Games Approach to Coaching Basketball

“Technical ability cannot be assessed or considered outside of a tactical context” – Fergus Connolly

Seeking effective ways to foster learning of game play and improving players’ game performance is a constant challenge for a coach. I try and meet this challenge by using a games approach to coaching basketball. I will explain some of the reasoning behind using a games approach to coaching basketball, but, the main reason I use it is athlete satisfaction.

Players like to play more than they like to practice. Practice, however, is necessary to player and team development. No matter what you do as a coach a certain amount of practice is tedious and boring to a player. This is because practice involves focused repetitions of skills and decisions, and repetition is often boring. My goal is to as much as possible increase the amount of enjoyment and engagement for a player in practice. The best way I have found to accomplish this is to replicate the game that a player likes to play as much as possible in practice.

I have also chosen to use a games approach to coaching basketball because it combines skills training and mind training. This best simulates the demands of actual competition. This is because basketball puts a player in countless decision-making situations. Success in a basketball game is complex. Making things even more difficult is that basketball is played under relatively unpredictable conditions. Each player must apply both skill and decisions in their execution of offensive and defensive tactics.

To do so, players need to be exposed to real life situations in training to reproduce game-like movement solutions. In other words, practice should be as specific to reality as possible. We can do this best using a games approach to coaching basketball. The goal is to maximize the transfer of skills and decisions to competition.

The games approach emphasizes first learning what to do, then how to do it. Or, more simply, teaching and learning the game while playing the game.

Games Approach

Basketball is too often coached in a traditional linear way. The main problem is that for a large part of this linear progression present in traditional coaching  there is no context to the skill practice. Such practice is often of less value due to the need to perform skills with teammates and opponents in mind. Practicing basketball without defense may provide some benefits to initial learning and timing of sequences, but the practice is mostly superficial because it is removed from the context of the game application. Removing decision making from a drill or skill work removes the distracting information and visual cues that are present in a game.

A games approach has a more holistic relationship with skill and tactical learning as the learning is always anchored to the game because a game is always being played. In a basketball game, the decision and skill cannot be separated. Basketball is played in an open skill environment. An open skill is a skill that takes place in a dynamic and changing environment. 

The opposite of an open skill, is a closed skill. A closed skill is a skill that takes place in a stable, predictable environment where a player knows exactly what to do and when to do it. This does not describe a basketball game, but coaches often drill basketball skills as if they were closed skills (training a skill in isolation – lay-ups, dribbling, shooting with no decisions or defense).

For example, dribbling a basketball in space with no defender present could be classified as a closed skill. The dribbling is being performed in a relatively stable environment. However, when this same skill is performed during a games approach to coaching drill (small-sided game or 5-on-5), the player is faced with numerous defenders creating an unpredictable, unfamiliar and unstable environment. This same skill of dribbling is now classified as an open skill. 

Since a basketball game environment is open and constantly changing, the movements have to be continually adapted. Skills are therefore predominantly perceptual.  A basketball player must know what they are trying to do before learning how to do it. Decisions and skills should almost never be separated. This is because every basketball skill must go through the open skill process so it is more effective to teach a player how to play in an open environment that simulates the game.

Games Approach

In a games approach players develop an understanding of the game and identify the technical and tactical skills required. If necessary the coach may intervene to assist players with technical skills or discuss tactical aspects. Players practice the skills in conditions that relate to the game. Players are introduced to a game requiring skills that are both tactical (what to do) and technical (how to do it).

One of the key aspects of using a games approach to coaching is the intervention. Using a games approach does not mean scrimmaging without stopping play to coach. Coaching interventions are necessary for learning.

Before you do intervene ask yourself these questions:

If I intervene, will I make a difference?

If I give the player some time and direction, will they find the answers for themselves?

Coaching Interventions

Here are the coaching interventions we use within our games approach to coaching basketball. We use these words to coach our players. A foul means there was a mistake that we need to correct. Recreate means we are going to go back create a situation again to teach; this gives our players a context for what we are trying to improve. Remind means we are going to remind our players about a concept we have coached already that they are not executing. Demo involves us demonstrating a concept within the game to help our players see what they are doing well or what they need to improve.

We want to use questions to stimulate thinking. Thinking is driven by questions, not by answers. Answers represent an end to thinking. The proper questions develop our players’ thinking processes. They tell you that your players can understand and are thinking about what you say. The only way we know that our players are thinking is if they are talking. Questions get your players thinking and talking which leads to better understanding.

Games Approach Coaching Tips

  • Use three-on-three and four-on-four drills within the games approach because more players can become involved and constantly active.
  • It is OK for a coach to introduce the activity in a no defense breakdown before then rapidly moving into competitive games but do so in a big picture context.
  • Use a “numbers advantage in drills to help with the ease that players can perform the new tactical skills and experience success.
  • Change parameters to force players to make decisions and make them solve their own problems Coach-centered drill oriented practices are often boring and consequently less engaging to the players so let them learn by playing.
  • Players develop increasing independence from the coach be being actively involved in the learning process so chose your interventions wisely.
  • Practices should be designed to develop the thinking, understanding, and decision-making skills that are required to play well.
  • Players should have input to the coach and help the coach make decisions.

Interested in learning more about a games approach to coaching basketball?


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