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 2, Part 3, Part 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.