The Myth of the Skilled Basketball Player

While we grossly misunderstand the talented basketball players, we also misunderstand the idea of skills. Being skilled does not mean dribbling in straight lines or knocking down jump shots in an empty gym. A skill within the context of an invasion game like basketball combines the ability to know what to do with the ability to execute efficiently and effectively.

A player who can shoot in an empty gym has developed his motor skills. However, the ability to perform in a game environment requires perceptual-cognitive skills too. The player has to be able to recognize patterns (defense), anticipate teammates and defenders, make quick and accurate decisions, and more. Without these skills, the player will be unable to use his motor skills within a game.

Recently, there has been a backlash against the constant competitive environment of the AAU system. To many, the answer is not games, but practice. This practice, to many, is isolated, block practice. The assumption is that better motor skills practiced in isolation will create more fundamental basketball players, and these fundamental basketball players will perform better in game situations.

As an example, I toured a basketball academy several years. The lead instructor was a former college basketball coach with considerable experience. He bragged about firing all the young coaches and hiring only grizzled veterans like himself to teach the right fundamentals. I watched as his group of 11 or 12 year olds did straight-line ball handling drills. They were very good. Their motor skills were well-developed. Next, I watched as this group scrimmaged. These players did nothing productive with the dribble. They could not beat anyone off the dribble.

When this happens – when an obviously skilled player struggles in a game environment- the blame naturally turns to athleticism: if the players were quicker or bigger or stronger, then they would be able to utilize their skills better. Instead, I suggested a different problem: The practice was not transferring to the game. Straight-line drills do not prepare a player to anticipate and read defenders, change directions, and make moves.

I asked the coach to play tag. He resisted. Finally, he relented. When they played tag, the balls went everywhere. These ball handlers who were great at doing half-speed drills in a straight line could not make moves or evade others when forced to go at full speed. This was partially a breakdown in their motor skill due to the lack of contextual interference in their practice. Practicing in a low CI environment, like a straight-line ball handling drill, leads to more immediate improvement. However, this practice transfers poorly to new situations. Practicing in a high CI environment, like playing a game of Team Tag, takes longer to show improvement, but tends to transfer better to novel situations (like a game).

The poor performance in tag and the scrimmage was due also to the lack of perceptual-cognitive skill training. When a player dribbles in a straight line, he focuses solely on the ball and completing the drill. In a game, the player must account for five defenders and four teammates; he has to change directions; he has to protect the ball; he has to see the court; he has to understand time and score; and he has to do all of these things at a faster rate of speed.

When people imagine fundamental players, these skills are assumed. The assumption appears to be that if the player is proficient in his motor skills, these other skills will occur naturally. Since they are assumed, they often go unpracticed.

A skilled player has well-developed cognitive-perceptual skills to complement developed motor skills. These skills do not just happen. Players do not wake up as good playmakers or decision makers and improving one’s motor skills is not sufficient to develop these skills. Improved motor skills play a role: The more confidence that a player has in his ball-handling ability, for instance, the less attention he will have to dedicate to dribbling or protecting the ball, leaving more attention to identify defenders or find an open teammate. Therefore, isolated drills and the traditional notion of fundamentals plays an important role.

However, as players develop these motor skills, they need to develop cognitive-perceptual skills too. When we think of fundamentals, these skills need to be included in our definition. Having good shooting technique is a fundamental, but if the player cannot read the defense to get an open shot or understand shot selection, how valuable is that technique? If a player has a great handle in drills, but cannot use the bounce to defuse pressure or create a shot for a teammate or himself, how useful is the handle?

 Understanding the game is a fundamental and a requirement to being a skilled player. To develop this understanding, players need game experience. However, when players only play games within a coach’s system, their attention is narrowed to running the plays. They do not take full advantage of the playing experience. At some point in the player’s development, he or she must play in an unstructured or less structured environment to combine their motor-skill development with improving cognitive-perceptual skills.

Players need to learn how to read a screen, how to handle a double team, how to move in relation to dribble penetration, how to run a pick-and-roll, etc. That does not mean learning one way to handle these problems or memorizing a coach’s system better. Players need to learn multiple solutions to defensive problems (and defensive solutions to offensive problems). They need opportunities to try these solutions in game situations with the freedom to make decisions and learn from mistakes. If all the learning is coach-directed, the player will have limited fundamentals, just like a player who only dribbles with his right hand.

Players need player-directed learning opportunities to learn multiple solutions. They have to learn to see the court, read the defense, and anticipate plays. In an ideal environment, developmental levels would offer these opportunities. However, the game tends to be over-coached at all levels, which limits the potential for player learning. Playing pick-up games or loosely-coached spring or summer leagues gives players more opportunities to develop these skills.

Fundamentals are not just motor skills. If we want to develop better basketball players, we have to look at the whole skills, and consider the cognitive-perceptual components of the skill to be fundamentals as well. Players need opportunities to learn and to develop solutions to problems in an expansive, educative environment.

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