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.

Two-ball drills, transfer and inspiration

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 6.4. Now available in Kindle and paperback. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

After their practice on Monday, two teenagers from our women’s team worked along the baseline on a two-ball drill that I had introduced the previous week. This is my primary purpose for introducing challenging dribbling drills: To inspire players to practice on their own. We do not spend much time on dribbling. My men’s team generally practices dribbling on Thursdays when we have fewer players. With our skill workouts, we usually work on general dribbling in one of the two workouts per week. In the 11-12 hours of practice and workouts each week, we spend roughly 20 minutes on dribbling (of course, other drills, games, and scrimmages incorporate dribbling).  Read more

Developing, evolving, and improving a drill

For years, 1v2 was my favorite dribbling drill to overload an offensive player’s skill. The drill is simple: There is one offensive player and two defenders. The offensive player attempts to dribble to the basket at the opposite end and score, and the defenders attempt to trap and steal the ball.  Read more

Steph Curry, dribbling drills, and myths



Stephen Curry is amazing. Before the season started, I tweeted:

Curry is the best player in the NBA, and if he continues the same trajectory, he could end up as an all-time great. However, the drill above is not the reason for his ridiculous skills. I know this because I used to do this drill with 9-year-olds.

It looks impressive, but it has very little to do with dribbling in a game. First, he’s stationary. The way that your hand contacts the ball changes when you are stationary, walking, or running. We used to do the same basic drill, but add forward and backward movement. Second, in a game, you react to opponents, not to tennis balls. Tennis balls do not provide the same informational cues as an opponent.

If I trained a player such as Curry, I would do similar drills in the offseason primarily because I would want him to rest and not to overtrain. Drills such as these given an illusion of importance, and players are motivated by the challenge. It is easy to see improvement in the drills. This motivation and improvement increases confidence. The increased confidence is the biggest quality that transfers from these drills to game performance, especially when the player believes in the drills.

However, that does not mean that every young player should start tossing tennis balls while he or she dribbles. It is interesting that these drills garner so much attention, but almost nobody has highlighted a comment from the profile that was written about Curry in ESPN last year:

DRIBBLING THROUGH THE rocks and tire tracks at Jack’s hoop honed Curry’s ballhandling skills, while the unpredictable backboard and the unforgiving rim tested his touch and inspired the perfect, impossibly high parabolic arc of his shot. But the court also polished his composure; this is where he first obtained the Tao of Point Guard. “This was a visionary place for me,” Curry says. “Make it work no matter what you have to work with — that’s something that stuck with me very early on as a point guard. Adjust. Get creative. Try a different angle, a different lane, a different move or a different shot — just make it work. Out there on my grandpa’s court, there was no better place in the world to breed that kind of creativity.”

Of course, there is nothing sexy about working out on an old country court; especially not compared to fancy lights, tennis balls, and other complicated-looking drills. However, that is the point: There is a difference between complicated and complex:

Complicated machine-like systems typically follow one path to achieve a specific end, and as such are highly predictable; but also highly vulnerable. Complex systems achieve their objectives through a process of exploration and on-going adaptation; negotiating obstacles, solving problems through trial- and-error, and flexibly adapting to changing circumstances.

Dribbling a basketball and catching a tennis ball is complicated, but it is not complex. Dribbling through rocks and tires that create unpredictable bounces and inspire creative solutions is complex. Dribbling through defenders is complex, not complicated. Therefore, despite the media’s attention to his current dribbling drills, it is easy to argue that these drills simply maintain skills that he developed as a child as his grandpa’s house.

Note: For more on complex and complicated, Stephen Curry, and skill development, check out 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development on or

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

Perfect Square Dribbling Drill

Drills, movement, and the false step

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Double-Edge Sword of Demonstrations and Instructions

During my presentation, one question focused on the timing of block practice and random practice. In a traditional coaching methodology, coaches start with the block practice with lots of instruction and feedback and isolated drills. Once players show improvement, the coach adds a new element or puts the skill into a scrimmage. The decision-training style of coaching starts with competition-like drills and “hard-first instruction.” Read more

The Ins and Outs of Motivation

Article originally appeared in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2009.

In the summer of 2002, I worked the Stanford University women’s basketball camp. In 2002, the And1 Mix-Tapes were nearing the height of their popularity. At the camp, a couple girls saw me messing around and doing some ball-handling tricks during the first break. One girl – a 14-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska – asked if I could teach her how to do the slip-and-slide, a move from the Mix-Tapes. I said that I could, but she had to learn to dribble better first.

At lunch for the rest of the week, we sprinted to the cafeteria, hurried through a sandwich and spent the remainder of the break on the outdoor, asphalt court working on ball handling drills. While the other players sat in the air-conditioned dorms and the coaches went to Starbucks, she spent 45 minutes doing extra drills.

ballerI made a deal with her: if she did the drills, I would teach her the slip-and-slide. The slip-and-slide is not a move that she would use in a game, but she wanted to impress the boys back home. When the other players and coaches walked up to the court for the start of the afternoon sessions, they saw her rolling on the ground while dribbling the ball, trying to master the slip-and-slide.

The coaches rolled their eyes. Nothing drew a coach’s ire from 2001-2003 quite like the And1 Mix-Tapes, as coaches believed that the tapes embodied everything wrong with the American player. Most coaches blamed the tapes for everything from unmotivated players (“they just want to do tricks”) to poor shooting (“they have no fundamentals”).

Some players could not believe this girl, as she finished lunch dirty and sweaty, with the asphalt all over her hands and legs, while they returned from their dorm with fresh make-up and a spotless white tee. However, a couple players asked if they could join. By week’s end, four or five girls were hurrying through lunch and skipping their break so they could practice their dribbling.

A Whole New Mind author Dan Pink argues in his TED (Technology, Education and Design) speech that “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does” in terms of incentives, bonuses and motivation.

He provides several economic studies (based on the Candle Problem) and argues persuasively against the “carrot and the stick” approach to motivation. Instead, he shows that people perform better when intrinsically motivated and offers a new model for motivation based on “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

Pink’s presentation focuses on business motivation, management and the creative class, as he advocates for a new world order based on right-brain thinking: the subtitle of A Whole New Mind is “Why right-brainers will rule the world.” However, his argument easily lends itself to coaching and youth sports.

nap timeAt the Stanford camp, as with most camps, stations represent the bulk of the instruction and non-game time, and fall into two categories: boring/poorly taught or recreational with little relevance (the Stanford camp is notorious for the numerous cheers that players master as well as time-wasters like “Land-Sea-Air”).

For instance, I worked another camp where an instructor spent one hour lecturing, demonstrating and drilling the first step on a closeout (when a defender plays help defense and then runs to his man when he receives the pass). The players never worked against a live defender. Instead, they spent one hour running back and forth from Point A to Point B as if they always would start and end in the same spot and not have to react to an offensive player who could shoot, drive left or drive right. The coaches praised the session as “fundamental” and “great teaching,” while I and many of the 13 and 14-year-old players were bored.

Many coaches assume that players learn best through these repetitive drills which break the game into almost unrecognizable segments only to return to 5v5 scrimmages with minimal transfer from the drill to the games. When the skills fail to transfer, coaches blame the players for not listening, lack of concentration or lack of effort.

Rarely does a coach examine the teaching methods and question why the players fail to understand or transfer the skill from one setting to the next.

While there are several variables, Pink explains that people have the “urge to direct our own lives; desire to get better and better at something that matters; and yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

The same mismatch that Pink sees between science and business happens in coaching too. We live in a world of external rewards. However, people learn best when intrinsically motivated: in an environment of autonomy, mastery and purpose. At the camp, the girl asked me to help her (autonomy); she wanted to learn something new (mastery); and she had a goal that was important to her (purpose).

Often in coaching, especially when we organize drills that are far from the actual game, we fail to motivate the player intrinsically, so coaches fall back to the “carrot-and-stick” approach: “work harder or you’ll run!” The purpose is no longer intrinsically motivating (avoiding punishment), and the coach focuses on outcomes, not the learning or improvement.

In the studies cited by Pink, external rewards improved performance on mechanical tasks. Therefore, in a drill like the closeout drill, the fear of running improved performance in terms of more hustle and less talking from the players.

However, on cognitive tasks, or tasks requiring creative thinking, higher external rewards hurt performance. The ball handling drills involved a creative element, and more importantly, their transfer to a game requires cognitive skills, as the player uses the dribble to create a pass or shot and must evaluate options while dribbling.

The reward system works for many coaches who stress order and structure; for instance, a basketball coach who runs a continuity offense and just wants the players to run the offense or a soccer coach who just wants his fullbacks to boot the ball down field as far as possible rather than playing the ball out of the back.

However, this reward system fails to motivate in situations where developing independent and critical thinking is important.

Most invasive games (soccer, lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, water polo, etc.) require critical thinking skills, flexibility and creativity. These games involve movement, perceptual and cognitive elements, while other sports like swimming or running involve primarily movement elements. Using the “carrot-and-stick” approach is not the best way to develop skills and players in these sports.

Instead, players need some control over their learning. This does not mean that coaches cede control to the players. However, asking players questions and empowering players to make decisions builds intrinsic motivation. For instance, at practice the other day, I asked the players what they thought of the drill and whether we should continue or move to something else.

I often ask players which drills they like and do not like, and I spend more time on those they enjoy. If they enjoy what they are doing, they will work harder and improve more than if they are forced to do drills they dislike. The challenge for a coach is to devise drills that the players enjoy which teach the skills and game concepts that he knows are important to their development and success.

Coaching is not a matter of giving into the players and their desires. However, the coach and players should work together; the players should not view the coach as an antagonistic force. When players and coaches communicate (in both directions), they work together for the same goals. When this communication breaks down or the coach ignores the players, players see the coach more as the person taking the inherent fun out of playing rather than a guide trying to improve one’s skills to enhance the enjoyment of the game.

At its core, we play sports to have fun, and a coach’s role is to enhance the enjoyment of the activity and to develop skills that allow the players to continue playing. When coaches focus on these roles, they ignore the “carrot-and-stick” approach and move to a more empowering approach which builds the players’ intrinsic motivation, often eliminating the need for discipline.

I did not have to motivate the young Alaskan. She chose to work out during her break and do extra drills because the goal had meaning to her; she felt that she was improving and learning something new; and she had some control over her environment.

By Brian McCormick
Coaching Director, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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