Blog: Remarks on Shooting and Practicing Shooting

In this entry I am attempting to combine some principles and some nuts and bolts regarding shooting and practicing shooting. I’ll be adding at least one point on every weekday. I am also constantly editing the existing points. Some remarks have been derived from my previous blog entries. The points 5 to 7 were added or edited on Tuesday March 31.

  1. Rhythm is the most telling characteristic of a shot. Whenever practical constraints allow, the upward and forward movement of the ball in the shooter’s hands should accelerate in a fluid and even fashion.
  2. “Whenever practical constraints allow” is a most important condition regarding anything related to shooting (excluding free throws). Given the constraints set by the defense and the shot clock, sometimes the ball will and should be thrown or slung. Those types of shots should be practiced, too.
  3. In other words, there is no correct one shooting technique – not even for one person, let alone for all players. Rather, all technical details should depend on the situation and on the shooter’s characteristics.
  4. Coach’s job is to help a player develop and learn techniques appropriate to the situations the player will face in games. These techniques are contextual and personal.
  5. That is why general-level discussions about the shooting technique tend to amount to nothing. These discussions are often about “whether to or not to”: whether to dip or not to dip, to sway or not to sway, et cetera. However, given the importance of contextual and personal factors, the answer to this type of a question is usually neither “yes” nor “no” but rather “it depends”.
  6. Take dipping the ball. It has both advantages and disadvantages. So, it will depend on the context which ones matter more. It is inefficient coaching to claim that you should always dip or to claim that you should never dip.
  7. That is why it is one of Coach’s main tasks is to make sure that players will continuously face novel and variable tasks while practicing shooting. This will help them to learn to efficiently adapt the shooting technique to properly fit the ever-changing context.
  8. Interestingly, this approach fits both of the “two general and contrasting hypotheses that are applicable to motor learning”: the variability of practice hypothesis and the specificity of practice hypothesis.
  9. It should be quite obvious that variable shooting practice fits the variability of practice hypothesis.
  10. Less obviously and more interestingly, variable shooting practice fits the specificity of practice hypothesis, too. That is because all field goal shots in game situations considerably differ from each other.
  11. It is questionable to juxtapose  the variability of practice hypothesis and the specificity of practice hypothesis in the first place. From a coaching point of view, they are not contraries but rather a complementary pair. (For a detailed discussion on complementary pairs, see Kelso & Engstrom 2006: The Complementary Nature.)
  12. All in all, the old coaching slogan “Game shots, game speed” should be interpreted as a reminder to constantly add variability to shooting practice.
  13. However, often coaches seem to interpret “game shots” as shots that the team offense is supposed to produce. And “game speed” as all-out speed, quite rarely seen in game situations prior to a shot.
  14. In other words, “game-like” shooting drills are often idealizations by Coach rather than drills based on the reality of the game.
  15. To check if this is the case, please re-watch your team’s latest game. Concentrate on field goal shots. What percentage of those shots are such that you’ve practiced them in organized shooting drills? What does this percentage tell you about the game-likeness of your shooting drills? If anyone tries this procedure, please share the results in the comment section.
  16. The length of the shot clock affects the types of field goal shots taken. The shorter the shot clock, the quicker the average pace of movement. And just as importantly, the shorter the shot clock, the more difficult shots the players must take.
  17. One of the things the present FIBA rules do is that they maximize the number of difficult, even acrobatic field goal shots. That is because there will be a lot situations where getting the shot off in time is an issue: four quarters (and thus four end-of-a-quarter situations), 24-second shot clock, 14-second shot clock after an offensive rebound.
  18. The pace of prior movement is an important factor of a field goal shot. That is because it affects the amount of power that will transfer to the shot. Thus an easy-to-implement yet often neglected way to add variability to shooting practice is to vary the speed of the dribble or the cut prior to the shot.
  19. Even if the variability of shots in practices matches the variability of shots in games, there may be room for improvement regarding the game-likeness of practice. That is because even if the mechanics are the same, the cognitive constraints may be quite different.
  20. Typically, contrary to what happens in games, practice shots are predetermined and isolated. In other words, the cognitive load faced by the shooter is different and lighter.
  21. Predetermined shots will be not only cognitively easier than but also probably biomechanically different from shots taken while adapting to game-like constraints. (On the difference between predetermined and adaptive actions: a study on passing in futsal and a study on speed testing in rugby.)
  22. The aforementioned differences may well explain why some players are relatively better shooters in practices than in games, and vice versa. This apparent discrepancy may be due not to differences in mental toughness, as often assumed, but rather due to different cognitive and technical skills.
  23. That is why Coach will inevitably face two basic questions regarding shooting practice: A) How can Coach create game-like cognitive constraints? and B) How can Coach provide the players with as many repetitions as possible?
  24. The most obvious answer to question A is to create game-like constraints by setting up 5-5 situations and having the designated shooter react to what the other nine players are doing.
  25. However, considering question B, too, that would be inefficient because the number of repetitions per player would be severely limited. It would take take nine players to train one.
  26. That brings us to the real question, Question C, regarding shooting practice: How can Coach create game-like cognitive constraints as effectively and efficiently as possible? The answers will necessarily be compromises between the requirements demonstrated in questions A and B.
  27. There will be no panacea to this problem but rather a lot of partial practical solutions. It will be up to Coach’s drills and tactics and the team’s level, staff, and social context which solutions work best in any given case.
  28. To make the shooter’s cognitive constraints game-like in practice, Coach must first consider which types of cues the shooter must react to in games.
  29. The most obvious ones are the cues concerning the defender closest to the shooter. Also, passing to a teammate should be an option because, more than anything else, basketball is a collective effort.
  30. In other words, a minimum requirement for game-likeness is the presence of the shooter, at least one teammate, and at least one defender.
  31. This may sound like a small, theoretical detail but it isn’t. This changes the way players shoot in practice. When you first add a defender and a teammate to drills, you will have doubts about the new set up of shooting drills, because the shooters’ percentage will drop, yet at the same time they can’t seem to pass, either.
  32. So, where do these extras – in other words additional offensive players and defenders – come from? The problem is that they should be implemented while at the same maximizing the number of players shooting. There is an obvious, practical and serious contradiction here.
  33. One partial solution is to take a careful look at the drills you are using and possibly re-organize them. If you find moments where players wait in lines, is it possible to use them as extras instead? Say you run the traditional two-line lay-up drill. What if after shooting a lay-up the shooter would turn around, play defense on the player next shooting a lay-up, and only then go to the rebounding line? And what if the next rebounder would serve as an extra offensive player, too? The idea could be e.g. that the player going for  the lay-up should pass to the rebounder / extra offensive player if he raises his both hands.
  34. Once you have your players optimally utilized, take another look around you. Ask yourself: What about the coaching staff? Maybe you should more often implement coaches and whoever you have on the staff – including yourself – into drills as extras.
  35. This should not be done whenever possible  but things should rather be prioritized case by case. In other words, sometimes you are better off having coaches just monitoring the action. But just as well, sometimes they should be included in the action.
  36. A third option would be to bring in other people, implement them in drills as extras and possibly have them help otherwise, too. Their job description could be somewhat similar to that of student managers in college teams. In junior club teams those “managers” could be parents. They will often have time on their hands if they drive their kids to practice. In professional teams extras could be volunteers who for example look to start a coaching career.
  37. Obviously, you can’t put just anybody on the floor with the players. The extras must be able to e.g. make decent passes, set effective screens, and move around in a safe manner. In other words, they must possess skills of a necessary level. What exactly that level is, will depend on the team.
  38. The ability to work as an extra is something that the head coach should consider when recruiting assistant coaches. They don’t necessarily have to be players or ex-players, but the matter should be considered within the context of the given team.
  39. At this point some of you may wonder if I am wandering the topic – shooting and practicing shooting, that is. I do not think so. I think that when it to comes to learning to shoot better, the ideas regarding the way the practice is organized are every bit as important as ideas regarding the shooting technique and motor learning.
  40. If there is something consistently wrong with the rhythm of a player’s shots, the rhythm should be manipulated. The easiest way to do that is to minimize the movement of the shooter’s body parts. This alone may be helpful because when extra movement is eliminated, some disruptions to the rhythm may be eliminated as well.
  41. Probably the easiest way to eliminate extra movement is to catch the ball in a high stance. Obviously, your knees must be bent so that you can both drive right off the catch and generate enough power for an effortless shot. But you don’t need to drop nowhere as low as coaches have traditionally taught. The idea is to stay as high as you ever can.
  42. Another way to eliminate unnecessary movement is to catch the ball with your upper body in an upright position. Once again, this contrasts with the traditional way of teaching things. Often, as a part of getting to a low stance, players have been taught to lean forward. It makes the shot difficult because the first thing you need to do after the catch is to get your upper in an upright position.
  43. By having your body in an upright position, I do not mean that literally (as in 90 degrees relative to the floor). Rather, upright here means that after the catch, you should be able to go up for a shot without first swinging your upper body backwards.
  44. More than anything, a shot should be effortless. Meaning, it should seemingly take the shooter hardly any effort to get the ball to fly far enough.
  45. A good way to assess the potentially effective range of  a certain shooting technique is to see how the shooter misses his shots. If some misses are short and some are long, then the shooter is within the potentially effective range.  If practically all misses are short, then the shooter is out of that technique’s potentially effective range.
  46. In order for a 3-point shot to seem and be effortless, your upper body must be relaxed. Otherwise the shot will look laborious. One of the things a coach might do in practice is to remind the shooter to keep his shoulders relaxed.
  47. At the same time, the shooter’s legs will be springy and his lower back tense. This will allow him to generate power and transfer it to the shot while keeping the upper body relaxed.
  48. When coaching shooting (or any other motor skill), Coach should use a different type of speech than the one used above. In other words, Coach should shy away from referring to the shooter’s required movements or to the body parts relevant to the movement, but rather concentrate on the desired outcome.
  49. This type of coaching will hopefully lead to implicit learning. Ways to enhance implicit learning include external focus of attention, dual tasking, using analogies, and errorless learning.
  50. Enhancing implicit learning is easier said than than done. It’s a different way of coaching than most of us have grown used to, and thus it takes time to learn and hone necessary pedagogical skills. Coach must e.g. come up with proper and comprehensible analogies that help players improve their shooting.
  51. Implicit coaching may very well seem counterintuitive because Coach will direct players towards certain solutions without first explicitly telling them what those solutions are and why they are beneficial.
  52. One of the reasons why explicit coaching still rules is that it gives coaches a chance to – explicitly! – demonstrate how  thoroughly they know shooting: “Bend your knees!” “Keep your elbow in!” “Follow through!”
  53. On the contrary, coaching implicitly will make Coach look goofy or even useless. That is because what he does not explicitly state the rationale for what he’s doing. Rather he keeps adding variety to the training which makes it look messy. And instead of barking out explicit, professional-sounding instructions he repeats analogies that to an outside observer make no sense.
  54. This brings about the question what type of analogies could be useful in coaching shooting. Some suggestions: “Pole” = Instead of leaning forward, the shooter should remain in an upright position – like a pole that can be found in any gym. “Ceiling” = Instead of shooting flat (= “Towards the wall”) the shooter should use a high enough arch (“Towards the ceiling”). “Latin” = Instead of moving about in a rigid, mechanical fashion (“Like a robot”), the shooter move about in a rhythmical, light, and unpredictable fashion (“Like a latin dander”).
  55. In order for you to be an effective 3-point shooter, you should extend your effective shooting range in practice situations to about 1.5 meters of 5 feet beyond the line. The extended range makes it possible for you to adapt to different game situations and still shoot effortlessly.
  56. This is not a metaphor. You should literally be able to hit al least half of your shots from 1.5 meters beyond the 3-point in practice situations where there is no hurry, no fatigue, no defensive pressure. If your shooting technique is not up to the task, you should do something about. Otherwise it will limit your accuracy.
  57. You can only extend your shooting range far enough if your shooting technique allows you to generate enough power and to transfer that power efficiently to the shot. Such efficiency is a necessary characteristic of a proper shooting technique.
  58. Besides efficiency, you must also consider accuracy, quickness, release height, and practicality within game context.
  59. “Practicality” refers to how easy and quick it is to combine the shot with things that tend to precede shots in games: pass, catch, cut, dribble, drive, ball fakes etc. Practicality is an often-overlooked characteristic, because shooting tends to be practiced in an isolated fashion – e.g. taken out of the game context. That isolation makes practicality a non-issue, because fitting the game context is precisely what practicality is all about,

FT Frequency Revised – Or Why Four Factors Should Be Six Factors

FT frequency is one of the Four Factors, the basketball analysis framework developed by Dean Oliver. The equation he uses is:

  • FT frequency = FTM / FGA

However, there are severe problems with the equation – in fact so severe that the FT factor should be split into two.

One of the problems with Oliver’s equation is that negative occurrences may cause FT frequency to rise. I.e. if the shooter misses a FG shot where he gets fouled it affects the FT frequency more positively than if he gets fouled and makes the shot. That is because a missed foul FG shot will not add to the number of FG attempts, as a made foul FG shot does, and because a missed foul FG shot provides the offense with two FTA, whereas a made foul FGS will only provide one.

Example: Say you have made one 2-point FG shot where there has been no foul. Then you take a second one, and this time there is a foul. If you make the FG shot, you earn a bonus FT. Make it, and the equation becomes:

  • FT Frequency = 1 / 2 = 0.5

Should you instead miss your second FG shot and make one of the subsequent FT attempts, the equation is:

  • FT frequency = 1 / 1 = 1.0.

So, now the FT frequency is higher even though your FT% is lower and even though you have drawn the same number of fouls as in the previous case.

The other problem with Oliver’s FT frequency equation is practical. A team’s FT frequency will not tell how they have done regarding the two basic aspects of free throws: earning FTA and making them. Hence they must have separate indicators.

This is hardly surprising since in 2007 Kubatko, Oliver, Pelton and Rosenbaum wrote: “This would imply Five Factors, but this one term [FT frequency] tends to capture the most important elements of both.” As shown above, their second claim was incorrect.

To measure a team’s ability to hit FT’s there is no better tool than FT%.

To measure a team’s ability to earn FT’s I suggest this equation:

  • FT frequency = FT Sets / Plays

As shown above, neither FTA nor FTM should be the dividend since getting fouled and missing the FG shot would lead to more FTA and FTM than getting fouled and making the FG shot. I.e. a less positive outcome would have a more positive effect on the FT frequency.

So, the only options left for the dividend are the number of number defensive fouls or the number of FT sets. The context here is Four Factors where the independent variables cover endings of plays. Since a defensive foul will not necessarily be the ending of play but a FT set will be, it makes sense to choose the number of FT sets as the dividend. Also, FT sets are more directly linked to FT frequency than the total number of defensive fouls is. In a previous blog I already turned Four Factors into Five Factors.

This splitting the FT frequency into two factors turns Five Factors into Six Factors. And this is where it ends. Hence the Four Factors turned into Six Factors are:

  1. Clean effective field goal percentage
  2. Foul effective field goal percentage
  3. Turnover percentage
  4. Offensive rebounding percentage
  5. Free throw frequency
  6. Free throw percentage

Five Factors – or Improving the Validity of Four Factors

Four Factors, developed by Dean Oliver, is a widespread concept in basketball performance analysis. Yet there is a serious flaw in it: it uses eFG% to measure the efficiency of field goal shooting. This is an invalid procedure, as shown here.

What then would be a valid indicator for the efficiency of field goal shooting within the framework of Four Factors?

Actually, two indicators are needed: eFG% of FG shots where the shooter is not fouled in the act of shooting (clean eFG%) and eFG% of FGS shots where the shooter is fouled in the act of shooting (foul eFGS%). This is the most useful way of including all FG shots  in the analysis – even those shots where the shooter is fouled and misses the shot.

The equations are:

  •                       Clean eFG% = (Clean FG + .5 x Clean 3P) / Clean FG shots
  •                       Foul eFG% = (Foul FG + .5 x Foul 3P) / Foul FG shots

Adding to the number of variables adds to the complexity of the analysis. However, the practical value of the analysis is also improved since now getting to the free throw line and hitting FG shots are measured as separate issues. At this point Four Factors have turned into Five Factors:

  1. Clean effective field goal percentage
  2. Foul effective field goal percentage
  3. Turnovers per possession
  4. Offensive rebounding percentage
  5. Free throw frequency

However, Five Factors will eventually become Six Factors, since there is a practical and theoretical problem with the factor of free throw frequency.

Blog: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet in Basketball

Last summer, Team USA won the FIBA world championship easily. Not one team could actually compete with them. What was that about?

To me the main teaching was that basketball is an underdeveloped sport – a work very much in progress.

That is because Team USA overwhelmed everyone with their combination of athletism and sufficient amount of technical skill. In other words, no opponent was physically capable of putting them in a position where any advanced tactical skills would have been required.

The fact that that type of one-dimensional dominance was enough to win a world championship, showed that the sport itself is underdeveloped. In more fully developed sports – say, European or American football – a combination of high-class tactical, technical, and physical capabilities is needed in order to be the best in the world.

Okay, maybe the FIBA World Cup is a bad example? Maybe it’s rather the NBA champions San Antonio Spurs that have it all: techniques, tactics, athletism?

Much has been made of the Spurs’ collectivistic team play. And yes, relatively speaking they do play collectivistically – in other words, collectivistically for an NBA team.

That is because in that league, the individualistic line of thinking is the default setting. When NBA star players work towards the common good – i.e. do the job of a basketball player – they are thought to nobly sacrifice their game.

In European high-level basketball, it is rather collectivism that is the default setting. Compared to the top European teams, the Spurs’ tactical competence nothing to cheer about. Just consider what happened in their preseason loss to Alba Berlin.

What does all this mean regarding future, then? That when it comes to basketball, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There is plenty of room for improvement. First, a combination of high-class techniques, tactics and athletism must be reached. Only after that, we can really go to work.

Blog: Much of Basketball Performance Analysis Is Invalid Because eFG% Is an Invalid Metric for Measuring the Efficiency of FG Shooting

Whenever you see basketball performance analysis where eFG% is used as the metric to measure the efficiency of FG shooting, you immediately know that the whole analysis is invalid.

Since eFG% is widely used, much of the current basketball performance analysis is invalid.

Nothing helps: not the huge amount of the data, not the sophistication of the analysis methods, not the great looks of the graphics. In a way, they only make matters worse sonce they help hide the invalidity of the underlying assumptions.

The invalidity of eFG% is due to an obvious yet ignored fact: eFG% does not consider all FG shots. The equation of eFG% is:

eFG% = (FGM + 0.5 x 3PM) / FGA

The problems is that not all FG shots count as FGA. If the shooter gets fouled in the act of shooting and misses the shot, that FG shot is not considered an FGA in the statistics.

Consequently, eFG% does not measure the efficiency of all FG shots but the sample is systematically biased. This makes all performance analysis, where eFG% involved, invalid when it comes measuring the efficiency of FG shooting.

Despite this obvious bias, eFG% continues to be widely used. Why? Probably because it is easily derived from the basic box score stats.

Thus implementing eFG% requires no extra work. Rather than ponder the validity the underlying assumptions, analysts concentrate on putting together new formulas or new graphics.

For glossary of terms, see Basketball Reference.

Blog: Teachings of NBA Playoffs 2014

These ideas occurred to me when watching the NBA Playoffs 2014. A half of these ideas are gathered from my previous (now deleted) posts, but the other half I have not posted before.

Idolizing Spurs

* Some basketball people now seem to think that all NBA teams should now try to implement the strategy and tactics of Spurs. However, as in any business, this type of imitation is bound to lead to failure.

* Even though Spurs’ tactics worked last season, who says they will be any good this season?

* Think of Lakers in 2011. After winning two championships in a row, they got swept in the playoffs by Mavericks – partly because their famed triangle offense had gotten outdated.

* What happened to idolizing the strategy and tactics of Miami Heat? They have made it to the championship series four times in row and won the championship in 2012 and 2013.

Performance Analysis

* In team sports, the analysis of past performances will never be able to tell what the future performance should be like.

* Performance analysis is an important tool for developing performance, but its importance and predictive power are exaggerated by the PA industry and the media.

* The more precisely and rigidly a team follows the guidelines derived from the analysis of past performances, the more vulnerable it becomes.

Misusage of Terms

* Usually there is nothing extra about an “extra pass” but the term simply refers to a pass that is made by a player, who is in a decent position to shoot, to a teammate, who is in a better position to shoot.

* What are often referred to as “little things” in basketball tend to be not little things but big things that are called little only because they do not appear in the box score.

* The term “look-away pass” is most often literally incorrect, because the passer does not look away but rather keeps facing the basket and sees what the defense does. In other words, he does not turn his shoulder towards the direction of his eventual pass.

Positionless Basketball

* At the highest level of play, any simple-sounding action is hard to execute successfully. The physical, technical, and tactical constraints are strict.

* That is why “positionless basketball” will never happen at the highest level of play. Players must specialize in certain skills to be able to execute them efficiently even where the air is thin.

* A paradox: The more optimally a coach wishes to utilize his players’ unique skills, the more functionally specialized his system should be. Yet the more functionally specialized a system is, the more difficult it becomes to make it functionally integrated.

Watching and Learning

* If a coach watches basketball in order to improve himself as a coach, he shouldn’t watch exclusively NBA basketball (or any other one league).

* Rather, a coach should watch a wide variety of b-ball: different countries, different levels, different age groups, both sexes.

* Exposure to wholly different types of basketball will allow a coach to learn more than watching the NBA teams over and over again.

Blog: Theory and Practice in Children’s Sports

During the past couple of years I have been reading some scientific literature on children’s sports but also following the phenomenon as a parent. The following remarks are some of my observations on the clash between the two worlds, theory and practice.

1) The lure of early specialization and early selection is strong.

Benefits of sampling – doing multiple sports as a kid – have been well shown but the problem is that the greatest benefits become apparent only years later. And the same goes for late selection.

Yet what helps children succeed asap is early specialization, and what helps the children’s team win asap is early selection. That’s obvious to all stakeholders. That is also why early specialization is still often encouraged and why early selection is still a normal procedure.

Also, children’s coaches are often inexperienced. Hence they do not have the first-hand experience of long-term benefits of sampling and late specialization.

2) Games and competitions enhance learning

To fully enjoy the benefits of sampling, a kid should not only practice multiple sports but also compete in them. Meaning, take part in “official” competitions and games.

First, competing is an exciting and memorable activity in itself.

Secondly, the incomparable excitement and purposefulness of competing enhances learning. The games and competitions are learning opportunities as such, but kids also practice more intensely when they know that they are going to compete.

Think about it this way. In an off-season practice, children’s ice hockey team may play soccer to add variety to the training. Is it effective? Or would it be more effective if the children practiced with an actual soccer team in a different social set-up under a real enthusiastic soccer coach to prepare for real exciting games played real uniforms?

3) Changes in weather enhance learning

When it comes to motor learning variability is good, generally speaking. One of the inherent advantages that outdoor sports have over indoor sports is that outdoors, practice conditions inevitably change from practice to practice, often during a single practice. This provides the athletes and coaches an automatic form of contextual interference. Conversely in indoor sports, practice conditions remain more or less the same all through the season.

4) Motor skill teaching is still done old school

Recently, research has changed a lot of assumption about motor learning. Now coaches should consider e.g. external focus of attention, self-controlled practice, random practice, implicit learning and practicing first with the non-dominant limb.

Breakthroughs in research have not yet caused a revolution in the way children are coached. Mainly it is still internal focus, blocked practice, start with the dominant limb and so on.