Developing a Skill: Training like a College Player

by on September 24, 2015
in Athlete Learning

Last week, I walked into a college practice by accident and saw a similar workout to the one in the video above (I saw this video only because it was listed as a video similar to my conversation about game-based coaching, which confused me).

Everyone does two-ball dribbling drills. Why? When I was a private skill coach, I used two-ball drills as my short, 5-minute warmup. However, I never did stationary drills; the drills were done forwards and backwards, increased in intensity or difficulty, and ended with change-of-direction movements. We warmed up with all of the movement types that we would use during the workout, and we used balls for the warmups. Now, most players who I watch have poor basic movement skills (college athletes who cannot skip!), and I warm up without the basketball to concentrate on the movement.

Stationary two-ball drills though: What’s the purpose? It is not to warm up because there is no movement. It is not to improve game dribbling because there is no defender. It is not to improve dribbling technique because the technique of dribbling changes when movement and defenders are added. Therefore, what is the purpose?

I don’t hate two-ball drills. Personally, I like them. They’re fun. They easily demonstrate when a player’s weak hand is significantly worse than his or her strong hand. Some two-ball drills improve coordination and rhythm.

The problem, however, is that these workouts are described as skill development. What skill? With a semipro team, I used two-ball drills with my young post players to improve coordination and rhythm. They may have appeared to be doing a dribbling drill, but to me, they were working on coordination. That was the skill or quality. I rarely had my guards do two-ball drills because the drills were not going to improve their dribbling skills; bouncing the basketball or ball control was not their problem. We used two-ball drills occasionally in our bi-weekly young player workouts, but we had two purposes: First, to reduce intensity when practices and games were piling up, as all of the players in the workouts played on at least two teams; and second, as a motivator, as the challenge gave the players something to practice on their own to accomplish a goal and develop confidence. Again, specific reasons for these drills, none of which was to improve dribbling skills.

One problem in our basketball development environment today is that many people view any individual drill as skill development. An individual drill is not necessarily skill development, unless the skill that you are practicing is the drill. If the goal of practice is to be able to dribble two balls, great. However, if the goal is for the practice to transfer to improved game performance, there are better ways.

Nearly every player and coach use two-ball drills at some point; therefore, the drills must have a purpose. Yes, they may have a purpose, but what is it? Why are you using the drill? Because someone else does? Is that a purpose for your practice?

Despite the frequency of their use, I would argue that two-ball drills have very little utility for a college guard. Again, how is the drill improving their skill? Unless you can answer the question with a specific answer, such as coordination, this is purposeless practice; it is a fake fundamental: it appears to practice something important, but there is little to no transfer to improving game performance of that skill.

Last year, I wrote about dribbling with regards to training like a pro. Every youth player wants to train like a professional, but is that appropriate? Do we know that the practice of a professional has a purpose? I worked for a summer with a prominent NBA skill trainer – I use that term in the loosest possible way – and there was little to no skill development. Players stayed in shape. He even told the assistants that that was his purpose; maintaining their conditioning. Youth players watched the workouts and asked why we did not correct the NBA players when they traveled on moves when nobody was defending them, and the reason was that the boss said that was not the purpose. Is that how a youth player should train? I attended the legendary Pete Newell Camp one summer. A former NBA player attempted to demonstrate a basic move, something that I could demonstrate easily despite my lack of professional career. He traveled. The campers laughed. He muttered that it didn’t matter because they wouldn’t call it in the league. Is that how developmental players should be taught the game?

I don’t train NBA players although I have had NBA coaches inquire about my ideas about skill development. My concern, nor my expertise, is not NBA players. However, my article last year was prompted by a comment on a prominent coaching message board that said:

“Brett Brown of the 76ers said that while it’s not uncommon for an NBA player to dramatically improve their shooting after they enter the league, very few seem to significantly improve their ball handling.”

Again, I do not train NBA players. I do not know if this statement is accurate or not. Brown seems like a very good coach, especially developmentally, so I will take his word for it. However, if the statement is true, and many if not all NBA players pay private skill coaches in the summer to improve their skills, including ball handling, what are these skills trainers and players doing? What are the players paying for if NBA coaches see almost no improvement?

Last year, I suggested that if players work on their ball handling every summer, and coaches see little to no improvement, there could be a disconnect between the practice and the game. Part of the problem, I believe, is that drills like the two-ball drills above are viewed as skill development. Do some two-ball drills, maybe even some really difficult two-ball drills, and add some zigzag drills, and you have practiced your dribbling. When the tweet below was posted, everyone was so impressed with the workout and Cauley-Stein’s dribbling skill; there is no defense! Towns took 10 dribbles to get from a hand-off at the free-throw line to the rim. How many times in an NBA games does one player dribble the ball 10 times in a row in the half-court? Is this really skill development?

After I wrote the article last year, several coaches criticized the article. They said that I did not know what I was talking about because I do not train NBA players, a fact that I stated in the article (“I do not train NBA players. What do I know?”). Also, I never directed my commentary to NBA players. Instead, I wrote, “Youth and high-school players will improve more through playful games, drills that include some reaction and perception, and 1v1 in confined spaces than through stationary or straight-line drills.” The only comment directed toward NBA players was: “Typically, younger children are less concerned with making mistakes and more willing to explore and play. I would argue that these are the traits that enable them to develop their dribbling, whereas NBA players may be unwilling to engage in playful practice or exploratory behaviors.”

The interesting comment, however, suggested that a player like Chris Paul is beyond any benefits that could be derived from tag, implying that the more traditional drills would be appropriate. Paul was an interesting choice as an example, as he is not someone who I would pick out as a player who needed to improve his dribbling skills.

The interesting aspect, however, is that these two-ball drills (and other similar drills) are simple drills; there is no complexity; there are no informational cues that one must read; there is no perception. Tag, while not a perfect replication of a game, is more complex; there are informational cues in the environment that one must read to evade the one who is it; consequently, there is the coupling of perception and action. In this way, tag is a far closer approximation of the game than two-ball drills.

Because Paul is an expert ball-handler, I would argue that he has more to gain from tag than a two-ball drill because he is likely close to the limit of ball control and technique. Because he is close to the limit, how will more drills improve his ball control, technique, coordination, etc? Tag creates constantly changing conditions, like a game, so there is always a new challenge. Whereas Paul may be near the limit of reading the game and making decisions, I would argue that there is more improvement to be made in these situations than in simple straight-line or stationary drills.

Does this mean that all NBA players should play tag? Beats me. I don’t train NBA players. However, if Brown is correct and few NBA players improve their dribbling once they reach the NBA, despite numerous skills trainers running workouts to improve these skills, it might be time to try out something new. Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Maybe continuing to do these drills that are considered to be skill development despite their potential purposelessness is the reason that players remain the same. Who knows?

Again, I am less concerned with prescribing drills for NBA players, and more concerned with youth and high school players copying these workouts that at least one NBA coach has identified as being ineffective. If youth and high school players want to train like college players, by all means, do two-ball drills, stationary drills, straight-line drills, zigzags, etc. However, remember that few if any college coaches are hired because of their ability to develop skills; college coaches are in the business of acquiring and maximizing talent to win games. If you want to develop your skills, add complexity. As Rafe Kelley said, “Complexity translates better to simplicity, but not vice versa.” Make your practice more like the game. Couple the perception and the action. Skill is more than being able to bounce a ball. The skill is being able to handle the ball under pressure and make the best decision given different, constantly changing situations. This is the skill to develop, not being able to dribble two balls at the same time.

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

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →