Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Vocabulary
- How an injury affects shooting
- Training form and playing form
A Quick Word
Last spring, when I took a jiujitsu class, one of the first moves that we learned was an americana. For some reason, I never quite got the submission. I knew cognitively how and when to try the submission, and I had numerous opportunities to try it, but I always made a mistake in its execution. My procedural knowledge was lacking. When given time to think about it in a non-competitive setting, I could explain the hold, but when I needed to put that knowledge into practice in a time-stressed, competitive environment, the knowledge escaped me.
Today, in my MMA class, my instructor managed to solve my problem in less than five minutes. Rather than explaining the move in detail, he said simply, “Grab his watch; then grab your watch.” (Essentially, in a side control position with me on top chest-to-chest and our bodies perpendicular, I take my top hand and grab his wrist on the far side of his body and pin the wrist to the ground. Then I take my other arm, run it under his arm and grab my wrist. Apply some pressure, and tap). The simplified language made so much sense and made the move so much easier to learn. In a matter of minutes, I was assisting my partner on a move that I failed to learn in four months of classes.
Oftentimes, when a player makes a mistake or cannot figure out a solution, the coach assumes the player’s struggle is due to the player’s lack of ability or lack of trying or not paying attention. Instead, a subtle tweak to the instruction can help the player learn. As John Wooden said, “You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.” If a player struggles with a move or a concept, find a simpler explanation. Use picture words or analogies. Frame the instruction in terms of something the player understands already. Adding more complexity or lengthening the instruction is often the opposite of what the player needs. Simplify. Create a picture. Change the instruction to help the player rather than placing blame.
How an injury affects shooting
I played in a rec-league basketball game for the first time in two years tonight. Two weeks ago, when I moved into m condo, I tweaked my back lifting my bed. When I grapple, I feel weak on my left side and am occasionally hopeless when I need to generate force on that side to try and roll or shrimp to improve my position. I can play, and I do not feel injured, but I know it’s there.
This often happens to young athletes, especially with ankle injuries. They hurt something or tweak something, but they are not hurt so bad that they cannot play. However, the injury, if left untreated, affects their performance.
When we warmed up for the game tonight, I shot three-pointers. I felt my body twisting as I shot. My body is usually pretty still as I shoot. However, I turned to the left.
There are two possible explanations in my mind: (1) I was compensating because my legs are not as strong as they used to be; or (2) the weakness through my core on my left side inhibits my ability to stabilize my body through a dynamic movement. I cannot resist the force to maintain a stabile position throughout my shot.
With ankle injuries, the same thing occurs. Players hurt their ankles, but continue to play. However, their range of motion decreases, and they favor one leg. If this goes unnoticed for long enough, this compensatory motor pattern becomes their “normal” motor pattern. Trying to return to the original motor pattern now feels awkward because the player has adapted to the pattern borne from the injury and the compensation.
In my case, I need to lift more and find ways to strengthen my back without hurting it further. I do some light core work, but grappling twice a week and demonstrating weightlifting lifts twice per week to my class prohibits a full recovery, but that’s a decision that I make.
For a player with an ankle injury, I advise players to stand on one leg and draw the alphabet in the air with the other. This is a classic rehab exercise that works in two ways: (1) it is a single-leg balance exercise and studies show that the ability to stand on one leg without any perturbations reduces one’s likelihood of injuring his or her ankle; and (2) by writing the alphabet with his or her foot, the player works through the full range of motion and breaks up any scar tissue or anything affecting the full extension or flexion of the joint.
This is one example. When a player’s skill performance changes negatively, often it could be as a compensation for something else. Before instructing more or worrying about the skill execution, we need to address the movement and reduce the injury or lingering effects of an injury to prevent a compensatory motor pattern from becoming normal.
Training Form and Playing Form
In Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I describe three types of practice activities or drills: Teaching, Training, and Competitive. In “An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviors used by youth soccer coaches during practice: Exploring the link between science and application,” Ford et al. (2010) divide practice activities into two types: training form and playing form. A training-form activity was defined as “activities practiced in isolation or in small groups that did not have a game context and included: fitness activity, technique practice and skills practice,” while a playing-form activity was defined as “an activity with a game-related focus and included: phase of play activities, conditioned games, and small-sided games” (Ford et al., 2010; p.487).
In Ford et al.’s (2010) study of soccer coaches, 65% of all training time was spent in the training-form activities and 35% in playing-form. The researchers suggest that this supports a study by Starkes (2000) that found that athletes spend more time in less relevant activities and less time in more relevant activities. Ford et al. (2010) note that many times, coaches of younger athletes make the game easier by using a part-practice approach, which would create more time spent in training-form activities. Basketball coaches often term this type of practice “working on fundamentals.”
“The interaction between perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills observed during match-play is difficult to replicate using the type of part-task practice conditions created in drill-type activities” (Ford et al., 2010; p.485). Therefore, questions arise as to how to coach beginners, how to progress a skill and when to put children into game forms.
A typical beginner ball-handling drill is a stationary or straight-line drill. The player starts with his strong hand and progresses to his or her weak hand. Next, he progresses to changing hands with the ball or changing heights of the dribble. Then he increases his speed. These drills are repeated at nearly every age group because they comprise the fundamentals of ball handling.
Except, they don’t. These drills focus on the motor skill of manipulating a ball. Dribbling in place or dribbling in straight lines does not prepare a player for dribbling within a game context with nine other players in a multi-directional space. These drills improve one’s ability to manipulate the ball, which is one aspect of dribbling in a game environment.
In order to make the skill practice more game-like, while also reducing the attentional and skill demands for younger or beginner players, I propose games of tag.
Tag reduces the demands by eliminating other skills: passing, shooting, getting open, playing defense, etc. Players focus solely on manipulating the ball.
However, the context of tag more closely resembles a game because of the multi-directional movement, the unanticipated movement, the anticipation and reaction to other players, the increased intensity, the awareness of others, the ball protection and more. These cognitive and perceptual demands are reduced from a true game environment because of the reduced skill demands. However, tag integrates some cognitive and perceptual skills into the ball handling drill. Rather than developing the skill of bouncing a ball in isolation and attempting to transfer that skill into a game, the player develops his motor skill and his cognitive-perceptual skills simultaneously.
Within tag, the player reads an opponent and makes a move accordingly. This transfers to a similar game situation better than a player dribbling at a spot an making a pre-defined move. Games are random, and tag mimics that random environment, while focusing on a singular skill (ball handling, in this case). By developing the ability to manipulate the ball and the ability to read and react to a defender as one skill, not separate functions, players are prepared to transfer their ball-handling skills to the game environment.
By placing higher cognitive and perceptual demands, the activity induces more mistakes. However, the fun and challenge inherent in the activity typically negate any self-conscious feelings of failure. In tag, there is more freedom to explore and try new things, while in a straight-line dribbling drill, the player copies the coach’s instructions, and deviations from the instructions or demonstration are seen as failures or mistakes. The freedom in tag reduces the performance anxiety (paradoxically since there is a winner and loser, while the drill has no winner or loser) because there is not one precise execution. If a player makes a mistake, he or she chases his or her ball and begins again. If he or she is tagged out, the player joins others on the sideline and continues dribbling while waiting for another game.
Some young beginners who have never touched a basketball previously need to practice bouncing the ball to begin learning the motor skill in an isolated environment. However, there are ways to engage these beginners beyond straight-line drills. Coaching Soccer by Bert van Lingen introduces a game called the “City Game” that is appropriate for absolute beginners. Rather than dribble in isolation, players dribble from city to city (the four corners of the court represent four cities). As players improve their ball control, the coach can increase the demands by increasing speed or precision: the players can race from city to city; players can move in every direction, meaning that players have to be more aware of their surrounding so they do not run into another player; players from one city can try to tag players from another city, etc. There are dozens of variations that a creative coach can add to add complexity and progress the drill, and each variation incorporates slightly more cognitive and perceptual demands.
Traditional ball-handling drills serve a purpose. I use two-ball drills and harder one-ball drills to develop confidence with young players. The drill provides natural feedback, and as the player finally gets the drill, he or she develops confidence through the ability to do something new. There are other reasons to do certain drills, from coordination to ball control to hand quickness. However, traditional drills do not make a player a better game ball-handler or a point guard. The motor skill is only one facet of the game skill; it is obviously important, but it is not the end. To be able to dribble under pressure in unpredictable game environments requires practice in unpredictable environments, and tag is one way to practice under these conditions.
The goal when designing practices is to increase the time spent in playing form activities because the point of practice is to prepare for the game. Practice is not an end.