The Myth of the Skilled Basketball Player

Whereas we grossly misunderstand talented basketball players, we also misunderstand skills. Being skilled does not mean dribbling in straight lines or knocking down jump shots in an empty gym. A skill within the context of an invasion game such as basketball combines the ability to know what to do with the ability to execute efficiently and effectively.

A player who can shoot in an empty gym has developed her motor skills, but  performing in a game environment requires perceptual-cognitive skills. The player must recognize patterns (defense), anticipate teammates and defenders, make quick and accurate decisions, and more. Without these skills, the player cannot use her motor skills within a game.

Recently, there has been a backlash against the AAU system’s constant competitive environment. To many, the answer is more practice, and specifically, isolated, block practice. The assumption is that motor skills practiced in isolation will create more fundamental basketball players, and these fundamental basketball players will perform better in game situations.

As an example, I toured a basketball academy several years ago. The lead instructor was a former college basketball coach with considerable experience. He bragged about firing the young coaches and hiring only grizzled veterans like himself to teach the right fundamentals. I watched as his group of 11 or 12 year olds did straight-line ball handling drills. They were very good. Their motor skills were well-developed. Next, I watched as this group scrimmaged. These players did nothing productive with the dribble. They could not beat anyone.

When this happens — when an obviously skilled player struggles in a game environment — we blame athleticism: if the players were quicker or bigger or stronger, they would utilize their skills better. Instead, I suggested a different problem: The practice did not transfer. Straight-line drills do not prepare a player to anticipate and read defenders, change directions, and make moves.

I asked the coach to play tag. He resisted. Finally, he relented. When they played tag, the balls flew everywhere. These ball handlers who were great at half-speed drills in a straight line could not make moves or evade others  at full speed. One reason was a breakdown in their motor skill due to the lack of contextual interference in their practice. Practicing in a low CI environment, such as a straight-line ball handling drill, leads to immediate improvement, but transfers poorly to new situations. Practicing in a high CI environment, such as playing a game of Team Tag, takes longer to show improvement, but tends to transfer better to novel situations (like a game).

A second reason for the poor performance in tag and the scrimmage was  the lack of perceptual-cognitive skill training. When a player dribbles in a straight line, she focuses on the ball and completing the drill. In a game, she must account for five defenders and four teammates; she has to change directions; protect the ball; see the court; understand time and score; and do these things at a faster speed.

When people imagine fundamental players, these skills are assumed. The assumption is that a player with proficient motor skills naturally possesses these other skills. Because they are assumed, they often go unpracticed.

A skilled player has well-developed cognitive-perceptual skills to complement developed motor skills. These skills do not just happen. Players do not wake up as good playmakers or decision makers, and improving one’s motor skills is not sufficient to develop these skills. Improved motor skills play a role: The more confidence that a player has in her ball-handling, for instance, the less attention she will dedicate to dribbling or protecting the ball, leaving more attention to identify defenders or find an open teammate. Therefore, isolated drills and the traditional notion of fundamentals has a role.

However, as players develop these motor skills, they must develop cognitive-perceptual skills. When we define fundamentals, these skills must be included. Having good shooting technique is a fundamental, but if the player cannot read the defense to get an open shot or understand shot selection, how valuable is that technique? If a player has a great handle in drills, but cannot use the bounce to defuse pressure or create a shot for a teammate or herself, how useful is the handle?

Understanding the game is a fundamental and a requirement to being skilled. To develop this understanding, players need game experience. However, when players only play games within a coach’s system, their attention narrows to running the plays. They do not take full advantage of the playing experience. At some point in the player’s development, he or she must play in an unstructured or less structured environment to combine his or her motor-skill development with improving cognitive-perceptual skills.

Players must learn to read a screen, handle a double team, move in relation to dribble penetration, run a pick-and-roll, etc. That does not mean learning one way to handle these problems or memorizing a coach’s system better. Players need multiple solutions to defensive problems (and defensive solutions to offensive problems). They need opportunities to try these solutions in game situations with the freedom to make decisions and learn from mistakes. When all the learning is coach-directed, the player will have limited fundamentals, just like a player who only dribbles with his right hand.

Players need player-directed learning opportunities to learn multiple solutions. They must learn to see the court, read the defense, and anticipate plays. In an ideal environment, developmental levels would offer these opportunities. However, the game tends to be over-coached at all levels, which limits the potential for player learning. Playing pick-up games or loosely-coached spring or summer leagues provides more opportunities to develop these skills.

Fundamentals are not just motor skills. If we want to develop better basketball players, we must look at the whole skill, and consider the cognitive-perceptual components to be fundamentals as well. Players need opportunities to learn and to develop solutions to problems in an expansive, educative environment.

  • 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 →