Hard 2 Guard Player Development Newsletter
Practice in Proportion to your Aspirations.
In this Week’s Newsletter…
- A Quick Word: Athleticism
- Free Throws and Arousal
- Differential Learning and Basketball
A Quick Word
ESPN’s NBA draft expert Chad Ford has tweeted several times over the last week about Jimmer Fredette’s questionable athleticism. Ford refuses to elaborate on the aspects of athleticism that Fredette lacks. However, based on a couple articles, it appears that NBA decision-making personnel question Fredette’s athleticism too.
I wish those who evaluate players had a better understanding of the attributes, characteristics, skills and talents that they were evaluating, as opposed to possessing a journalism degree.
I have written about the subject numerous times with regards to Steve Nash and Roger Federer: athleticism is more than explosiveness. Explosiveness is a key element of athleticism, especially in basketball, but it is not everything. Athleticism includes balance, agility, quickness, hand-eye coordination, endurance, strength, hand dexterity, foot dexterity, coordination and more.
I have seen Fredette play twice, so I am far from an expert. However, he illustrates good strength, footwork, agility, coordination and more.
More importantly, sport intelligence impacts sport athleticism. In tests of agility, players perform differently in closed-skill tests than in open-skill tests. There is an NBA player who tests as a mediocre athlete in closed-skill agility tests, but tests off the charts in open-skill tests (the trainer asked me not to disclose the exact test or the name of the player).
Therefore, pattern recognition and anticipation skills influence game athleticism. Fredette appears to have great pattern recognition and anticipatory skills which would augment his athleticism and make him a better game performer than any closed-skill test might suggest (in the event that he tests poorly; he may very well test like a good athlete even in closed-skill tests). If NBA writers and decision-makers rely too much on the out-dated tests at the combines, they may underestimate Fredette’s athleticism and his ability to translate his college success to the NBA. Explosiveness is not the same as athleticism. Athleticism is more than 40-inch vertical jumps or a 300 lbs. bench press.
Vern Gambetta defines athleticism as “the ability to execute athletic movements (run, jump, throw) at optimum speed with precision, style and grace while demonstrating technical competency in the context of your sport.” Clearly, by this definition, The Jimmer is plenty athletic.
Free Throws and Arousal
At the end of the Butler/Pitt game, Butler’s Sheldon Mack fouled Pitt’s Gilbert Brown. There was a delay as the officials looked at the clock. During the break, analyst and former NBA player Mike Gminski noticed that Mack was talking to Brown. Gminski said, “That would fire me up!” He sounded as if he thought that would be a positive. This illustrates a misunderstanding of arousal and its effect on concentration and skill execution.
While free throw shooting includes characteristics of gross motor skill (uses large muscle groups), I classify free throw shooting as a fine motor skill because of the need for precision. When you throw a shot put, the goal is distance: the direction and placement is not a factor, except as it relates to the legality of the throw and the distance. When you throw a dart, the velocity of the throw does not matter, provided that it sticks in the dart board; instead, it is the accuracy and precision that matters.
When engaging in a gross motor skill, getting “fired up” often has a positive effect on performance because of the adrenaline and the increased blood flow to the large muscle groups. However, when executing a fine motor skill, getting “fired up” leads to less effective performance.
When Mack talked to Brown, he tried to get him “fired up” to distract his attention away from the task and toward Mack. In psychological terms, he wanted Brown “over-aroused.” In performance, there is an optimal level of performance, typically described by the inverted U principle: at low levels of arousal, performance declines due to boredom or a lack of a challenge; as arousal increases, performance increases to a point as athletes are engaged fully in the task; finally, as arousal increases beyond that point, performance declines to an over-arousal state or anxiety.
Individuals have their own optimal level of arousal – some players perform better when an opponent talks trash because it helps narrow their focus, while others perform worse because their focus becomes too narrowed or their attention is appropriated incorrectly.
At the beginning of a game, players often engage in a ritual to get psyched for their performance. In essence, they want to raise their arousal level to a heightened state close to their optimal level of arousal. This is the genesis for the big pre-game speech.
At the free throw line, however, one does not want to be over-aroused. Instead, the pre-performance routine is used for the opposite effect: to calm down and relax to perform optimally. Many players hurry to the line, rush through a dribble or two and shoot while they are huffing and puffing. Their heart beat is near maximal capacity from the game’s intensity.
I encourage players to catch the ball away from the line and take a deep breath before stepping to the line. I want players to control their breathing and slow their heart rate. Archers and riflers pay attention to their breathing and time their shot with their heart beat to prevent any perturbation on the shot, as they need accuracy to the millimeter. Free throw shooters have a little greater margin for error, but the same idea holds: it is easier to shoot a free throw if you control your breathing than if you’re huffing and puffing.
After taking the deep breath, the player steps to the line and goes through his or her routine. Then, I encourage players to take another deep breath before shooting. The goal of the routine is the opposite of getting “fired up.” Instead, I want players to relax and allow their learned skill to perform.
At the end of the Arizona/Texas game, University of Arizona’s Derrick Williams was fouled. Again, the officials went to the monitor to check the clock. The analyst commented that Williams had a lot of time to think about the free throw, implying that it was a negative.
I disagree. I do not believe in “icing the shooter” if the shooter is a good shooter. When I coached youth basketball, our program director would call timeout when our shooter was going to the line late in a close game to give her a chance to settle down and relax.
Icing the shooter works if the player engages in negative self-talk. Players time travel: they imagine the negative consequences if they miss or imagine a previous situation where they missed. They frame the task incorrectly: they say things like “I hope I don’t miss” to themselves.
Therefore, players need to learn (be taught) how to use positive self-talk and how to control their imagery. Like shooting, positive self-talk and imagery require practice. Without practice, you don’t know what a player will imagine or think to himself with the game on the line. Players who have a strategy will not be affected by the delay – the delay will help them control their breathing and arousal level.
People wonder why free throw percentages seem low. Everyone has an excuse. However, for players with otherwise good shooting technique, it is generally the lack of or a misappropriate psychological approach that affects their shooting. Players need to understand their arousal level and how to reach their optimal level for performance as well as have psychological strategies for positive self-talk and imagery to enhance their performance.
Differential Learning and Basketball
A BBC article titled “Cracking coaching’s final frontier” focuses on learning in sports. While many coaches pay lip service to their role as a teacher and the hardwood as a classroom, few understand learning. A Belgian soccer coach named Michel Bruyninckx calls his training “brain-centered learning” and approaches his coaching very differently than most coaches. He has developed several of Belgium’s young talents, and his methods have caught the eye of the Belgian Football Association.
“We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body…Skillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player.
“Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”
How do we improve these cognitive-perceptual skills within our typical practice sessions?
His drills start off simply but become increasingly more complicated to challenge players’ focus and maintain their concentration.
I had an associate from Germany email a couple weeks ago and ask about the three-man weave, knowing that I am not a fan. He said that in Spain, teams catch, take one dribble and use one-hand passes off the dribble in the three-man weave. This is a more interesting and challenging drill. However, my response was to ask what’s the next progression. As implied above, what do you do once the players adapt to the one-hand pass drill?
That is my real problem with the three-man weave. Once players learn the weave, what next? When I played in Sweden, our coach used three-man weave variations as warm-up drills and we did narrow weaves, wide weaves, tip-drill weaves, hand-off weaves, etc. These were warm-up drills; they were not passing drills. My coach did not believe that he was developing our passing skills; these were our conditioning drills, and he added different elements of coordination.
“You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added.
“By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available.
“Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.”
Most coaching tends to teach a skill in the same way and practice that skill over and over. For instance, teams do lay-ups drills from the same spot at the same speed before every game. Why? Last season my team practiced lay-ups from every angle; we practiced different lay-ups; we added defense; we practiced off the dribble; we practiced off the catch. Why do the same exact drill with hundreds of the same lay-up? Once the player masters the skill, the learning stops.
On twitter this weekend, one of the prominent women’s basketball writers tweeted that a couple teams and especially one great player needed more lay-up practice because one game featured several blown lay-ups. Naturally, I shook my head. First, female players really need to learn to shoot off two feet, rather than a normal one-foot lay-up, as their percentages would increase dramatically. Second, more mind-numbing lay-up drills will not improve a college player’s skills. That does not mean that a college player should never do a lay-up drill. Instead, the coach needs to add some newness to the drills – attack from different angles, shoot different shots, add defense, force the player to solve a math problem while shooting the layup: something to add novelty to the drill.
“The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake,” explained Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University, an expert in kinesiology or human movement.
This, of course, runs counter to the instincts of every coach. If you are not correcting or fixing mistakes, what is a coach to do? This coaching may not be appropriate at all age groups, as younger players definitely need to master the proper technique to improve as players. However, for beginners and as technique improves, allowing mistakes and constantly challenging players with new drills furthers the players’ learning more than doing the same drills over and over.
“Players have to take responsibility,” Schoellhorn added. “They have to be creative and take responsibility and have to find the optimal solution. It’s a whole philosophy.
When coaches answer all the questions, they take the responsibility and limit players creativity. This weekend, many people questioned the poor decision-making at the end of games in the NCAA Tournament. Some blamed AAU, some blamed lack of practice in situations and some blamed the over-competition in youth basketball which lessens the impact of a loss because there is always another game to play.
One other explanation is the lack of responsibility afforded to players. How do we expect players to make good decisions when they are never allowed to make decisions? How do players learn to think on the court when coaches stop the action to fix mistakes in practice or call timeouts to dictate the play during games?
Coaches who create novel learning environments, encourage mistakes and give players responsibility for their learning develop better decision-makers through their more creative or novel approaches and better cognitive-perceptual skills.
One club that has adopted Professor Schoellhorn’s ideas is F.C. Barcelona, the best and most entertaining football team in the world. As you watch them play (below), you see their ability to read the play, make decisions and play creatively. Do you see the same in the players that you coach or train? If not, how can you change your approach to stimulate better learning and more cognitive flexibility on the court?