Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 7)

New scientific knowledge is achieved, academic coach education is delivered, fresh coaches come into the business, the game is continuously and rapidly evolving. So, basketball coaching is changing at a furious pace, too. Right?

Well, no. The prevalent coaching style established decades and decades ago has changed amazingly little compared to the quick rate of change in other walks of life.

An important reason is that whatever the amount of formal coach education, coaches still learn the tricks of the trade mainly informally – by trial and error and from other coaches. This makes the learning process personal and emotional and rather disconnected from the advances of scientific research.

And what has been learnt personally and emotionally will be treated personally and emotionally. Often coaches will defend their views and procedures against all odds – against what the present scientific research is saying, against what is happening in the society in general, and even against what is happening in actual modern-day basketball games.

Thus, the power of tradition shows everyplace. Coaches still tell their players not to cross their legs while on defense. Teaching is still explicit rather than implicit. Static stretching is still done in warm-ups. Traditional drills completely removed from the game context are still being used.

In spite of these contrary examples, most coaching traditions are quite useful. Traditions exist for a reason. However, given how personal and emotional a process coach learning is, coaches should deliberately seek to assess the way they go about their business. This assessment should be done systematically, critically, calmly, in a detached manner – in other words impersonally and unemotionally.

So far in this blog series, I have discussed what should be practiced in basketball – and why. Given the huge influence of traditions, it is just as important to discuss what should not be practiced – in other words, where the prevalent coaching traditions are leading us astray. In the next episode, we’ll get to the concrete examples of this.

To be continued. For the previous parts of the series, click Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 6)

This is the sixth part of a blog series where I discuss what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why. Click for Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.

We have come to conclude that technically oriented practice may help to advance the game performance of a team. This may only happen through tactical preparation because technical skills may only be manifested in a tactical framework. For example, a player’s field goal attempt is always – by definition – a manifestation of his team’s tactical performance.

However, we have also found out that the transference mentioned will not always happen. In other words, even if a player’s technical skills improve, his game performance may remain unaffected. For example, improving shooting accuracy may or may not lead to improvements in the game performance.

So, the real question becomes: How can we enhance the transference between technical skills and tactical skills? In other words, how can we make sure that improved technical skills transform into improved tactical skills and game performance? Here are a few guidelines.

1) Practice technical skills under game-like conditions. Creating game-like conditions has been discussed previously in this series. But in a nutshell, game-likeness requires that techniques are practiced “within tactics“. Given this and the definition of basketball as “interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball” we may conclude that in drills, there should be two teams present, in other words multiple defenders and multiple offensive players. For example, when playing 1-1 full court there should at least one extra defender to provide help or to double team and at least one extra offensive player to serve as a screener or a passing target.

2) Enhance proper perception-action coupling. Perception-action coupling has been defined as “the mutual dependencies between motion and information pickup regarding possible behaviours in the environment”. In other words, “perception-action coupling indicates that information drives movement and movement drives information available for players to pick up”. Drills should be designed so that the same type of coupling is required as in games. For example, while scrimmaging teams should have different colors on their shirts because that’s how it is in games, too.

3) Target the technical skills relevant to the game performance of your team. Quite simply, the transference is enhanced if the technical skills practiced will be used when executing the tactical skills of the team. For example, practicing starting the dribble off a hand-off directly improves the game performance only if hand-offs are a part of your playbook. This may sound obvious but it is not. In fact, quite often coaches have players practice things that they will never do in actual games. For example, in games players will not dribble two balls or circle the ball around the body.

4) Target the technical skills relevant to the game performance of a particular player. If the players on your team have designated roles, they will execute different technical skills in games. For example, some players set ball screens, some use them. To enhance transference, players should work on the technical skills that are included in their game repertoire.

5) Consider the principles of motor learning. Generally speaking, the transference is better if motor skill practicing is random rather blocked, varied rather than constant, implicit rather than explicit. These principles should be applied to basketball training, too. Some applications are suggested in my blog on practicing shooting.

6) Consider the timescale. The timescale that you choose to apply affects which conclusions you draw from the guidelines mentioned above. Something that is not effective in the short term, may very well be effective in the long term. For example, even if a player does not currently use ball screens within your offensive scheme, his next coach may have him do so. Maybe you should prepare him for that?

7) Constantly assess the probability of transference. The guidelines mentioned here will not tell you exactly what to do. Coaching is always contextual so you must apply the principles to your situation. Sometimes the guidelines contradict each other and compromises must be made. The real key lies in constantly criticizing your own methods. Always ask yourself if something you do in a practice sessions will actually help you in games. If you can’t answer the fatal question “Coach, why do we practice this?”, maybe you shouldn’t practice it.

My line of thinking is that the quicker and more direct the practice-game transference is, the better off you are. I think it is useful and practical for a coach to regard long-term development as a series of short-term developments. Ideally, one drill improves players’ performance in the next drill, the next drill improves the performance in today’s scrimmage, and today’s scrimmage improves the team’s performance in tomorrow’s game, and so on, indefinitely. If this chain is broken, you should try to fix.

Often coaches defend their familiar, automatized methods by referring to the players’ future, long-term development. Often this is an expression of wishful thinking and misguided faith in traditional coaching methods. Often there is neither short-term nor long-term transference but just a lot of wasted effort.

To be continued.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 5)

This is the fifth part of a blog series where I discuss what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why. Click for Part 1, Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

In the fourth part of the series it was concluded that “technical preparation is subordinate to tactical preparation because techniques may only be used when tactics allow”. And that “physical preparation is subordinate to technical preparation because in basketball, a player may only use his physical abilities as channelled though basketball techniques”.

So, tactical preparation is the most direct means of improving team performance – and in a short run the most efficient and the most effective means. However, this does not imply that technical and physical preparation are not important. Quite the contrary. Look at the quotes above. Seen from another point of view, they speak about the importance of technical and physical preparation, especially in a long run.

So, technical skills are always manifested in a tactical framework. But the opposite is true, too: a tactical framework is always manifested through technical skills. In other words, possessing certain technical skills is a requisite for being able to execute a certain tactic.

In some cases, Coach may justifiably concentrate on tactical preparation and, while doing that, take full advantage of the players’ existing technical skills. But in a long run, there will inevitably come a point where the room for improvement using only this method  is exhausted. At that point improving players’ technical skills becomes a necessity. Where in time that point lies will dependent on e.g. the level team of team: the closer to the top level the players are, the more technical skills there are to be utilized.

The relationship between techniques and physical capabilities is parallel to the relationship between tactics and techniques. Physical capabilities are always manifested through basketball techniques. But the opposite is true, too: possessing certain physical capabilities is a requisite for executing certain techniques. Sometimes it is a good idea concentrate on improving players’ technical capabilities in order to take full advantage of their existing physical capabilities. But eventually there comes a point where the room for improvement using this method  is exhausted and improving players’ physical characteristics becomes a necessity.

This seems soothingly straightforward, doesn’t it? You improve physical capabilities to be able to improve technical skills, improve technical skills to be able to improve tactical skills, and then finally, improve tactical skills to be able to win games. Right?

Well yes, but there are complicating factors that should be considered.

  1. Not all improvements in physical capabilities will help to improve technical skills, and not all improvements in technical skills will help to improve tactical skills. Rather, the improvements must be specific.
  2. It takes practice to maintain technical and technical skills and physical capabilities. The higher the level of the team and the players, the more practice time this maintenance alone takes.
  3. Complementary training may be done not just to improve physical capabilities but also to prevent injuries.
  4. When it comes to winning, it’s all relative. The outcome will depends on the opponents just as much as it depends on your team.

To be continued.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of a blog series where I discuss what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why. Click for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So far in the series we have found some solid ground: scrimmaging is a useful way of using practice time because it is game-like. This leads to another profound question: what does this game-likeness consist of? In other words, what is basketball? What is its definition?

To me the most relevant definition seems to be this: Basketball is interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball.  This definition implies that in basketball it is the teams – rather than the individual players – that are the primary actors. Another implication is that even a team’s actions are not essential per se, but what actually counts is the quality of interaction with the other team. This makes an individual player’s actions twice removed from being the primary actions in a game. Whatever a player does, he does that as a part of his team.

Given this and the definition of basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games”, we may conclude that practice should first and foremost emphasize a team’s ability to interact with the other team.

Using another type of terminology, tactical preparation is the most essential type of preparation because its effect on the game performance is the most direct. Technical preparation is subordinate to tactical preparation because techniques may only be used when tactics allow. And physical preparation is subordinate to technical preparation because in basketball, a player may only use his physical abilities as channelled though basketball techniques. In other words, without adequate techniques the physical capabilities are of no use.

On one hand, this is common knowledge. For example, in the last practice before a do-or-die game, pretty much any coach will concentrate on the tactics in order to optimize the game performance.

Yet  on the other hand: if taken seriously the definition stated above will probably cause a lot of practical changes. That is because to me it seems to imply for example the following things:

  1. Offensive tactics should be practiced against some type of defense rather than 5-0.
  2. Tactical elements should be implemented into all technically oriented training.
  3. You should avoid 1-1 drills where there is no interference from the outside.
  4. It should be considered how physical preparation may be made sport-specific and even game-like.

To be continued.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 3)

This is the third part of a blog series where I discuss what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why. 

So far in this blog series I have come to define basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games.” It has also become evident that practices should be game-like at least up to a point. That is because of the specificity of learning principle: scrimmaging is as game-like as can be, and thus it is a recommendable method of learning.

When deciding what to practice in practice sessions, we must also consider the power law. It predicts that the more you practice the more you learn, yet eventually the rate of learning will slow down.

Given these findings, it could be so that we should do nothing but scrimmage in basketball practice sessions. However, this would be only be true if in scrimmages, the time players spent executing tactical and technical skills was ideally distributed when it comes to improving their effectiveness.

This seems unlikely because of the amount of ball possession per player. In a scrimmage, on the average a player will have the possession of the ball for only 10 percent of the time. On the other hand, games are decided by scoring, and scoring always directly involves the ball. Because of this, when determining the winner, the relative importance of ball-related skills is likely more than 10 percent.

So, in addition to scrimmaging, Coach may also run exercises where shooting, passing, dribbling, and 1-on-1 defense are emphasized. Unfortunately, there is a contradiction at play here.

Because of the power law, players should pile up as many repetitions as possible. But because of the specificity of learning principle, the exercises should be as game-like as possible. Unfortunately, creating game-like constraints for an exercise tends to take multiple players – which in turn cuts down the number of repetitions per player. The saying “It takes ten people to train one” echoes this.

However, there are ways to ease this contradiction – in other words, ways to create game-like enough conditions without using a dozen players. Some potentially useful ways to achieve this include:

  1. Re-organizing drills.
  2. Using coaches as extra defenders and offensive players.
  3. Bringing in new people (e.g. parents) into practices and using them as extras.

Regarding practicing shooting, these three ideas are presented in more detail  in this blog of mine (see remarks 55 through 65). But no matter what, to some degree this dilemma will linger on. Coach will have to keep making trade-offs between the game-likeness (i.e. the quality of repetitions) and the number of repetitions. The key is to make these trade-offs consciously, weighing pros and cons of different options.

I started this blog series by wondering what players should practice in a practice session. By now it has become evident that there will be no detailed general answers to that question. For example, there will be no lists of the best drills for whatever purpose.

My initial question can not be answered at a general level and in a detailed manner. Rather, each coach – or coaching staff – must try to answer it day by day, practice by practice. To coach effectively, you must consider the general principles discussed here but also the unique situation and characteristics of your team’s context, your players, your coaching partners, yourself.

To be continued.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 2)

This is the second part of the blog series where it is discussed what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why. In the first part of this series, I tried to start the discussion from the very first step. I failed. I took too much as given: I did not discuss the definition of practice.

That was too bad because if we are to discuss basketball practice, we should first agree on what we mean by basketball practice. We are looking for a sport-specific definition. My suggestion is: “Basketball practice is activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games.”

Why is this important? Because for any discussion to be productive, the discussants must first agree about what is being meant by the key terms. If the discussants hold different implicit definitions, they may in effect talk about different issues in spite of using the same terms. Even small differences in the initial definitions may lead to vast differences in the final conclusions. So, the key terms should be defined explicitly and precisely.

For example, Ross Tucker defines practice (or “training”, as he calls it) as “the realization of genetic potential”. Say one discussant uses the word “practice” in this implicit meaning  and another one implicitly considers practice to be “optimizIng the effectiveness of a team in basketball games”. How likely would these two hypothetical discussants agree on what should be practiced in basketball practices?

Not very likely, wouldn’t you say.

In order to enhance the productivity of the discussion, it is not necessary that the discussants should come to a final agreement about which definition is the best one generally speaking. They can both keep their opinions on that issue. The key is to find some solid common ground: to agree on how the key concepts are defined in the context of this discussion.

Why then would my definition of (basketball) practice be useful in this discussion? Why not use Ross Tucker’s? Or someone else’s just as well?

I think my sport-specific definition is justifiable because it comports with common definitions of “practice” and and it can be derived from basketball rules in quite justifiable a fashion.

The current FIBA rules state: “The aim of each team is to score in the opponents’ basket and to prevent the other team from scoring.” So, the effectiveness of a team lies in its ability to score and to stop the other team from scoring – in short, to win games. Practice is the activity of optimizing this ability, or this effectiveness.

To be continued.

Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 1)

This is the first part of a blog series where it is discussed what should  be practiced in basketball practices – and why.

Recently I started putting together a practice plan, as I usually do. This time it proved to be a laborious task because I couldn’t stop asking this question:

What should players practice?

This wasn’t just an acute question regarding the content of that particular session. Rather the question concerned me at a more general level. Meaning, what types of tasks should be included? Scrimmaging, running, ball-handling, shooting, defensive footwork? Yes? No?

And, most importantly, why?

To me this line of thinking was quite trying. I have coached a long time, yet when I came to think about it, it was difficult to properly justify any of the stuff I am used to having players do.

For example, I have some ideas about how to practice shooting. Yet it is disturbingly difficult to justify practicing shooting in the first place. Luckily a lot of smart people have done research about the issue.

The most basic principle that has emerged is 1) specificity of learning. What it means is that “improvement is observed only in the trained task, with little to no transfer of learning being observed even for very similar untrained tasks”. In other words, in order to improve your basketball, you should practice basketball

Another well-established principle is 2) the power law: the more you practice the more you learn, yet eventually the rate of learning will slow down. In other words, the more you practice basketball, the better you become at it.

Given these two well-established principles one could conclude that all Coach should do in a basketball practice is run a 5-on-5 scrimmage using official rules. That would make the action as sport-specific as possible and maximize the amount of it.

This isn’t as exceptional a claim as it may sound. In fact, it complies well with recent calls for more game-like practices. Also, especially at the pro level, a lot of coaches run practices that consist of almost nothing else than 5-on-5 action.

So, we are getting someplace. We have found out that scrimmaging is definitely a useful activity in a basketball practice. I’d go even further and say that scrimmaging has been found to be the default activity in a practice. Any other activity needs to be justified because the correlation between scrimmaging and improving game performance is the most well-established correlation there is between a practice activity and improving game performance.

In other words, if Coach has doubts about what to do in practice, he should have the team play 5-on-5. Doing that, he can’t go much wrong.

What’s been said above implies that even  if the team doesn’t scrimmage the whole time, all practice action should be organized to be as game-like as possible. That is to enhance transference to the game performance. In other words, every step away from the game-likeness should be properly justified or, in case they can’t be justified, avoided.