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Basketball Skill Training vs. Player Development

Basketball skill training is in need of fresh thinking. The basketball skill training industry has been a major force within the basketball landscape for a while now. Most skill trainers have added positively to the basketball landscape. Players at all levels are more skilled. And team coaches, often restricted by rules and time, have benefited from the work of basketball skill training. These individual skill development coaches help players of all levels to get better through specific isolated skill development. The question is are we missing something that can help basketball skill training get even better?

The reality is basketball skill training has been based on particular beliefs that have rarely been questioned. Taking ideas from others is a big part of coaching. The benefit is that coaches adopted ideas from others. The biggest problem is that many of these ideas are never adapted nor challenged. This is especially true in the skills training space where training ideas have been adopted and delivered to players without accounting for many important factors in player development. In basketball skill training this traditionally means a dominant focus on isolated one-on-one dribbling and finishing moves. Little to no adaptation has occurred where ideas have been developed, built on and improved with new evidence. This never-ending cycle repeats itself. This is challenging as it means innovation is stifled and players and trainers are always caught in the same way of doing things. 

How Basketball Skill Training is Seen

The problem lies in the root cause of what skills training is seen to be. Most of skills training consists of explicit instruction focused on technique improvement within highly specific individualized situations such as dribbling, mid-range and finishing moves. The problem is that improving specific technique moves in these highly specialized fields is just a very small part of the overall improvement of a player’s game. This is primarily because being the frequency of the application of these skills is infrequent in a game. For instance, how important is it for a player to be able to perform a three dribble combo move when compared to being able to dribble with their weak hand against pressure vs. a defender? Another example would be comparing a finishing move on-air vs. a player to finishing from a certain angle with a defender coming across to help.

What is often not accounted for is the role of perception-action coupling in skill acquisition.

Learn more about the importance of perception-action coupling here Basketball Skills Training and Player Development

For a skill trainer there is value to social media engagement. Social media engagement can help draw more clients. Client retention is also aided by doing isolated on-air drills because it can seem like players are improving, thus leading to renewed and happy clients. There is little doubt cool and innovative moves, drills and equipment can help a trainer gain and retain clients. It is no surprise that a trainer is doing what’s in the best interest to their business. This can contribute to this cycle of adoption rather than adoption and it can stifle new innovative thinking.

So, what is an alternative approach?

Skill Training vs. Player Development

At Basketball Immersion we prefer using the term player development instead of skill training. This may be semantics to some, but we value the differentiation. Player development is a holistic and comprehensive approach. It accounts for other important factors that go into the growth of a player. It also avoids the repetitions of highly context specific moves often taught on-air and in isolation. Player development involves:

  • Athletic development, as this affects the range of motion, strength, coordination and much more for players to perform particular technical moves.
  • Perceptual skills required to assess particular situations, and then act (or not act) on the particular situation. Also known as perception-action coupling.
  • A player’s personal life, given their family and school situations will no doubt have an impact on their cognitive state when it comes to training. This may include incorporating strategies such as mindfulness within player development.

Player development is therefore a much richer term than skill training for defining how coaches aim to better serve players.

So what can be done to help spread this concepts of player development as a holistic process?

Situation vs. Move Based Development

Skill training is often move-based rather than situational-based. This is the biggest problem with many of the skill training curriculums that are used by skill trainers. The curriculums are move-based, rather than situational based. Instead of players being taught isolated on-air moves, it is arguably more beneficial for players to develop a range of competencies that allow the player to experience success in game situations that happen more often. The goal is to give players not one solution, but multiple solutions that they can select, in known, and novel situations.

What good is a finishing move on-air if a player doesn’t know how to use it in a game against defenders?

Another struggle for skill trainers is teaching all the move based skills to the same players ignoring the principle of specificity in training. The application of specificity of training principles can be achieved in a small-group workout, but requires an intelligent approach to practice design. Learn more about specificity of training Basketball Conditioning and the Specificity of Training

Individual vs. Small Group

The first step to creating a player development environment that transfers skills from workouts to games is shifting from delivering individual sessions to small groups. It is challenging to create complete game-like, task representative environments in individual workouts. This is especially difficult for parents to grasp as they feel their child gets more attention in an individual workout. Therefore, parent education is required to help parents understand the benefit of small-group practice.

Often, small groups involve position specific training. The guards work with other guards, while post players work with other post players. Despite the rise of positionless basketball, positions still exist within basketball. However, player development is best achieved through blended and positionless focused training. It is the job of a coach to determine the best position for a player within their team. A trainer of developmental age players job is to improve the skills of players as much as possible so that when they go back to their team they are more prepared to take on whatever role they are given. Another problem with separating players by position is that it prevents them from getting good at what they need the most in games which is interacting with teammates.

Does this mean individual work-outs don’t serve a purpose? Of course not. They are valuable but limited at a point. The work from small-group work-outs, team practices and games should best define what a player specifically needs to work on and if isolated on-air individual skill development is required. The context of the situation must be clear, as well as having a clear why behind what is being worked on.

Many basketball skill training workouts involved development that ultimately doesn’t help the player perform better in team situations. 

Here is an example. The player in this Ping Pong Passing workout struggled with the technical execution of a one hand skip pass off of a pullback or skate dribble. This is specific, but something that could be used often in games if the player has the skill and confidence. The struggles of this specific player to throw this pass were identified in small-group practices. So, working backwards, we use the isolated the skill training to help the player get more repetitions without being repetitive, to improve their technique and to build their confidence. This is an example of working backward in skill development where the isolated on-air practice or specific drills as in this example, reconnect the player to the game situation and help them become more skilled in that situation. The player teaches us what we should be teaching them more or less of based on what they can, and cannot do, and what they need to do to improve and enjoy playing the game more.

Individual Actions vs. Team Actions

The next step in transitioning from skill training to player development is incorporating two and three player “triggers” into player development work. A trigger is a fast flowing action which occurs out of natural arrival spacing, with two or three-person actions being the most common triggers. A ball screen is an example of a trigger, which is the easiest way to create an advantage at many levels of the game.  One potential disadvantage of constantly providing advantage starts for accomplished players in drills is that is is not a realistic situation, handicapping players in the long-run. This is because it is not representative of what happens in the game where players must create the advantage before they use it. 

Not sure what an advantage start looks like? Watch here…

While advantage starts look creative and are certainly better than isolated on-air block practice, they are limited because of the fact that creating the advantage is part of the game application, not just leveraging the advantage. The game is all about creating advantages and then converting them. In a game, the defense will rarely position themselves on an offensive player’s hip or stand behind them inviting them to drive.

So why do we spend so much time practicing this?

One reason is because advantage drills allow us to isolate a very specific aspect of skill development and application. For example, in Angle One-on-One a player is working to leverage advantage with an angled dribble, followed by working on finishing within the context of that advantage. Advantage drills are useful, but players need to become accustomed to creating their own advantage too, otherwise, they will be limited in games. Adding these situations into work-outs is the next step for any player development coaches wishing to help their players obtain higher levels of game transfer.

Traditional vs. Constraints-Led Approach

The traditional approach is more common in the skill training world. This is where the trainer demonstrates a move and asks the player to repeat the move exactly as demonstrated, over and over again, 1-on-0 and in a blocked practice setting. To create a more effective player development environment, elements of a constraints-led approach can instead be adopted. There are three main constraints: individual (constraints on the physical/psychological characteristics of a basketball player which can change over fast or slow time scales), environment (physical properties external to player such as culture, playing surface, societal expectations, media etc) and task (the goal of a small-sided game which is more specific such as the number of players, rules used, playing space etc).

By moving away from traditional approaches to applying constraint-led principles, coaches will be able to create more effective learning environments which keep perception-action coupled and reflect aspects of the real game.

For more on a Constraint-Led Approach listen to this podcast with Immersion’s Chris Oliver and Alex Sarama where this very topic is discussed:

The Basketball Podcast: EP155 Alex Sarama and Chris Oliver

One of the most important takeaways from the All Access Basketball Player Development Workout below is to reflect on how to teach, rather than what to teach. The goal is to shed light on

  • How to add challenge.
  • How to create a random practice.
  • How to connect and transfer practice skills to games.
  • How they give feedback.

Doug Lemov, who recently appeared on the Basketball Podcast had a great quote from his latest book:

“A good Doctor won’t say you have to get your blood pressure down or stop coughing.”

As coaches many of us have been caught in the habit of giving the general diagnosis, without a specific remedy. For instance, a trainer commonly saying “good, good” or “focus” as opposed to being an effective Doctor. Examples of how to give more specific interventions could include questions such “what could you have done there to be in a better position to finish?” or “can you see why a back pivot might help you to get a better shot?”

The Basketball Podcast: EP153 Doug Lemov on How to Teach Better

A major focus of coaching development should be to blend the science of coaching with the art of acknowledging how every player is different, and how feedback and other information can be delivered to each player to help them learn best.

Continue your learning. Watch a raw full access practice from Alex Sarama:

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