season.
The real problem is that one cannot build strength/explosiveness and endurance simultaneously. “Combined strength and endurance training compromised strength gains compared to strength training alone” (Hickson, 1980), while power development is impaired when training incorporates a moderate to high degree of sustained aerobic exercise (Elliott et al., 2007). Do basketball coaches ultimately want their players to be stronger and jump higher or do they want players who can maintain a constant speed over a considerable distance?
Does a mile test measure the qualities associated with a basketball game? When the ball is in play, basketball players change their movement category every two seconds which accounts for over 1000 changes in the course of a game (Carlson et al., 1995). When running a mile, the athlete never truly changes movement category. Therefore, does such a test tell a coach anything about the players’ basketball conditioning? Does the test reflect the game? Why use a test that fails to measure the same qualities as the game?
While all sports use all three energy systems (alactic, lactate and aerobic), basketball is primarily an anaerobic-lactate sport as it involves repetitive high-intensity activity. Energy is derived primarily from the phosphocreatine/adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and glycogen/glucose systems (Elliott et al., 2007). A test of basketball conditioning needs to incorporate both the predominant systems used in basketball.
When I rowed in college, we did a “lactic acid test.” On the rowing ergometer (erg), we rowed as hard as possible and got our time (measured as time to complete 500m) as low as possible. Once our time stopped dropping, the test measured how long we could stay at that speed without the time increasing. The coaches described it as a test to see how we could handle the onset of lactic acid and how long the onset took. In reality, it was an anaerobic test to measure our sustained maximal effort. To test our aerobic endurance, we completed 20-minute rows or 5000m rows. These tests measured different qualities important in rowing.
A more basketball-specific test would be repeated sprints or a similar test with different movements. Zach Boisvert told me about a test that he saw done by Buzz Williams. It is a familiar test, but Williams tweaked it to impose more mental demands. The test is a partner sprint test. For example, a team of 12 divides into six pairs. The first person in each pair does three up-down sprints in a certain amount of time and then the next person in each pair goes. For instance, if the team has one minute to complete the above, if the first group takes 30 seconds, the second group has 30 seconds; however, if the first person takes 35 seconds, his partner only has 25 seconds to complete the test. This test is closer to basketball because of the intermittent nature of the performance – all-out effort with minimal rest before the next bout of high-intensity effort.
Williams tweaked this test because he had 13 players. His instruction was that seven players had to be running at all times. He made a normal repeat-sprint test into a fitness test coupled with leadership, communication and more. Players had to figure out who had to run twice in a row and how to manage the extra sprints to get everyone through the test. Not only was the partner’s time to sprint dependent on his partner, but the team had to coordinate their efforts throughout the test (typically a ten-minute test).
In the simplest terms, to be fast, you have to train fast. Training slow makes you slow; you adapt to your training. While a six-minute mile is an admirable time, it is not a fast mile time nor is it speed training. Training for the mile is inefficacious for basketball because the pace is too slow for basketball speed and does not meet the same metabolic demands of the quick changes of directions that typify basketball games.
Is the beginning of the school year the appropriate time for a fitness test?
Games start in November; official practices start in October. Does one need to be in peak condition in September? Further, what if players just finished a strength or explosiveness block in their periodized training program?
One coach suggested that the test is more a test of mental toughness than fitness. That is a dangerous proposition to me. One coach emailed me and confirmed that an unnamed college basketball star was injured last season during his mile test and missed games during the season. He was not conditioned to do well in the mile test, but tried to show his toughness, and he tweaked a hamstring. Personally, I would rather have players healthy than showing off their toughness by running laps in September.
To prevent such an injury, of course, a responsible strength coach will alter his training program during the summer to prepare players for the test. This means reducing the effectiveness of his strength and explosiveness training. My goal for the summer months would not be aerobic fitness; I would concentrate on strength development and work capacity, but I would try to save the athletes from more pounding on their joints. Most players play enough pick-up basketball during the summer – I don’t see how more running, especially aerobic training, benefits them.
Once preseason training starts in September, the goal is to progress to more game-specific conditioning in order to peak somewhere between the start of practice and the start of the league season, depending on the goals. If players peak physically in September, they have to maintain that peak for six months to get to the conference tournaments. A September test, for me, would be like a progress report letting me know where the team is physically and how we need to tweak the training to optimize their performance by the start of the season; I would not use these tests as a requirement or something that had to be passed with a certain time. The tests would be for my benefit as the coach to plan future training, not as a report card of past training.
If I felt the need to test mental toughness, a test like my “lactic acid test” or Buzz Williams’ repeat-sprint test would test one’s mental toughness while also not sacrificing the off-season training goals of strength and explosiveness.
Evaluation of summer training
Some coaches use the threat of September tests to ensure adherence to the summer training program. This is a negative style of coaching. As a college coach, I would recruit players who want to train, not ones who I have to babysit. More importantly, I would use a positive approach with the players’ goals as a means to ensure adherence, not the threat of punishment through inappropriate fitness tests.
If the players and team want to be successful in the up-coming season, they must practice in proportion to their aspirations. When players email me and ask me how much they should practice or how often they should shoot, that is my answer. Do you want to be a little better? Do you want to be pretty good? Do you want to be great? Don’t tell me; show me. Get in the gym and get better. Most college programs insist on their players sticking around and working out together during the summer anyway, so the strength coach monitors their progress all summer. For high school programs, it is more difficult, as coaches have to manage players with different schedules, multiple-sport athletes, etc. When it comes down to it, the players who want to be good will train.
I prefer to focus on their desires and illustrate the importance of the off-season training in their pursuit of those goals rather than using a test to motivate them to work out. In class, if a student does not like the class or have any future aspirations in the subject (General Astronomy as a freshman for me), he is more likely to do the minimum amount of work necessary to pass. However, if he enjoys the class or has future aspirations in the subject, he is more likely to extend himself and do more and better work; he will try to excel rather than just getting by. If players are working out to pass a test, they are more likely to do the minimum; if they are working out to achieve their own personal goals, they are more likely to extend themselves. What do they want to achieve and how can the off-season help them get there?
- Carlson, JS; Jones, CJ; & McKenna, MJ. (1995). The physiological load imposed on basketball players during competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, Vol. 13, Issue 5.
- Elliott,M; Wagner, PP; & Chiu, L. (2007). Power Athletes and Distance Training Physiological and Biomechanical Rationale for Change. Sports Medicine; 37 (1): 47-57.