Offseason Drills

Yesterday, as I worked out with two players, two guys worked out on the other end of the court. At one point, my players wanted to work on ball handling; we started a drill about the same time that the guys started their drill.

For our ball-handling practice, we did triple moves into jump shots or finishes. The smaller guard worked on pull-up jump shots and floaters, and the forward worked on pull-up 3s and different layups. They started from different angles and finished with different shots from different locations on each repetition. They practiced different dribble moves and combinations on each repetition.

On the other hand, they set up chairs to designate where to go. I don’t know their objective, but it looked as though they were using a ball screen (first chair), hesitating to freeze the hedging or switching defender (second chair), and making a crossover into a shot. They did the same exact move in the same direction for the same shot for the entire time.

Their practice appeared to be specific; maybe the guy uses on-ball screens in their offense and has to attack switches better. I don’t know; I am guessing at their objective based on what I saw. It’s possible that the chairs signified nothing more than a spot on the court.

Our practice was general. I like triple move drills to improve dribbling skill because it focuses on the control of the reception of the dribble. Rather than do simple drills or stationary drills to improve control, I prefer drills at close to game speed with actual game-like moves. I also prefer to finish offensive drills with a shot, as the point of any move or pass is to move closer to scoring.

I know that our practice was not game-like. It was a general dribbling drill focused on a specific aspect of dribbling: control on one’s moves.

I fear that many would view their practice as game-like because it resembled a move or a shot that one might take in a game. However, the chair provided no cues and forced no decisions. Without decisions, the drill is not game-like regardless of its specificity to a shot that one may take in a game.

When people walk into the gym, and see these two practices, most gravitate toward the other end. It looks important. It looks like something that happens in a game. The props add an element of organization. They worked at a more rapid pace.

It would be easy to conclude that we were not practicing seriously. I rarely offered feedback unless they asked a question. I choose the triple moves drill because it provides its own feedback. When they mishandle the ball, I do not have to tell them that they lost control – chasing after the ball tells them. We lost control of the ball far more than on the other end; another sign that their practice was better.

Our practice, however, was based largely, although not intentionally, around motor-learning theory. (1) The players had autonomy: They picked the drill, they chose their moves, they started when ready; (2) The task provided relevant and informative feedback; (3) The task challenged the players beyond their current level (as evidenced by mistakes); (4) Delayed feedback controlled by the learner; (5) Random, variable practice that interleaved dribbling and shooting/finishing practice and included different moves from different spots and different finishes on each repetition; (6) Repetition without repetition: We practices for 10 minutes, which provided dozens of repetitions, but they did not practice the same move or same shot twice.

The other end featured block practice and near-constant feedback (could not hear the nature of the feedback).

Despite a theoretical basis on our end, most identify block practice and more feedback as hallmarks of good practice and coaching. This is just an example of the differences between a traditional practice session and how we develop skills. The example above was roughly 10 minutes out of a much longer workout, but these occurred simultaneously and provided a nice contrast for different type of individual practice.

Brute Force Development

I watched a typical workout with a well-respected trainer and two high-school players. Everything made sense; the players worked hard; the trainer was engaged. However, I don’t know or couldn’t see a purpose other than “getting better.” This, to me, is brute force development: Doing something so many times that inevitably through the force of will there has to be some improvement.

From my vantage point and my biases, one player had numerous flaws in his shot. I am not one to advocate for a ton of technical work, breakdowns or a singular ideal technique, but when a player airballs as many as he makes, there is a problem. Rather than identify a problem and design drills to correct the problem, the approach appeared to be to shoot more.

I have texted many of my incoming players this summer to ask about their offseason goals. They nearly always give a general answer. “I want to improve my shooting.” Great, how do you want to improve your shooting? What specifically do you want to improve? Answers vary; I want to shoot quicker, extend my range, or I just want to get better. The players who want to extend their range or shoot quicker are on the right track, provided that they design exercises that focus on these aspects of their shot. The players who just want to get better are unlikely to make much progress; they do not have a plan. They are relying on brute force.

This is not uncommon. We have a society that believes that improvement comes from doing more; reps, and reps, and reps. However, if you shoot poorly now, and rely on shooting more in the same way, how is that going to lead to improvement?

Now, in yesterday’s workout, maybe the focus was not shooting, as almost every shot was after a move. This could have been “game-like training” for the moves and shots that these players shoot during games. However, how is it game-like if there is no defense and the players follow the coach’s directions: dribble here, make this move, get to this spot, and shoot.

Okay, well, it was not really game-like practice, but they were practicing their ball-handling. Again, how? By doing more of the same? When they lacked control on the reception of their crossover, but did nothing specific to improve this control, how are they going to improve? Again, the hope that if we do this one thing enough we will force improvement.

Brute force development works in some instances, otherwise nobody would continue to go to these well-paid trainers who rely on brute force methods. For most, it requires a lot of repetitions, which also helps the trainer, as the player must return to the trainer over ($$) and over ($$).

This method is not skill development. It is how many view skill development, but simply relying on doing the same thing more is not developing a skill. It is maintaining or solidifying a skill; if one performs this skill at an expert level, solidifying the skill at this level may lead to small improvements. However, if one performs at a sub-elite level, why solidify or automate the skill at this level? Why automate a shot that airballs as often as it goes in?

I work with two players who are non-shooters. We alternate between drills that perturb their current skill to force changes and drills that focus on the specific changes and drills that challenge accuracy and drills that they enjoy/competitive drills.

From the outside, the purpose may not be apparent. However, whereas our workouts may appear disorganized and less intense (which they are), I have a very specific goal for each player, and each drill fits this goal: One player is changing from a flat-footed set shot to a jump shot and one is changing from a two-motion shot to a one-motion shot. The drills are attempts to perturb their former techniques and assist with the coordination of their new techniques. The goal is to improve their shooting, but these are the specific ways in which we hope to accomplish this goal. It is not brute force development, but specific skill development.

Making sense of generational arguments about skill development

I don’t understand the following argument:

“Players from previous generations had more skill.”

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“Players from previous generations were three-sport athletes.”

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“Players from previous generations played more pickup games.”

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“Players need to specialize earlier and train privately with individual coaches to improve their skills.” Read more

Should we fix unusual technique?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2017.

When we watch children play sports, we see errors. Their skill performance differs from our mental models, which tend to be based on our own experiences or our images of expert performers. When we see a young basketball player with an awkward-looking shot or a baseball player with a funky delivery on the pitching mound, we see mistakes and a need to correct. Read more

Monotony, pickup games, and free play

My newest book, 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development, features a chapter on pickup games and a section on free play. I argue that these environments are ideal for skill development, and I use examples from my development, as well as research, to make my point. Of course, most basketball people (such as Stan Van Gundy and Kobe Bryant) argue against games for skill development, and many people view the number of games during the developmental years as the problem with skill development in the United States.  Read more

21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development

Read more

What is skill development?

Recently, I read several articles that suggested that children need more skill development. Of course. It is the same as suggesting that players should play hard or that practice makes you better. These are uncontroversial statements with which almost nobody disagrees. However, nobody defines skill development. It is similar to fundamentals. These are terms that are used frequently and rarely defined because everyone assumes that we know what each other means. What do people mean by skill development? Read more

Elite Camps: Talent Identification and Player Development

I worked an elite camp at the local university this week. For players who are searching for someone to recruit them, attending an elite camp is a worthwhile expense because elite camps tend to limit the number of participants, provide a decent level of competition, and grant access to the coaching staff beyond any other experience. As an example, there were two players who I had dismissed when watching during the high school season who I liked after watching them play with and against better players and meeting them individually. Of course, there was also a player who I was very high on during the season who really disappointed, so there’s that too.

Read more

Podcast: Talking Fake Fundamentals

The podcast is a longer conversation that I did with Coach Nick of Bball Breakdown about Fake Fundamentals.

Pro-Style Drills: How to Train like a Pro

I mentioned pro-style drills or training like a pro in Fake Fundamentals: Volume 2. In the off-season, it seems every private trainer uses one of these catch phrases in their marketing, as parents are drawn to anything associated with an NBA player.

Well, see above. Uncontested, block practice shooting drills. Pre-determined 1v1 moves. Finishing against a pad. NBA drills.

Does anyone really believe that these types of drills are the reasons that NBA players are NBA players?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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