Basketball Skills Training and Player Development

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?

Technique plus decisions

The decision part of this equation is often overlooked.  Within the traditional player development and basketball skills training it can be challenging to include decisions. This is especially challenging in 1-on-0 workouts. This is where creativity and workout planning are critical. Technique is a key component of skill. For instance, if a player has a clear problem with their shooting form, isolated technical work is important. The problem is when techniques are worked on in isolation with no connection to the game. Too often individual workouts become technique development workouts. This means that half of the skill development equation is not being trained.

Why is this an issue? For technique to transfer to a game they must be connected with the perceptual information that connects with the decision to use the technique. If all a player does is 1-on-0 skill development in an environment where that is void of the perceptual information that would be present in a game, then the player has to essentially relearn how to use the skill when they are put in a game situation. A game has distracting information and visual stimuli presented by teammates and opponents. Yes, I can learn how to dribble 1-on-o. Yes, I can develop confidence and comfort dribbling. What I can’t do is learn how to perceive when, what and how to dribble in a 1-on-0 dribbling workout. 

There is a place for block practice. Development can be slowed down if the only type of practice being done is blocked practice. Blocked practice is about comfort and confidence. Beyond the lack of transfer, there is also very little thinking happening during blocked practice. Since the player knows what technique to use, and how and when to use it, the player is able to memorize and repeat a predictable technique with low mental engagement. Adding random practice and decision-making to player development drills completes the skill equation. 

The Misuse of Game-Like

Game-like training is typically referring to players making moves at full-speed or making movements they would use in a game. Game-like should mean unpredictable. Unpredictable is the condition under which a game is played. Technique is not applied in isolation in a game. They are applied in combination with a decision prior to the technique. In fact, a physical application of a technique is preceded by a perception followed by a decision.

For example, an offensive player must make a decision based on what a defender does. They must then come up with an appropriate solution to attack or counter that defender. 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 effective for building comfort and confidence. A player can feel and see themselves getting faster and more efficient. The reality is using cones is 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 cue their perceptions, decisions and technique application.

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.

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. They are using 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 to do repetitions without repetition. This can be accomplished using concepts such as “bursts” or mixing. A player does multiple repetitions, but each repetition is different. In the Bursts Closeouts example below a constraint is placed on the guided defender that shapes how they can defend the offensive player. This creates a more game-like training because the technique is applied after a perception and decision. This forces a player to think on each repetition. When the offensive player perceives the defensive cue, they then make a decision as to what technique to apply. 

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 an isolated skill. Decisions cannot be trained isolated from technique. So why do we think technique can be trained isolated from decisions? A common example is a dribble penetrate and pass type drill where players have very basic decisions to make as to who to pass to. You can block practice decisions to give players an initial representation of the drill, skill or decision. You cannot stay with blocked practice because that is not how dribble penetrate and pass techniques are applied in a game.

For any technique being taught, the decision comes before the technique is applied. Experience is a factor is making certain practice more valuable. For example an NBA or WNBA player has experienced far more cues that lead to decisions. They can better package how technique and decisions go together. Younger players cannot package how to use a taught technique within the context of the game because they haven’t experienced as many perceptual cues that lead to decisions that apply skills. Can we speed that process up? Yes, this perceptual ability is not based on chronological age. It is based on experiential knowledge gained from repetitions that combine perceptions, decisions and technique. 

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?

Principle of Individuality

Specificity implies that to become better at a particular skill, a player must perform that skill. To be a good shooter, you must shoot. The principle of individuality tells us that each player will potentially respond differently to the same training stimulus. Not every shooter, shoots the same. Factors such as age, sex, body size, limb length, muscle “type” distribution, training experience and more, all contribute to the training response. 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. Every individual has their own constraints which affect their potential playing style, not limited to but including factors like height, wingspan, quickness, explosiveness and more. 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 the principle of individuality important to understand as a trainer and coach? Simply, your player’s time is valuable. Their basketball skills training should provide them the most benefit and optimize their performance. A training regimen should reflect a player’s needs and objectives. 

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