Using the Constraints Led Approach to Develop 1-on-1 Skills

When scrolling through social media, it can sometimes appear like Static 1-on-1 is the most used action at the highest levels of basketball. Static 1-on-1 is defined as an offensive player attempting to beat their defender off the dribble or off the catch, typically from a stationary position. In this article, we are going to explore ways Static 1-on-1 is popularly taught and compare it with the constraints led approach.

Highlights show some of the best players in the world breaking down their players, and then skill trainers and player development coaches do a detailed job studying the moves and breaking them down to teach to players. Indeed, when looking at traditional skills training, most of what is taught is perimeter Static 1-on-1. What are the limitations with this approach?

1-on-1 is all about context

Firstly, the problem with highlights is they only show a small part of the whole picture. What is often missing is the context. How did the offense get into a position whereby the static 1-on-1 was a good solution for the moment they were in? Was there an action that occurred that led to a switch, for instance a guard now playing against a big and potentially possessing a match-up advantage? Alternatively, it could be a late shot or game clock situation, with static 1-on-1 therefore serving as the best solution given there is no time to run a trigger and create an advantage. 

When assessing static 1-on-1, one of the main considerations to remember is that we are talking about some of the best athletes in the world. Even at the NBA level, not all players have a license to go 1-on-1 at anytime they want: they simply cannot create an advantage consistently doing this. The exclusive club of players like James Harden, LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in a league of their own!

How is this a problem?

If solely relying on watching possessions from highlights and snapshots on social media, it is easy to see why the importance and frequency of static 1-on-1 is misconstrued. This is why watching full games as coaches and players is important.

Particularly in Europe, players at the highest levels will very seldom randomly look for a static 1-on-1 unless it is a tactical solution. The reality is simply that bigger advantages are created using triggers and set plays. Of course there are exceptions to the rule,  like Shane Larkin and Mike James in the EuroLeague, but 98% of players are relying on other things.

This means that all the time typically spent on static 1-on-1 in work-outs is simply taking time away from the more important skills players need to have: shooting, understanding spacing, penetration reaction, coverage solutions, off-ball actions etc. These are the skills which show up at EVERY level, and something appreciated by every coach at all levels players will play during their careers (whether high school, collegiate or professional). Trainers spend so much time teaching static 1-on-1 that it takes away from time invested in skills which are more important and likely to show up in the game.

When is Static 1-on-1 a good solution?

We should be very careful of teaching in absolutes, and not teaching any static 1 on 1 would be a problem because players do not then have the skills for the times in a game that static 1-on-1 is a great solution. Additionally, this is very important for younger players (13 and under) because skill on offense is the “foundation of joy” as Pete Lonergan talks about on the Basketball Podcast.

However, when players start to play in more organized competition from Under 14’s up, they cannot just go “streetball mode” and play a 1-on-1 randomly. This is setting players up for failure because it does not prepare them for what comes next at the higher levels of basketball.

For human dominoes creators like James Harden, the static 1-on-1 emphasis would be beneficial. This is where KYP (knowing your players) is critical: the coach must know the group they are working with. What players can solo effectively, and what players need help (e.g. a two or three person action to create their advantage)? 

License to Kill and Mental Models

I love using analogies to help players understand and remember concepts, and came up with the “License to Kill” idea from James Bond to help players understand when static 1-on-1 is a good solution. License to Kill is an example of a “mental model”, a phrase coined by Doug Lemov. A mental model is a framework people use to understand complex environments, such as basketball. By using a mental model it can enhance the learning process and ‘make it stick’ with players to understand the situations where 1-on-1 is an effective solution.

For players to obtain their license to kill, they need to be in one of the following situations. Note that a human dominoes creator could be exempt from requiring these. This is part of a wider conversation with the team as to knowing player roles and using individual strengths:

  • A match-up advantage (could also be created through a switch)
  • A late shot or game clock situation (5 seconds or less)
  • Ideally double gap spacing or teammates in the next spacing spot possessing great gravity where their defenders are detached. With defenders in deep support / pack type positions, this makes static 1-o-1 very dangerous because they can stunt and dislodge the ball. 

These situations demonstrate the importance of integrating mental models within the overall game model. Mental models help avoid grey areas and provide clear frameworks for players. 

Note that in transition, 1-on-1 is a great option and something to be encouraged: I do not count this as a static 1-on-1 situation because the offense is typically moving forwards at speed, while the defender is static or retreating. Therefore, the advantage is much greater.

Creating double gap spacing is relatively simple to fix as offensive teammates can anticipate the static 1-on-1 as a potential solution and cut to create the double gap, or the ball handler can quickly connect (either using non-verbals such as looking with eyes or using the voice) to signal a cut to create the space. This is where encouraging connections is extremely important as they show up in all phrases of the game. 

Teaching vs Developing Static 1-on-1

Building on the fundamentals blog, we established that self-organization is the way to go. Therefore as opposed to teaching one-on-one dribble moves, as coaches we strive to create an environment where players can develop different solutions based on the interaction between their individual constraints and the environment. 

Static 1-on-1 moves can therefore be developed through using small-sided games with 1-on-1 being the best way to do this. This means creating lots of 1-on-1 situations in neutral starts with different task constraints. Neutral starts are where the offense has no advantage. For beginners, the advantage start still has its merits. In previous blogs, we have highlighted the issue with using 1 on 0 to teach techniques. 

What would using the CLA (Constraint Led Approach) look like within the context of this 1-on-1 SSG? It could be as simple as playing 1-on-1 off a static start with the defense in front, in a neutral position. The offense has five seconds to score getting a paint finish. Every rep, players change location and play to a set number of points. They then change partners and keep playing, respecting the impact that individual constraints and playing against defenders of different sizes, wingspans etc has in shaping skills.

An activity such as the one described is very simple but allows players to explore functional movement solutions based on the interaction between individual, environment and task constraints. Players will start to explore techniques that work for them based on their individual constraints (abilities such as wingspan, height, weight, perceptual skills etc) and the individual constraints of their defender. The task (to score within five seconds within the paint) will also shape potential solutions that emerge as players have to make progress in a direction towards the basket without wasted dribbles, while doing it within the specific time constraint.

Some comments from the fundamentals blog came from youth coaches who believed that players have to be taught a technique specifically before it emerges in the context of the game. This simply goes completely against any basic rationale and nature of human development. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever suggesting someone has to be taught something in a complex environment such as basketball before that technique is visible in the game.

The CLA framework is just as beneficial for youth players as it is for high school, NCAA and NBA players. If working with younger players, the coach simply has to be creative with how they manipulate constraints. The main consideration here for players aged 12 and under is the height of the basket and size of basketball. A smaller ball and hoop has been proven to increase the feelings of self-efficacy for younger players as well as leading to a wider variety of movement solutions compared to using a full sized hoop and adult ball.

In regard to task constraints, if working with beginners, coaches could instruct the defense to initially play with their hands behind their back in the 1-on-1. This allows the offense to still perceive the body positioning of the defender and come up with a solution in an attempt to avoid them, but without the defense’s hands this makes it easier for the offense to achieve success. This is a far better alternative to using those cones and 1-on-0. Beginner players go through the motions in these drills as opposed to actually understanding when a cross-over would be used in a game, as well as recognising the relevant perceptual cue (i.e. a defender in their path of taking away their straight line). 

The traditional fundamentalist approach would be to breakdown moves 1-on-0 and use very specific internal cues on where players must place their hands and feet in order to perform the move. The working memory is typically overwhelmed by feedback in this approach. Research indicates that using internal cues where the attention of the player is specifically on their body movements, disrupts the process of executing the skill, therefore making progress much slower. Instead, coaches can use external cues and analogies which result in much better retention for players. In the case of 1-on-1, an analogy I use with youth players is to “Super Mario Turbo Boost.” This invokes an imagery of being deceptive while changing speeds to create an advantage. No “technical feedback” is given in relation to body parts and positions.

An example of manipulating constraints with a defender playing without their hands. The context of this was to develop solutions in a 4-on-4 setting to punish switching. 


Manipulating Constraints

This is a simple review of how 1-on-1 skills can be developed through the lens of an ecological dynamics approach. Other constraints you may wish to consider in the 1-on-1 start we described:

  • Giving the offense more space to use a run-up to generate speed. For instance, offense starts on the half-line while defender is on the 3PT line and can’t move off the 3PT until the offense arrives. 
  • Placing constraints on defense. E.g. allowing hands when beginners have experienced a level of comfort. Another fun one for young kids who are beginners is to play with the “master distractor” rule. The defense cannot steal the ball or touch the offense, but can distract them however they like with their positioning to disrupt the shot! Be careful doing too much of these though, I generally find that best things for beginners are the advantage starts. It won’t be long before they’re ready to progress to playing in more neutral situations.
  • Constraining the space played in (smaller space = easier for defense, harder for offense and vice-versa)
  • Awarding extra points for particular sequences. E.g. getting a static 1-on-1 rim finish complete in 3 dribbles or less is worth 3 pts, 4 dribbles or more are worth 1 point.
  • Using different sized basketballs, forcing players to become more adaptable. This is something I’ve been doing in our shooting while applying differential learning.
  • Adding an extra defender
  • Loading in extra phrases of the game. E.g. play the 1-on-1 and immediately offense becomes defense while the defender tries to score the at other end or get a touchdown at the half. Using different phrases of the game within SSG’s helps players adjust to what actually happens in a game. 

How to Use 1-on-0

Working with beginners who really are wobbling and still find it difficult to change direction and use counters in their 1-on-1? 

Some 1-on-0 for a short amount of time could help in giving them confidence. The key thing is to avoid doing this in a blocked, constant manner where the coach tells the player exactly what move they should do, with the same move repeated over and over again. Additionally, this 1-on-1 has to be done AFTER not BEFORE the 1-on-1. This is where many coaches go wrong, as they work on specific techniques completely out of context, meaning the benefit of knowing when to use the technique is missed by players.

If reverting to on-air is necessary, by doing it after the 1-on-1 the players understand why they are doing it. The coach is more general in the description of the 1-on-0 task, and avoids giving a demonstration because this implies there is one idealised technique that should be used to complete the task:

“Everyone has a ball each, and we will use all the baskets in the gym. For three minutes, explore different ways to perform a change of direction (counter) move. Use as many different solutions as possible, going from a different location every-time as you attack the basket. We will then de-brief and review the solutions you used. I’ll be looking for you to show and tell your answers!”  

This type of instruction allows for repetition without repetition. Additionally, the coach may wish to stand in the charge circle so players have to finish around them as opposed to it being a 1-on-0 rim finish.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone may need this. Learning is non-linear. This means some players could keep going with their 1-on-1 task while half the group is at the other end of the gym working on the above task. The goal is to get them back to the 1-on-1 as quickly as possible, so maximize time-on-task with a ball each to eliminate time wasted standing in lines.

Changing the Perception of What “Skill Training” Is

Not all players are created the same. Every individual has their own constraints which affects their potential playing style. These are not limited to but including factors such as height, wingspan, quickness, explosiveness etc. This means we cannot simply work through a curriculum or checklist of 1-on-1 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? It is not enough for skills trainers to leave teaching concepts such as spacing, maintaining advantage, two and three person actions, etc to a Head Coach. Players can still develop individual skills while learning and improving at tactical solutions, becoming smarter and more effective basketball players at the same time. In the example below, a “Gortat Screen” is used as a tool to punish the drop coverage, which puts players in a situation where they develop their hostage and snake dribbles, their ability to seal, and finish at the rim. These are a lot of useful skills off one sequence! While this would be far too complex and not needed for an average U16 team, for U18+ this develops a number of more useful skills than endless static 1 on 1 moves. 


The way many static 1-on-1 moves are traditionally taught takes time away from more important things. Teaching specific dribble techniques which are likely to not even transfer under pressure to the game may not be the best use of time. Instead, abilities such as the ability to recognise defensive patterns, change speeds, recognise a straight line drive or counter scenario, and handle pressure against a smothering defender are far more important than dribble moves being done 1-on-0. This can be compared to trainers dedicating a lot of time teaching floaters, despite the fact it is an inefficient shot and takes away from more important skills (the ability to get a rim finish). Why spend time working on ‘luxury items’ when players really need the skills which show up in the game the most? As a basketball community, we have to change the perception of what skills training is. This will help give players a chance of succeeding at the things that are done the most when it comes to the game.


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