Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Off-Season Conditioning
- Drills and Skills
A Quick Word
After a recent practice, I heard a coach tell her team that she could not simulate a game during their off-season workouts. She said that all the work on the track was a different type of conditioning and playing volleyball was a different kind of conditioning. She said that basketball had a lot of stops, starts, changes of direction, and lateral movement that could not be simulated on the track.
As the coach said this to the team, as a way of impressing upon them the importance of going hard at all times in the preseason practices to get into “game shape”, I kept thinking to myself: “Why bother?”
If the work on the track, and the coach made it seem as though the volume of work was impressive, has no transfer to the court, what’s the point? Why bother? If the game is the only way to get in shape to play the game, why not play pick-up games as conditioning?
I disagree with the coach. One can mimic game intensity and movements without playing the game. However, I would not use a track for these workouts. Depending on facilities, and the athletes, playing a game like racquetball would mimic many of the movements and the conditioning. Similarly, playing 2v2 soccer/futsal in a racquetball court is a great conditioning game. On the court, various games of tag could be combined to condition the players in a basketball-specific way.
More important, however, is that few, if any of these players possess well-developed movement skills. Before I worried about conditioning or intensity, I would teach the basic movement skills: how to change directions, how to move laterally, how to decelerate, how to jump, how to land, how to squat, how to hop, etc. I think well-planned and intense practices during the preseason period (first official practice to first game) can condition players for games. I feel the offseason period (start of training to first official practice) should be used to develop the strength, explosiveness and skill to move efficiently.
Too many coaches focus on intensity and effort as their measures of the team’s conditioning. Then, they wonder why their team peaks early in the season and loses early in the play-offs or why they have numerous chronic and acute injuries. Learn to move first, and then add intensity and volume. Intensity and volume prior to well-developed movement skills is a recipe for injury or sub-par performance, and as the coach suggested, the effort is wasted anyway, since the high-volume work on a track transfers poorly to a basketball game.
Drills and Skills
A drill, by itself, is purposeless. Practice is not an end in and of itself. Nobody practices for the sake of being good at practice or a drill. The point is the transfer to the game: drills and practices are only as good as their ability to improve game performance.
Coaches tend to use more isolated drills with younger players because these players have the least refined skills. Logically, this makes sense: simplify the skill to its components, and practice these components in isolation before practicing the more complex skill.
The problem is the transfer to the game. Inexperienced players – typically those with the least refined skills – lack the experience and game awareness to make sense of the isolated drills. An experienced player – or a coach – imagines the defense in an isolated drill.
On a simple cut-catch-rip-and-go-move drill, the inexperienced player goes through the motions of the drill, and possibly improves his ball handling or finishing, but he does not improve the move against defensive players. When he faces the defensive player in the same situation, he is not necessarily any better at the move. The player did not learn to read the defender so he knows when to rip and go, and when to catch and shoot, and when to rip and jab.
When an experienced player practices the same move in isolation, he imagines the defense. He has an idea of when he is going to rip and go, and when he is going to catch and shoot. He is tightening his moves: working on getting lower, quicker and more explosive.
One can see the difference when watching an experienced player and an inexperienced player engage in the same drill. The inexperienced player has little variety in their moves; they attempt to replicate the coach’s directions as strictly as possible. The experienced player has greater variety, as he imagines the defensive player. He may hesitate at different points of the move or change the move subtly. The player owns the move and uses his imagination to practice his or her move in these visualized situations rather than copying someone else’s move.
Typically, coaches of inexperienced players concentrate on getting their players lower, quicker and more explosive, believing that will lead to improved performance, when the real issue is the decision-making component of reading the defense. Before concentrating on improving the specifics of the move, the player needs to understand when and how to use the move.
This process leads to more mistakes in the learning process. It is easier to learn the proper technique of a move without defense than with the defense. However, the key is the transfer to the game, not the mistakes in practice. It takes more time to master the move, but the transfer is quicker. Once players have an understanding of the context of the move, then isolated drill work may be necessary to tighten the move and increase explosiveness.
You cannot learn to beat a defensive player without practicing against a defensive player. An isolated drill practices the technique of a move – where to rip the ball, how to coordinate the first step and the dribble to avoid a travel, etc. The technique is important, but is not the entire skill.
I prefer to start with the skill and allow players to learn the technique and the decision-making together. For some players, they’ll pick up the technique at the same time. For others, I’ll have them work more slowly or work in isolation for a couple repetitions to learn how not to travel or to get a quicker first step or whatever the mistake might be. This practice may take longer and look messier, but the practice is not the purpose: the transfer to improved game performance is the purpose of the drill.
There are two distinct mindsets or approaches when planning practice: (1) one mindset teaches to the ideal or the perfect execution of each skill; and (2) the other mindset realizes that game executions are never perfect and focuses on improving skills for a variety of executions in a variety of situations.
In his great blog, John Kessel of USA Volleyball writes:
Coaches are WAY too wrapped up in making players technically “perfect. WAY TOO MUCH. I believe it is in part so they have something to do in practice and matches, while the game is teaching the game. I have taken over 250,000 pictures of Olympic and Paralympic play, through college and high school, down to youth in the last 30 years. The vast majority of these moments in time, capture players who are technically imperfect. About 80 percent I would estimate. Great players who clearly know the right technique but, because they are in the wrong place and time to perform such, they make personal adjustments to make sure the principle of the ball going in/to the right place, happens.
One of my most frequent comments to players is “adjust and adapt.” I do not teach to the ideal. I believe that the concentration on some ideal limits players and is impractical within a game context.
An example of the difference between teaching to the ideal and teaching to reality is defending a jab step and a drive step. A drive step is a player’s first step to the basket; a jab step is a shorter step used to mimic a drive step as a fake in order to off-balance the defense or create space.
In an ideal context, one would defend the drive step and jab step differently. If a player makes a hard drive step toward the basket, the defender must recover quickly; the likely best course of action is a hip turn and crossover step to catch up to the offensive player.
In an ideal context, one would defend the jab step by holding his or her ground or possibly jumping back slightly to maintain some space so the offensive player cannot get his or her body into the defender.
The two offensive moves present very different defensive answers (and there are other potential answers depending on one’s defensive philosophy). The problem is that from the defensive perspective, these are not two distinct moves; for instance, one defends a shot differently than a drive. When the offensive players lifts his foot to make a drive step or a jab step, the defender does not know which move he or she is making. If the player holds his or her ground, and it turns out to be a drive step, the offensive player will blow past the defender. However, if the player turns and crossover steps to recover, and the offensive player jabs, the defender will have conceded plenty of space.
When a coach teaches players to react differently to a jab step and to a drive step during isolated drills where the defender knows which move the offense is going to use, the coach is teaching to an ideal. The reality is that the defender will not know ahead of time which move the offensive player is making unless the offensive player has some big tells, like looking at his feet on a drive step and looking at the defender on a jab step. As players gain experience, and a feel for these positions, the defender should be able to anticipate the forthcoming move with some accuracy and make quicker decisions, allowing him or her to defend the two moves differently with a high degree of accuracy.
However, with players who lack the ability to anticipate, one cannot defend the drive step and jab step differently. If defending differently, one has a 50/50 chance of being right; if the defender is wrong, he is beaten badly.
The better defensive strategy is to hedge one’s bet. Rather than defend one way or another, pick the middle ground. If the defender jumps backward and gives space on the offensive player’s movement, he may be susceptible to a jab-and-shoot. He may also not be in perfect position to stop the drive on the first step. However, by giving ground and remaining on balance, the player can read the move and adjust quickly. If it is a jab step, the player takes a small jump forward to close the distance and contest the shot. If it is a drive step, the player turns his hips and likely uses a crossover step to recover. By giving space on the movement, the defender cannot defend both moves perfectly; however, he or she remains in a position to defend both moves with some success.
This is just one example. There are many concepts or moves which coaches attempt to teach to an ideal. They see the world in back-and-white. There is one way to execute, and all other ways are wrong. I see the game as a dozen shades of grey; there is no one right-or-wrong solution, but many possible solutions depending on the specific situation. To prepare for these many possible solutions, players must practice in a varied environment, as opposed to a situation where the coach tells the offensive player exactly which move to use, and the defense knows ahead of time.
To develop better players, we need to move past the black-and-white mindset and realize that there are very few ideals in game competition. Rather than spending 90% of time working on one ideal (like the ideal pre-game lay-up), practice should be more varied to incorporate more of the possible situations that will arise in the game (lay-ups at 20 different angles, not just one). The varied environment will enhance transfer to the game environment and develop players with the cognitive flexibility to provide different solutions to different problems rather than trying to make one solution fit multiple problems. In a sense, this varied environment will reduce roboticism and enhance individual discovery and decision-making.