In recent years, there has been considerable growth in the basketball skills training and player development industry. There are many great basketball skills trainers and player development coaches doing fantastic work with players at all levels of the game. The question to ask is has “basketball skills training” actually become a global misnomer for what, in reality, is technique training?
What is the actual definition of skill?
Skill is the interaction between a basketball player and their environment. Without being at risk of being too reductionist, before we start unpacking the emergent concept of skill further, the main problem with traditional basketball coaching is the overt focus on technique and action.
The problem is especially apparent with numerous techniques being worked on in isolation, with no connection to the game. This leads to a complete lack of a task representative learning environment. Too often individual workouts are really synonyms for technique-development workouts.
Why is this an issue? For techniques to transfer to a game they must be connected with the relevant perceptual information. Affordances shapes these finishing solutions, but many practices are devoid of any of the same affordances that exist within a game.
If all a player does is 1-on-0 skill development in an environment that is void of the perceptual information that would be present in a game, then the player is simply ill-prepared for a game situation. Yes, a player can dribble 1-on-o and develop confidence and comfort. What they can’t learn is how to perceive when, why and how to dribble in a game situation. This is far more important than the former, which players will typically do anyway at home.
The Misuse of Game-Like
In basketball trainer circles, game-like training has been completely misconstrued as referring to players making moves at full-speed or making movements they would use in a game. Game-like should mean unpredictable, with the same affordances that exist within an actual game. Unpredictable is the condition under which a game is played. Technique is not applied in isolation in a game.
For example, an offensive player must always perceive what a defender does before any type of action. They must come up with an appropriate solution such as whether to attack, counter or pass the ball. Since there is more than one defender, and there are also other offensive players on the court too, this process is more complex than how we most often train it. It is one thing for players to be taught a move and the situation in which to use it, but then recognizing the situation where it has to be applied, and doing that in an unpredictable environment is a different story.
Doing drills with cones is very common within the basketball training space. The reality is that using cones is a guidance that hinders transfer of the technique to a game. It is guidance because a player relies on the visual stimuli of the cones on these drills in order to improve their technique. In a game there are no cones so a player has completely different visual stimuli to that of real defenders.
How about using a dummy defender? Bones over cones is definitely better. The player provides a much better task representation of what is required. In the dribbling vs. cones example, a player learns how to apply a dribbling move vs. a cone that is not in any way representative of a person. So applying that same dribble move vs. a person standing in place is an improvement, but there is still no perception and decision process because there is no unpredictable to the application of the technique. A defender should provide real affordances, which dummy defense simply do not provide.
Tradition in Skill Development
Traditionally within basketball skills training, a technique is taught and demonstrated and then worked on through continuous repetitions of that technique. This is constant, blocked practice. Evidence-based research suggests this type of practice leads to minimal transfer. This is why the popular basketball training phase “get your reps” is flawed. Getting reps where everything is the same doesn’t increase retention and transfer.
If you are going to get reps, random practice is the optimal form of practice. The goal is repetition without repetition (Bernstein, 1967). This can be accomplished playing against real demesne and using concepts such as “bursts” or mixing. A player does multiple repetitions, but each repetition is different. In the Bursts Closeouts example below, constraints are placed on the defender that shapes how they can defend the offensive player. This means every single rep is different.
💡 Players stay for 40 seconds. Defensive players work in shifts to give multiple reads on the close-out.
🏃 Sprint to space immediately for the next rep, always a new location.
🧠 Must have a play present mentality, play through the mistakes! pic.twitter.com/AMNCm0u3b2
— Alex Sarama (@AlexJSarama) August 29, 2020
What are Bursts?
Bursts is a concept utilized to allow one offensive player to remain on the floor continuously for a short time limit (e.g 30 Secs) or over multiple reps, as opposed to playing one possession and stopping. They play against a different defender for each rep in quick succession, with defenders being live or guided (giving a different decision every-time).
This can be used in any player development scenario, from close-outs, to finishes to use of particular actions. Bursts help achieve a very high time on-task ratio as well as giving players a chance to “figure it out” as opposed to having to wait for their next learning opportunity.
Decisions Don’t Happen in Isolation
Decision-making is often discussed by coaches and trainers as a stand-alone skill. E.g. “one of the most important skills players must have today is decision-making” or “I will now show you a decision-making drill.” Again, this is misunderstanding of what skill is. Decision-making cannot be considered as a stand-alone “skill” because it is inherent in everything a basketball player does.
Questions You Should Ask Yourself
Coaches and trainers teach many things that are never used in the games they way they are taught in workouts.
Every coach and trainer should ask themselves if what they are teaching is helping their players improve in offense vs. defense situations. Improving dribbling in a cone drill does not mean a player is improving their dribbling in a game. How do you watch for this improvement? Watch your players. Watch games. And ask yourself, is what I am coaching in practice happening in a game? Is what I am teaching my players being used in a game?
This provides a great opportunity for growth, resulting in the coach assessing and looking to spend more time focusing on the skills that show up in the game most frequently.
Wondering what a workout combining skills and decisions looks like?
Non-Linearity and Individual Constraints
Individual constraints account for the fact that each player will respond differently to the same activities within a practice. This is why every player shoots the ball differently. Factors such as age, sex, body size, limb length, weight etc, all lead to different solutions being used and different rates of learning.. Since each of these variables differs among the players, a trainer or coach cannot expect to get the same response from each player. Accounting for player variation in the training response is necessary to elicit the improvement you want from a player.
All players are not created the same. This means we cannot simply work through a curriculum or a checklist of moves where every player is taught and expected to use the same moves. Players do not all need to be great at every move or skill in the game, and nor should they be expected to. As coaches, we have to look at the person first: what is it they need the most and how can they be the most effective?
Why is this important to understand as a trainer and coach? Simply, your player’s time is valuable. Their basketball training should provide them with the best opportunity to develop based on their needs and objectives. This learning process doesn’t go through stages, as players jump and make regressions continuously. Coaches and trainers must begin to account for this, moving away from linearized models where all players are treated one and the same.