Off-Season Training: What are you doing with your time?

In my “Introduction to Coaching” class, the undergraduate students are concerned with burnout in sports and coaches pushing athletes too much. In reply to a question, a couple students wrote that high-school players should know what it takes to become a great athlete. I replied that I watch high school and college athletes on a weekly basis and am unconvinced that any of them knows what it takes to become a great athlete.

I watched two college players work out on their own today. I don’t know why they bother. They have a routine sent to them by their coach, and they follow the routine, but no part of their workout is making them better.

What are you doing in your workouts? Does your training transfer to better game performance?

It appeared as though these players did sets of 10 shots from the same spot (block practice). They jogged into the catch. How many times do you jog off of a cut, catch, and shoot? Remember, these are college players; they are not learning a new skill, but refining and mastering a learned skill. Improvement stems from increasing the speed or precision of a skill since the skill is not new.

During games, most shots follow either a catch while standing still and spotting up, a hard cut, or a dribble move. How is jogging into the catch going to improve performance?

Beyond the jogging, one girl traveled on more than half of her repetitions when moving from right to left. If a player must slow down to learn something new or to correct her footwork, that is understandable. However, that means that the focus is the footwork. There appeared to be no focus on the footwork because the same mistake was made over and over again. If footwork is the focus, and a player starts slowly, as improvements are made, the player should increase the pace to mimic a game cut.

In another set, the players looped into the catch, jab stepped, and made a dribble move into a shot. I say that the players looped into the catch, rather than curling, because they went sideline to sideline in more of a conditioning drill than a curl off a screen. Their moves, however, showed a poor understanding of the move.

First, I would never want a player to catch and jab step: When you catch, you’re either open for the shot or you have an advantage to attack. Why wait for the defense to catch up?

Second, a jab step can be effective if it is a part of the cut – in a 1-2-step, the second step acts as the jab step (rip ball to knee), and the player attacks with a crossover-step drive. However, why catch, stop, and then jab step, especially off of a curl cut? Why allow the defender to recover to a neutral position?

Finally, the goal of any move is to off-balance the defender to create an opening; if the defender is chasing an offensive player around a screen, the defender is off-balanced. Making an immediate move, like going against the defender’s momentum, creates a bigger opening. The offensive player has the advantage because she can plan her actions: When she catches the pass off the curl cut, she can shoot, run through the catch, shot fake, or catch with a jab step and drive against the defender’s momentum. Therefore, she anticipates the stop, while the defender is chasing and must react to the offensive player’s movement. This gives the offensive player a half-second head start.

Most high school and college players do not understand what it takes to improve or to become a great player despite the perceptions of my undergraduate students. I can watch two players do the exact same drill and know which player gets it and which does not. To most observers, the two players did the same thing. However, the player who gets it has subtle differences. The player who gets it imagines the game scenario. There is a greater change of speed at the desired moments. The acceleration is quicker. The repetitions vary as the player imagines different scenarios.

I stopped a clinic once and explained this difference. I was working with five girls who I had never met in a coaching clinic. I did not even know their names. I stopped the clinic and pointed out one player because she was different than the rest. Nobody else saw what I saw. Four years later, one of those five players is playing Division 1 college basketball. She got it. While the other four players went through the motions and completed the drill, she improved. This is the difference that most players and coaches do not understand.

In a sense, this is Ericsson’s deliberate practice. Ericsson differentiated deliberate practice from normal practice by emphasizing the need for full concentration, feedback, and numerous repetitions with refinement. In deliberate practice, there is typically an emphasis on a specific aspect of performance, and the performer devotes full concentration to that aspect. Due to this requirement for concentration, one cannot “go through the motions” in deliberate practice.

In this case, the deliberateness of the practice was due to what I perceived to be visualization. The one player appeared to imagine a game situation which fit with the drill, and she performed the drill as if she was in that situation. The other players simply completed the drill. Again, to the untrained eye, the five players did the same thing: Start at half court, dribble toward the three-point line, make a change-of-direction move, and finish with a lay-up. The one player, however, played with the drill a little more. In other terms, the four players colored strictly within the lines with a single color while the one player colored outside the lines and used many different colors. When presented with a game situation, the player who practiced with many colors is prepared better for ever changing situations than those who used only one color.

This is why coaches organize summer practices rather than trusting players to work out on their own and why parents hire trainers to push their child. They believe that a trainer or coach will improve the quality of the practice. Does the presence of a trainer or coach prevent players from going through the motions? Does the trainer or coach create a training environment that fosters this deliberateness of practice or engages the players’ minds? Is hiring a skills trainer too much, as my undergraduates seem to believe? At what age is it too much?

The more important question is: How to teach players to practice deliberately or to use different colors when they color? When a player can imagine the game situations and the utility of the drill, the drill becomes more than a simple drill. When a player practices in this way, the coach or trainer isn’t necessary to improve individual skills.

When I was young, I played in open gyms and un-coached summer leagues against older players. When I made a mistake or missed a shot or got stuck, I remembered the play. After the game, I went home and practiced a way to improve in that situation. That’s how I learned to shoot a floater. I played with older, bigger players and could not get off a shot when I attacked the basket. I was reduced to a three-point shooter. The next day, I worked on shooting from a couple feet away from the basket and shooting the ball higher. Remember, I grew up in the days before youtube when basketball was not on the television during the summer months (either the WNBA or the NBA summer league). I imagined the situation and practiced different shots, including a floater, that would enable me to finish. I practiced a variety of different shots (many different colors) and practiced shots like inside-hand lay-ups that many frowned upon (colored outside the lines). My feedback was the success of the shot, which I eventually tested in subsequent games at open gyms or in summer leagues. During this practice, I was engaged fully in my efforts, as it was entirely self-directed. I was not following a trainer’s instructions or doing his drills; I was imagining, playing, and inventing.

These are the tools that we need to teach players. When players rely on a written workout from their college coach or they train with a trainer that tells them exactly what to do, they often miss these important learning experiences. With a trainer, the player may push harder than by him or herself – sprinting into shots rather than jogging – which is an improvement. However, does the coach or trainer create learning experiences where the player really learns rather than going through the motions?

When a coach or trainer sets up a row of cones, and the player dribbles through the cones, is that engaging the player’s mind? Is that practicing a game skill? Do players often slalom down the court around stationary objects? This is the type of drill that looks hard and valuable, but it disengages the technique from the skill. The player may develop a lower crossover dribble (though I doubt it), but can the player transfer that lower crossover to a game with a moving defender who he must read and make the appropriate move to beat? If not, does the slaloming through the cones have any real value?

With the college girls from above, a better approach would be to do fewer shots per set to increase the intensity of and concentration on each repetition. Next, they need to imagine the game situation that the drill aims to practice. Based on the drills, I assume their team runs some kind of offense or play where players curl toward the elbow. To make the practice more meaningful, they should imagine the screen; set up the screen, make the cut, catch, and shoot like a game.

Games do not occur at one speed. Jogging through a workout does little to nothing to make a player better. The workout becomes a wasted effort. The player remains the same player from week to week and month to month and season to season and wonders why. The answer is simple: The quality of the practice. Being in the gym four hours a day, as I heard one of the girls say, is not enough (it’s probably too much, really). Quantity is insufficient to make improvements. It’s the quality of the practice that matters.

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