The use of basketball training equipment such as cones, tennis balls and training mats in work-outs and practices is a frequently debated topic. If a continuum were to exist on the use of basketball training equipment, there are extremes ranging from coaches and trainers who would never use a prop, to coaches who rely on props as a key part of their training.
Basketball training equipment can be thought of as a constraint. Constraints are things that shape learning. More specifically constraints are “providing the boundaries within which learners can explore and search for movement solutions afforded to each individual within a perceptual-motor workspace” (Davids et al., 2008). Constraints can either be individual, environmental or task specific.
In basketball practice coaches have the most control over task constraints. Some examples of task constraints are the size of the playing area, the aim of the activity, the number of offensive and defensive players, and more. The basketball training equipment used within the activity is another example of a task constraint and when used appropriately, particularly with beginners, the equipment can provide guidance within the learning process.
The type of guidance provided by basketball training equipment is called mechanical guidance. Mechanical guidance is explained in this video:
Mechanical guidance provided by basketball training equipment such as a tennis ball can have an advantage over blocked training without equipment. Let’s take the example of doing blocked stationary ball handling practice which includes activities such as ball pounds or stationary dribble combos. The tennis ball introduces a novel variable that can motivate the learner. Beyond motivation, the use of basketball training equipment can make blocked practice more effective.
Why? Because a tennis ball adds randomness. Each repetition will have more variation as a player attempts to catch the ball before it hits the ground. Trainers who use static ball handling, may say that the tennis ball is not game-like. This is true. A tennis ball is not used in a game, but neither is blocked stationary ball handling without any decisions.
Adding basketball training equipment can make a normally blocked drill more challenging. Basketball training equipment can also act as a constraint by implicitly encouraging the player to keep their eyes up in order to achieve the task outcome of catching the tennis ball. This is in direct comparison to the explicit instruction to keep your eyes up which trainers so often provide within the usual stationary ball handling drills. Additionally, for younger players, there may be some coordination benefits from using a tennis ball as well as motivating and sparking ideas for things to practice at home. Dribbling a tennis ball is arguably more beneficial than traditional block practice stationary ball handling for all these reasons.
So why not practice with basketball training equipment all the time? As players beyond the initial learning phrase there are so many elements players need to get better at and the way to do this is through game-like practice and appropriate practice design. Dribbling a tennis ball is decontextualized due to the fact the task has none of the same properties which are present in the game. In a game there is no training equipment. Skill is developed from the interaction between individual, environmental and task constraints, and the act of tossing and catching a tennis ball does not contain any of the perceptual demands which lead to game transfer.
As a player matures the use of basketball training equipment becomes less important to a player’s development. The equipment may bring comfort and confidence to a player. There task competency at dribbling with tennis balls demonstrates skill mastery. Since skill equals confidence it is easy to understand why these drills are still done. The reality is that the time spent on drills with basketball training equipment at a higher skill level could be spent on skills and decisions that transfer to the game.
Basketball Training Equipment in Individual Practice
Basketball training equipment increases the challenge or cognitive load of a physical skill. This mainly is useful in an individual player led practice. If a player is alone in the gym and they want to improve the quickness and confidence in their ball handling, trying to execute multiple dribble moves while tossing a tennis ball against the wall is a way to add a level of challenge and increase engagement vs. just doing it on air. The task of catching a tennis ball before it bounces may serve as a constraint for forcing a faster dribble move due to the need to complete the dribble before gravity brings the ball back down.
Even operating under the assumption that using equipment helps a player improve, the main benefit for basketball training equipment is fun. A certain amount of all skill development is boring. Repetitions by nature are boring. Doing the same thing over and over again is boring. So adding training equipment can increase engagement and enjoyment within a player led individual development practice. This main benefit should be made clear to learners. The goal of using training equipment is to add fun and challenge to improve comfort and confidence, as opposed to learning and transfer to the game. A trainer using props simply cannot argue that the props are developing skills which are transferring over to the game.
A key consideration for players and coaches when creating individual player development practices is to consider how best to create better practices through reflective task design. This means the practice contains the same cues that a player would expect to see in the real game. This can be achieved through coaching with constraints which lead to more random and variable situations and different emergent behaviors; aka skills. If a player is using a tennis ball for the reasons mentioned above, they can randomize this further by throwing the ball against a different height while dribbling as opposed to always having a predictable catch. They may also change the distance for every rep as opposed to standing still at the same distance. Sometimes, the ball could be thrown at an angle meaning the player has to move to catch the rebound, using a different dribble combo done each time. These are some basic constraints which could be useful ideas for a player looking for motivation and fun while practicing alone. Let’s look at how training equipment compares to learning to ride a bike…
Learning to Ride a Bike
Nowadays, many advocate that children should not use training wheels for the following reasons:
- They don’t teach balance. Kids rely on the training wheels and then essentially have to re-learn how to ride a bike when they are taken off.
- Kids pick up bad habits such as shifting weight to overcompensate for the training wheels.
- Training wheels cannot be used on uneven ground.
- Training wheels are possibly an unnecessary extra cost.
In other words, the training wheels make the activity extremely different to the real constraints present when actually riding the bike without support. This is the exact same problem which exists with the use of basketball training equipment. The definition of motor performance is the ability for a player to recall and successfully perform a motor pattern. This means the player is not reliant on the coach giving a cue or basketball training equipment to help them trigger the motor pattern. If the player spends the majority of their time in a workout with training equipment this does not help with the skill acquisition process because the skill is not being tested to see whether the movement can be retained without the use of the training equipment. This is like someone using crutches after a bad ankle sprain. The goal is to get the person walking successfully again without crutches. If the crutches are used the whole time the person becomes reliant on them and it impacts the recovery process.
Many trainers are negatively affecting their players by using mechanical guidance for far too long. This can lead to dependence. It can also take time away from other training that is more likely to transfer skills and decisions to performance. For example early in learning cones can be useful to mark-out a boundary or indicate spacing locations. By progressing the drill by removing the cones a player must apply the skills and decisions within a game environment because ultimately the cones are not on the floor in the game.
Training Equipment is Most Often Paired with Block Practice
In the blog Skills Training and Player Development the definition of skill and blocked vs random practice was outlined. The main problem with the use of training equipment is that they are typically used in a block practice format. Blocked practice means that the repetitions are completed with no variation and thus are mindless repetitions for the learner.
Some common examples of blocked practice with basketball training equipment include:
- Snatching a cone out of a dropped stance and then finishing with one hand at the rim
- Using dribble moves to dribble through multiple cones
- Curling around a “D Man” for a shot
- Dribbling around a ball cart to simulate a screener
The main argument against modern training equipment such as special cones and floor mats is that they are “gimmicky.” Are they really any worse than chairs or ball carts? Arguably they are more creative, more fun and probably create more randomness in a workout. One critical consideration is to ensure training equipment is used safely. Creativity does not mean designing unsafe drills which look good for social media, but beyond that are not effective. A creative coach is someone who can successfully manipulate the task, individual and environment constraints present to impact a player’s movement solutions and the emergence of new skills.
Gimmicky is not the main issue. The use of training equipment where the movement solution is the same every time is the main issue. If you use training equipment you need to use it in unique and variable ways. Blocked repetitions should be be used after initial learning or when reconnecting a skill for a player. The goal is for the learner to do repetitions with being repetitive and this can be accomplished best by gradually removing guidance and training equipment.
The Training Equipment Division
There are two main schools that currently exist within the training industry: Trainers who use equipment and trainers who don’t use equipment. Whether you use training equipment or not a key takeaway is to make practice more random than blocked. If you are using significant amounts of block practice then you are not providing players with an opportunity to practice in a task-representative environment.
No one is suggesting a complete shift away from block practice. Let’s consider the example of a player dribbling off a chair acting as a ball screen. Blocked repetitions with the chair can give a play an initial task representation of the spacing and timing of attacking off a ball screen. The issue becomes that the chair only provides part of the task representation. The chair doesn’t move, adjust or cue any decisions. Instead of using the chair as a piece of training equipment exclusively, this activity could be improved by using an actual player as a screener or adding a defender to play against who is scripted, guided or live. Scripted has the benefit of improving the technique against the context of where a defender would move in the game, as well as learning how to use a person as a screener as opposed to coming off a chair. The activity could be started in a non-linear manner such as playing 3-on-3 using a ball screen, before then de-loading to scripted or guided 1-on-1 with a chair if needed to focus on particular problems that arise within the game.
The Problems with Using a Linear Approach
A common belief amongst those that use training equipment is they often believe in the linear approach. In a linear approach players must be able to perform technique perfectly before progressing to playing against a defender. It is common for coaches to say things such as “if a player cannot stationary dribble with their eyes up, they cannot dribble moving” or “if a player cannot use a between the legs dribble at speed, they cannot go against a defender.” The reality is they actually can. Coaches should create more situations where players can show what they can do even if they struggle. Chances are players going to struggle in their first 1-on-1 drill whether we approached things from a linear or non-linear approach anyways so why not just allow them to figure things out more through the struggle. Instead of wasting precious time focused on skill perfection help them understand the what, why and how of the skill at the same time.
If players then cannot do something the constraints can be changed or simplified, and blocked practice can be used to reconnect the skill to the game application they have already learned about. Often as coaches we immediately revert to on-air drills the first times we see struggle. Too often coaches do not attempt to manipulate the task constraints, giving up and reverting to on-air practice too easily while also stepping in and offering explicit instruction. From experience there are many defensive task constraints which can make it easier or more challenging for the offense to develop their skills in a game-like environment.
So what is the alternative if coaches should be wary using training props? The video below was filmed when live 1 on 1 was not permitted, meaning further creativity was needed surrounding the use of constraint-based approaches. But still, see how constraints are manipulated to create an environment at least with some variability and perception-action coupling.
Take-Aways for Players
If you are a player reading this and your coach loves the excessive use of props like training cones, here are some quick things you can add to ensure you get some benefit from the drill:
- Have a teammate or member of the coaching staff give you a BDT cue (hands up) randomly at anytime. This cues a pass with the unpredictability creating greater challenge.
- Use a different dribble move (and finishing move if applicable) after passing each cone, so you are adding a little bit of randomness by avoiding repetition over and over again.
- Ask to play live defense
- If everything fails, arrive at practice early and hide the cones (!)
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