Improve Your On Air Basketball Drills

The one simple idea to improve your on air basketball drills is to add defense. This may seem obvious, but too many drills are run on air. On air means there is no opposed defense and therefore no game-like decisions. Running a 3-on-0 breakdown of an offensive action is an example of an on air drill. The opposite in many coaches’ minds is to run the drill 3-on-3, which is true, but there is another option. The other option is to add one or more guided or live defenders to the breakdown drill. 

I want to show you how easy it is to move away from on air by adding a guided or live defender to a drill you use that has no defense.

How to Teach Basketball Penetration Reaction with Opposed Defense

In this instructional video I demonstrated how you can teach penetration reaction with opposed defense. Although I use a 3-on-1 Penetration Reaction Drill to demonstrate the concept of adding opposed defense to a drill, this concept can be used with any other on air drill. We add opposed defense to 5-on-0 drills, full-court drills, breakdown drills and any other drill that is usually done on air.

The possibilities are endless and it is possible to never do a team drill again without some type of opposed defense.

Why On Air Drills are Less Effective

Doing the 3-on-1 Penetration Reaction Drill without defense and decisions is totally different than making penetration reaction decisions in a game vs. defense. On air drills remove the decision cues that are present in a game. Decision making is a fundamental skill in playing basketball because of its dynamic and constantly changing environment.

Since basketball is a game played with defense, a drill without defense does not provide the distracting information and cues that lead to a game decision. There is not likely to be transfer of learning from an on air drill to a game because the perceptual information required to complete the task is completely different. To transfer drills to games, players need to practice the way the game is played.

Also consider the practice time investment in doing drills that don’t any defenders. Opposed defensive drills allow you to spend less time doing basic drills. Spending time on basic drills takes away from game-like drills that increase retention and transfer. If you are weeks into the season and still doing a 3-on-0 full-court passing drill to improve your transition offense, then you are not developing concepts vs. defense that actually relate to a transition offense that happens in a game.

In fact I would not use the 3-on-1 Penetration Reaction Drill much past initial learning. It would progress quickly into our 3-2 or 4-on-3 Shooting with Constraints, and competitive live 3-on-3, 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 drills.

When Do I Use On Air Drills

There is some validity to do on air drills during initial learning. This is similar to doing blocked practice in that a player can gain a basic sense of a skill or action. Other than initial learning here are the only other skills and drills we do in training and practice on air.

  1. Isolated Shooting Repetitions (Form shooting drills)
  2. Mix Drills (Dribbling, Footwork, Ball Pick-Up and Shooting)
  3. Side Dribbles/Dynamic Warm-Up
  4. Two Balls, Three Shooters (Practice shooting drill to get mass random shooting repetitions – Why We Only Use One Shooting Drill in Practice)

With the exception of the Two Balls, Three Shooters drill all the other drills are done during pre-practice. Pre-practice a period prior to the start of formal practice. It is a time for physiological and psychological preparation for the practice to come.

Traditional On Air Drills that Can Be Done with Defense

  1. Conditioning Drills
  2. 5-on-0 Offensive Repetitions
  3. Breakdown Drills
  4. Full-Court Drills

Improve any of these basketball drills by adding one or more guided or live defenders. For example instead of running a 4-on-0 fast break drill vs. no defense, add one or two guided or live defenders to cue game-like passes, decisions and shots. I have discussed this concept before in my blog on Why the 3-Man Weave Drill Should Be Replaced.

The 3-on-1 Transition Drill that I suggest should replace the 3-man weave could be more structured to work on your fast break system. In addition it is already a challenging conditioning and full-court drill. The one defender could be guided or live to develop the skills and tactics s you want to work on. This drill provides a blueprint into how more game-like a drill can be made by adding just one defender.

Fears that Keep Coaches from Moving Away from On Air Drills

So after reading all this I know that many coaches still aren’t sold on adding one or more defender’s to an on air drill. Let’s throw out two arguments in favor of on air drills right away. Tradition, and the fact that celebrity coaches use them, are frequent arguments I get in favor of on air drills. I don’t think either is a valid argument on behalf of doing anything as a coach, so let’s focus on legitimate fears.

One fear is that players cannot learn without on air instruction. The value of hard first instruction should alleviate this fear. Even though you might think adding an opposed defender makes the drill too difficult for a player, research suggests when coaches try to facilitate learning by making it as easy as possible, it decreases the long-term retention.

During hard-first instruction, your players are taught how to see complex skills and formations. Even though your players won’t always be able perform hard first skills, formations and decisions, their minds will get a better representation of what is expected of them. This appreciation of what is involved as early as possible in learning leads to better retention, and transfer to competition.

Another fear is that because practice drills won’t look as “clean” that players aren’t learning. Players will look better during on air drills because the complexity of these drills is minimal. This is because on air drills essentially become a memorization test. Learn the pattern or movement, and repeat it over and over. Adding one or more defenders takes away a player’s ability to memorize. Each repetition of the drill will be different than the last depending on what the defender does. To add opposed defense will require you to be OK with your drills, looking messy, while also understanding that this process leads to better retention and transfer to performance.

Advice on Adding an Opposed Defender

  • Do not a use coach. I have always believed coaches should not participate in drills. Coaches should coach. It is hard to coach when you are passing or playing guided or live defense in a drill. Another reason to have players, not coaches, act as the opposed defenders in a drill is to maximize their learning time. It is hard enough to keep your players active in practice. If you give any repetitions to coaches, players lose opportunities to get repetitions.
  • Use a Guided Defender. While it is not my preference, early in learning you can script exactly what the defender does to force the offensive reaction you want to develop. For example in the 3-on-1 Penetration Reaction Drill you could tell the defender to always take away the the baseline pass. This forces the offensive player dribbling the ball to pass to the the player filling behind. This allows you to focus on the skill set necessary to improve your players penetrate, react, pass, catch and shoot skills in one specific decision area.
  • Use a Live Defender. Allow the defender(s) the freedom to take away any offensive action they want with no script or constraints. In the 3-on-1 Penetration Reaction Drill this means the defender could cover the dribbler, the baseline reaction, or the fill behind reaction. In this example this would mean that the dribbler could score. The advantage of allowing the dribbler the possibility of scoring is that it creates a drive to score mentality. Too often our drills, especially on air drills, create unrealistic examples of how the game is played. For example I would never want a dribbler to dribble to pass. A dribbler should always look to score first, and pass only after an on the ball or ideally help defender, has taken away their scoring possibility.


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