Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Legs and Shooting
- The Algorithm of Improvement
- Deliberate Play and Old-School Development
A Quick Word
Shooting coaches focus on the specific skill of shooting, generally from the reception of the ball through the release. I maintain that one of the most important exercises for a shooter is lifting weights.
When I played, everyone worried about lifting weights and then shooting, as it would mess with one’s shot. Many people fretted about lifting on the same day as a shooting workout or even the day prior to a game.
I shoot better after lifting weights. In my men’s league, in week one, I had no legs. I could not hit a shot in warm-ups, and I think I only hit one shot in the game, plus some free throws. In game two, after a hard day of lifting during my class during the day, I hit 6/7 threes including two from beyond the NBA line (the only one that I missed was because my teammates made fun of my shot, as I exhale before shooting, and so I noticed myself exhaling and my attention was focused on the breath, and my teammates, not the shot). In game three, after a short kettlebell workout prior to leaving for the game, I hit 2/3 three-pointers, both from beyond the NBA line.
I cannot prove definitively that my shot improved because I lifted prior to playing. However, I know from experience that I prefer to shoot or play after lifting during the day. My legs feel stronger, and I feel like I have more bounce.
Beyond the timing of lifting, the important point is strengthening the legs. From a shooting perspective, I like the Push Press for an exercise, as it closely mimics the coordination of a shot. Of course, if you have one nearby, running the sand dunes works too (from an article that I wrote in 2009).
Roll credits increased shooting in practice as well as an off-season conversation he had with former Duke star J.J. Redick, who told him to focus on strengthening his legs.
That translated into a new kind of workout, running up and down a giant sand dune in Manhattan Beach (L.A. Times, 1/4/2009).
When I rowed at UCLA, we ran the sand dunes. They are tough. I have heard stories of NFL players not making it all the way up the hill.
Another positive effect of Roll’s workouts is his balance, so he takes good shots:
“He’s got more balance,” the coach [Ben Howland] said. “It’s just easier to shoot the stronger you are.”
The Algorithm of Improvement
The October 2011 Wired profiled Community creator Dan Harmon in an article titled “Please Watch This Man’s Show.” Author Brian Raftery explains Harmon’s “algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps”:
- A character is in a zone of comfort
- But they want something
- They enter an unfamiliar situation
- Adapt to it
- Get what they wanted
- Pay a heavy price for it
- Then return to their familiar situation
- Having changed
This could describe an eight-step algorithm for a player’s off-season.
As the season concludes, the player is in a comfort zone: he shoots a certain percentage, plays a certain amount of minutes, etc. However, the player wants more: he wants to shoot a higher percentage, play more, win more games, etc. Therefore, he enters an unfamiliar situation.
The unfamiliar situation is practicing at the edge of one’s ability or moving outside of his comfort zone during practice. From a motor-learning standpoint, the player battles the speed-accuracy trade-off. The speed-accuracy trade-off suggests that as one moves faster, his accuracy decreases. Therefore, the player can structure his learning to hold one aspect of the trade-off constant and improve the other.
If he concentrates on shooting, he could attempt to maintain a similar shooting percentage while making his shot quicker, whether through quickening his release, improving the efficiency of his footwork or making quicker decisions. On the other hand, he could maintain his speed of shooting, while attempting to improve his accuracy.
Improving one’s speed or accuracy requires practicing at the edge of one’s ability. If the player has a release time of .5 seconds from the catch to release, and wants to make that release quicker, he must practice at that faster speed. Continuing to practice shots with a .5 second lag from catch to release is not going to improve one’s speed to .4 seconds. Instead, by practicing at the edge – a faster speed – the player’s accuracy will decrease. Through practice at this faster speed, the player works to improve the accuracy to the same level as before.
This is what it means to practice at the edge. Improving the speed by too much will lead to a complete loss of technique. If the player tries to move from .5 to .1 on his release, the resulting shot will look nothing like his current shooting technique.
One cannot expect to improve accuracy and speed at the same time. If I am a 50% shooter with a .5 second release time, and I attempt to shorten that release time to .4 seconds, I am going to make more mistakes (lower accuracy, more missed shots) as I adopt this faster technique. I have to learn a faster release, and the initial stages of the learning process are plagued with mistakes and inconsistency. Those mistakes may be slower release times to preserve my accuracy or diminished accuracy.
This is the problem with improvement. It is hard, and it is characterized by diminished performance initially. This is the unfamiliar situation.
Eventually, through sufficient deliberate practice, the player adapts to the new technique. He shoots with a quicker release and returns to the same accuracy. Essentially, the player gets what he wanted: an improved (faster) shot. Of course, getting to that point exacts a heavy toll.
At this level (the level where release times is important), the heavy toll is as mental as physical. Of course it takes hours of practice. However, it is more than time. The practice has to be deliberate. That means the player is focused on a specific goal, receives adequate feedback and invests the requisite time, often in boring, repetitive drill-work. This practice requires a high level of concentration, as the player has to practice at the new, quicker speed on every repetition or the practice fails. This mental concentration is fatiguing, which is why fewer repetitions and shorter practices are better. It is great to shoot for three hours; however, if it is mindless practice, is there improvement? If the player is trying to reduce his release time by one-tenth of a second, is mindless practice going to lead to his desired goal?
After paying the heavy price, he returns to his familiar situation (team) having changed (improved). The algorithm works as well for a comedic narrative as it does for an off-season workout program.
Deliberate Play and Old-School Development
Basketball has split down the middle. On one side resides the trainers and others who believe there are too many “meaningless” games, and players should spend their entire off-season doing drills. On the other side stands the status quo, an environment of weekend tournaments for 52 weeks a year, often with one practice for every three to five games. Unfortunately, the old-school approach is forgotten: nobody combines workouts with open gym runs or pick-up games at the park. Regardless of whether a coach or trainer is pro-training or pro-games, he or she favors a coach-centered, structured environment.
The popularization of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice has fueled the pro-training side. However, most of the 10,000-hour studies involved a specific skill like playing the violin. The game most often cited in these studies is chess. Is learning to play the violin more like learning to play basketball or learning to shoot a basketball? Chess, as a game, is more like basketball, as each has perceptual and cognitive demands. However, basketball involves motor skills beyond those of chess; nobody loses in chess because of his dexterity while moving his pawn. Basketball is not better or worse than playing the violin or chess; however, it is different, and therefore one cannot generalize the studies to basketball completely. The 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice teach coaches, trainers, players and parents something about the development process of a basketball player, but they do not explain the entirety of the development process.
Jean Cote coined the term deliberate play as an alternative to or an extension of the concept of deliberate practice as it relates to game play. Deliberate play refers to involvement in unstructured, play-oriented situations (Cote and Hay, 2002). The deliberate play is more like the development environment when I was young, the old-school approach. When we were young, we played basketball for years before we played on a team or had a coach. We played at recess from 1st to 4th grade before we joined a team in 5th grade. In 5th grade, we played 20 games. When the season ended, we played baseball and continued our recess games of basketball. We did not have trainers, spring AAU, weekend tournaments, etc. Instead, we engaged in deliberate play.
During high school, we had a more involved summer program, but it was only six weeks. In the spring and fall, we played open gym and lifted weights. We played in a spring league where we never practiced and played one game per Saturday. After our games, we often went to the park and played pick-up games.
We never had a “skills workout.” We did not do ball handling drills. We did not do form shooting for 45 minutes. Heck, we never really conditioned in the off-season either, certainly not with any formal plan. We engaged in deliberate play.
I was never a great player. However, I started a clinic with a group of 8th graders last week, and none is as skilled as I was as an 8th grader, even though I had played in only 60-65 organized basketball games by the start of 8th grade, about the same number that many 3rd graders will play this year. Of course, I also had never worked with a shooting coach, gone to a training session, seen a basketball DVD, etc. I went to one week of summer camp each summer. Otherwise, my improvement was shooting in my front yard, playing at recess, playing half-court games at Rollingwood Racquet Club against high school kids or playing at Miller Park against a mix of teenagers and adults.
Greco, Memmert and Morales (2010) studied the difference in tactical performance improvement in 18 60-minute sessions of deliberate play versus traditional basketball practice in 10 to 12-year-olds. The deliberate play group played small-sided games and advantage/disadvantage games, while the traditional group engaged in a more typical practice which included a “large amount of structured game exercises with exact guidelines…and more isolated activities of skill training (e.g. dribbling, passing)” (Greco et al. 2010; p.851).
While the traditional group showed no improvement, the deliberate play group showed significant improvement in tactical intelligence and tactical creativity. Tactical intelligence referred to the ability to find the ideal solution to a given problem and is referred to as tactical decision-making or game skill. Tactical creativity referred to varying, rare and flexible decisions in different situations. Generally-speaking, tactical intelligence is what we hope to teach in terms of knowing where to pass the ball and when or where to drive and when to shoot: good decision making. Tactical creativity would refer to the special plays, where instead of seeing the obvious open player, the player creates a better opportunity for a different player. Both of these skills developed through deliberate play in 18 weeks, but not traditional practices.
Greco et al. (2010) note that motor skill development was not measured, so one could surmise that the traditional practice led to improved shooting or dribbling. However, they cite Magill (1998) who found that implicit learning (i.e. deliberate play) improves motor skill execution as well or better than explicit instruction (i.e. traditional practice). Therefore, Greco et al. (2010) discounted the likelihood of the traditional group improving more in motor skill execution, though it was not measured, so it is possible.
If AAU games are “meaningless,” they may provide an environment of deliberate play. However, more than likely, they feature the same structured activities of the regular season or more competitive games, similar to the traditional-practice approach. Training sessions may provide deliberate play. However, more than likely, most training sessions do not provide deliberate play, as trainers charging upwards of $30/hour for a group workout cannot stand by idly and watch players play, even if it is the best means for their development.
Nobody profits from children engaging in deliberate play, so few people market or promote the idea. Every trainer loves the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice because it vindicates their profession and enhances their marketing – players need more practice with a trainer to reach the 10,000 hours. However, Cote’s studies suggest that in expert performers, deliberate play as youngsters counts toward their 10,000 hours: the deliberate play is an integral part of the expert performer’s development.
Deliberate practice and coaching are important aspects in a player’s development. However, for many young players, the missing element is deliberate play rather than additional training sessions or games. Deliberate play provides players with more repetitions in game-like situations than either games or training/practice as well as more implicit learning.