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.

NBA Playoffs 2014 Conference Semifinals: Gortat the Goalie

These are coaching ideas that have occurred to me when watching NBA Conference Semifinals 2014. I keep the list updated, with the latest entries being listed first. Ideas from the Playoffs’ 1st round are here.

Pacers @ Wizards / Game 6 / May 15

* Wizards’ starting center Marcin Gortat started playing basketball when he was 17. Up to that point, he trained to be a soccer goalie.

* What does this imply? A coach must be very careful when discussing the sport-specificity of training and the need for early specialization.

* Yes, most of the successful late-starters in basketball are big guys who have extensive training background in some other sport.

* And yes, there probably is something to the early engagement hypothesis in basketball as well in soccer.

* Yet it is intriguing how many different training paths lead to quite similar skill sets. And how difficult – I’d suggest impossible – it is to determine what exactly is the optimal way to develop top performance basketball players.

Blazers @ Spurs / Game 5 / May 14


* 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.

* Say, Blazers’ Robin Lopez seals the help side defender and stops him from helping on the driver. You bet it’s a not a little for the driver…

* Often when discussing big men, the physical nature of their work is over-emphasized. Even though, obviously, an important part of i.e. Lopez’s composition is his size and strength.

* But there is also a lot of skill to his brutally physical play. I.e. sealing has to be done and timed skillfully to make it effective and to avoid being called for an offensive foul.

* Effort is also over-emphasized. Players are expected to put in their best effort – and most do. What sets great players apart is their skill.

* Like when you go for the offensive rebound, bang into the defender, he holds your other arm down, you reach for the ball with one hand – and manage to tip it in with a decent percentage.

* Robin Lopez or anyone else will not look amazingly skillful doing that, but it is a difficult play.

Heat @ Nets / Game 3 / May 10

* A player is supposed to play collectivistic ball. However, his best efforts are no good if his coach doesn’t appreciate what he’s doing.

* In other words, the coach needs to understand coaching thoroughly enough to
a) realize who’s willing and able to play collectivistic ball, and
b) build a team play network where the collectivistic efforts of the available talent lead to an optimal outcome.

* With the Nets, clearly this did not happen. Jason Kidd never understood how to best let Andre Kirilenko help the team.

* If this happens in the NBA, it’s probably happening all over. In other words, collectivistic players probably get overlooked by their ignorant coaches.

* If you want to watch collectivistic b-ball in action, watch Kirilenko.

Thunder @ Clippers / Game 6 / May 16

* Durant makes an excellent pass to Adams almost exactly midway through the 1st quarter (See the video at 0.28). Commentator Jeff van Gundy later calls it a “look-away pass” which is literally incorrect, because Durant does not look away.

* Durant does what any passer should most often do: he does not turn his shoulder towards either side of the floor but keeps facing the basket and sees what the defense does.

* This way Durant has all the options open. Griffin is under the basket, responsible for recovering both Adams and Ibaka. As soon as Griffin makes a slight move towards Ibaka, Durant passes to Adams, and Adams scores.

* The worse option for Durant / any passer would be to square up towards one or the other side of the floor. That would make it difficult for him to make an accurate pass to the other side of the floor.

* Milos Teodosic of CSKA is especially skillful at this “misdirection without faking”: he simply faces the basket and then passes into any direction he chooses.

NBA Playoffs 2014 1st Round: Others Play M2M, You Play Zone

Latest update: May 23rd 2014
First posted: May 8th 2014

These are coaching points or rather preliminary ideas that occurred to me when watching the first round of the NBA Playoffs 2014. Ideas from the Conference Semifinals can be found here.

Hawks @ Pacers / Game 7 / May 3

* The more precisely and rigidly a team follows the guidelines derived from the analysis of past performances, the more vulnerable it becomes to tactics that go against the grain.

* Meaning, Pacers are built to play defense against an offense with at least one big who stays inside – say, an ordinary NBA offense.

* They got into trouble against a team that played a five-out offense – even if the Hawks didn’t do it very well or smartly.

* So a coach should prepare his team to meet the unexpected.

* Also, the more similarly the other teams in any given league play, the more advantageous it becomes for one team to do something wholly different.

* If all other teams play man-to-man, you play zone. If all other teams play zone, you play man-to-man.

Bobcats @ Heat / Game 1 / April 20

* A coach should never use the term “extra pass”.

* 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.

* The underlying assumption of the term “extra pass” seems to be that basketball players are by nature selfish, and that making an “extra pass” is somehow a sacrifice – when in fact it is the basic job of a collectivistic basketball player.

* The aforementioned individualistic line of thinking is deceivingly common in basketball. Think about it: isn’t it the general opinion that Michael Jordan nobly sacrificed his game when he settled for scoring less and passing more? I.e. when he enabled Bulls to win all those championships – while still playing de facto selfishly but less so.

* Phil Jackson won all those championship rings by getting his superstars to play – not selflessly, but less selfishly. Isn’t it kind of embarrassing to the rest of the NBA that this ability played a big part in making Jackson possibly the greatest coach in the league history? Shouldn’t selfless, collectivistic play be the default setting, instead of an achievement to be celebrated?

* Because of this, if a coach is able to replace all individualistic tendencies in his team with a collectivistic approach, it is going to look like his team is overachieving.

Warriors @ Clippers / Game 7 / May 4th

* If a coach wants to develop a future high-performance player, the goals for sport-specific skill learning must be set enormously high compared to what most of us are used to.

* At the moment Stephen Curry looks like an anomaly, but that won’t last for long. In sports, as in business, competitive edges always fade due to “the erosive forces of imitation, competition, and expropriation”.

* As the players develop more and more advanced technical skills, it becomes more and more important and difficult for them and their coaches to realize when and where to apply those skills to enhance the success of the team.

* Otherwise, the players are just showing off their technical skills.

* In other words, a player should possess great skills, and yet use them as rarely as possible. That is because the greater a skill seems, the riskier it probably is to execute – that is why the skill seems great in the first place.

* A lesson learned from watching Curry: some technically exceptional players not only resolve difficult situations with their skills but also create the very same difficult situations in the first place – or at least let them arise – because of they’re confident that their skills will get them out of trouble.

* Which is more telling a sign of a player’s greatness: not getting in a lot of risky situations, or resolving risky situations successfully?

* It’s not either or, but both, right?

Grizzlies @ Thunder / Game 7 / May 3rd

* Any #5 is going to be valuable, if he’s able to:
1) set a high middle pick,
2) soft roll,
3) catch a bounce pass at 10 feet from the basket
4) and hit a shot consistently from that distance or make a smart, quick pass

* At the highest level of play, this simple-sounding action is hard to execute successfully.

* The same can be said about any number of actions. The physical, technical, and tactical constraints are strict.

* That is why “positionless basketball” will and can 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.

* Why did the Grizzlies never have a chance in this Game 7?

* Was it that because Zach Randolph was missing, the sum of the available players’ individual skills was not enough to compete with the Thunder?

* Or was it rather because Randolph’s special skills were such a crucial part of the Grizzlies’ highly integrated system? When no one else even attempted to play his role, the network shut down.

* This quote from Duarte et al seems relevant: “Complex biological systems face a complementary interplay between functional specialization tendencies (based on interindividual variation) and functional integration tendencies.”

* 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. E.g. replacing injured players becomes more difficult.

* What resolutions are there to this paradox?
1) Recruit role players who can fill in for your starters by playing the same basic role reasonably well.
2) Keep the system as flexible as possible by e.g. practicing with different scenarios in mind (like losing your irreplaceable #4 for Game 7).

* What does this imply in practical terms? E.g. this: in the NBA playoffs 2013 San Antonio Spurs’ center Tiago Splitter got injured in the Game 3 of the first round series against Lakers. In Game 4 Splitter was not replaced in the starting five by their next best big man but by Aron Baynes. He had not played at all in the first three games but he is the same type of player that Splitter is.

* Certainly, Splitter’s absence still hurt the Spurs because he is a better player than Baynes is. Yet Coach Popovich’s decision minimized the damage because he wouldn’t let Splitter’s absence break down the team’s integrated network and rotation.

* This is not to claim that Coach Joerger should have used another player than Mike Miller to replace Randolph at #4 in the Grizzlies’ starting line-up. He certainly knew what he was doing.

* Rather, the point is that a coach should work like hell in advance and in the long run to prepare his team so that no matter what happens, the basic system of play will remain intact and thus the team will remain competitive.

Spurs @ Mavericks / Game 6 / May 2nd

* Primary ball handlers should be taught to dribble in a way where there is no regular rhythm, or arrhythmically.

* I.e. they should constantly vary the height of the dribble, the force they use to push the ball towards the floor, and the time the ball stays in contact with their hand.

* This constant variation will help them:
1) Time their passes,
2) Time their shots off the dribble,
3) Fake,
4) Minimize the number of times the ball is stolen from them,

* Mavericks’ Jose Calderon is a great example in this aspect of ball handling.

* Wizards’ Andre Miller is also something to see. He has a curious knack for keeping the ball in contact with his hand for extended periods of time without getting called for carrying the ball.

* Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney have written about Dwayne Wade’s arrhythmic dribble.

* Once again, varying the dribble is easier said than done. It takes a lot of practice to learn to do it constantly without explicit control.

Raptors @ Nets / Game 6 / May 3rd

* What is the purpose of shooting practice?

* To learn how to hit shots, right? That’s what I always thought but maybe the emphasis is somewhat misled.

* Maybe a better wording is that the purpose of shooting practice is to learn to shoot effectively in game situations.

* Besides hitting shots, shooting effectively includes selecting shots wisely, drawing fouls and hitting shots while getting fouled.

* Also, shooting should not be treated as an isolated action, as it often is.

* Rather, when shooting practice should include shooting over a defender, shooting from way beyond the 3-point line, shooting off-balance, shooting while getting fouled, shooting while considering passing, shooting while being afraid of getting.

Trail Blazers @ Rockets / Game 5 / May 1st

* Currently in pick-and-roll defense, the most obvious room for improvement lies in using hands. Some pocket passes or even skip passes are barely defended since defenders tend to keep their hands in generic, traditional positions.

* Though an obvious one, this aspect is probably not an easy one to improve because it demands novel motor patterns. It is a tough task to e.g. fight over a pick and follow the dribbler in full speed with your both hands held high above your head in order to harass the skip pass.

Wizards @ Bulls / Game 2 / April 23rd

* Help side defender should be in a position where he has a hand in the passing lane and will not allow a direct, crisp pass to his player.

* At the moment this is not happening consistently but rather help side defenders drop too far back, possibly because they are overly worried about the other team running a backdoor alley-oop on them.

* Because of this overblown concern teams give up easy direct passes that lead to open 3-pointers.

* Certainly, a backdoor becomes a major concern as the help-side defenders step up to have a hand in the passing lane. Because of this, players should work on recognizing the signs of a backdoor attempt and e.g. on pedaling backwards, jumping off one foot and interrupting the alley-oop pass.

Blog: Small Forward 2024 Will Handle the Ball And Pick And Roll And Pop

Say, you coach a 14-year-old boy who’ll grow up to be 6-5 to 6-7. What skills should you help him learn now so that he could develop into a high-performance small forward 10 years?

That’s a simple question, isn’t it? Just look at the characteristics of the present top small forwards, analyze what skills the 14-year-old is lacking, and there you have his curriculum. Right?

Well…

Unfortunately complex systems, such as basketball, do not change in a linear fashion. Rather “the future of a complex system is under perpetual creation. What emerges is partially something that is known and partially unknown because of the almost indefinite number of variables influencing what is going on.”

In other words, we have no way of telling what high-performance basketball will be like in 2024. That comes from the fact that “the links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force.” Hence “the long-term future is not simply difficult to see. It is unknowable.”

Because the level of competition keeps rising, we can safely assume that top small forwards in 2024 (SF24) will be better than his counterpart in 2014 (SF14). In other words, SF24 must be able to not only execute the same skills that the SF14 executes but to execute them better.

But because the change will not be linear, there is an even more severe complication: SF24 may also be asked to execute skills that are not even in SF14’s repertoire.

The process of change is ubiquitous. Rod Higgins writes “There used to be a time when point guards would bring the ball upcourt, hand it over to their small forward and get out of the way.” “The point forward tendencies of Dejan Bodiroga and Hedo Turkoglu, among others, kept that proud European tradition alive into the 00’s.”

But “then along came the pick and roll and everything changed.” Now small forwards’ “main mission is to create space with their shooting, take advantage of space with their cuts toward the rim and take away space with their help defense.”

This brings about two answers to the question of what SF24 should be learning now.

One answer is that he should be developing general motor learning skills. Those skills will help him meet the new demands of the ever-evolving game over and over again.

The second answer is that we should construct a scenario of the evolvement of the small forward position and, based on that scenario, assess what sport-specific SF24 will need, in addition to the skills of SF14. Here’s my line of thinking on that:

1) Presently, in pick-and-roll oriented offenses, small forward tends to be an underutilized position. SF14 is usually not directly involved in PNR but he’s primarily a spot-up shooter and a slasher.

2) The small forward’s direct involvement in PNR would add to the variety and unpredictability of the offense. However, most SF14 do not have the necessary relevant skills.

3) To improve the offenses, SF24 will be required to take part in PNR both as the ball handler and as the screener. This will take the number of ball handlers and screeners on the floor from two to three.

4) In the present player development, small forwards should be taught PNR offensive skills: using the pick as the ball handler, setting the screen, popping out, rolling to the basket. PNR-related defensive skills should be taught, too.

Naturally, this line of thinking may be based wrong assumptions and thus misguided: in 10 years, basketball may become less PNR-oriented, or small forwards may continue to stay out of the PNR picture. Even if this is the case, PNR-related practice will not be a complete waste of time for SF24, since most of that practice will serve not only PNR-specific purposes but will also be useful basic basketball-specific practice.

Blog: The Future of Player Development Ain’t What It Used to Be

Developing players is a futuristic project. We need to prepare players to face the challenges of high-performance basketball as it is played in the year of 2020. Or 2025. Even 2030 is only sixteen years away…

At the moment, the game is changing at a furious pace due to e.g. the breakthrough of the performance analytics. Looking back just a few years, it was a wholly different game.

So how should we go about developing future top-performance players when we do not know what the future top-performance basketball will be like?

At least these things should be considered:

1) Variability
The tactics and techniques that the players learn today probably will not serve them until the end of their career. Everything must be varied and modified – during a career and, as a reflection of that, during every practice session. Continuous motor learning is a necessity, and hence motor learning skills should be emphasized in player development.

2) Quickness
Whatever else will happen in the evolution of basketball down the lane, the game will probably become quicker and quicker. Hence players must also become quicker – not just physically but also tactically and technically quicker. We should e.g. critically assess every single technique we teach: Is there a quicker way to do this?

3) Specificity
The higher the level of play, the more important it becomes to realize what a player’s future position will be, what the skill requirements will be at that position, and what he will need to do to excel at the required skills.

There have been arguments that in the future, positions will disappear – that all players will be interchangeable. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Here are some comments on the subject.

The next time around I’ll discuss how these predictions, if taken seriously, should affect training at… let’s say #3 position.

Blog: Would You Like to Shoot a Medicine Ball at a 4-meter High Basket – Or Why Children’s Basketball Equipment Needs Modification

At least here in Finland, a lot of basketball people seem emotionally attached to the mini basketball equipment. They seem to think a size 5 ball and a 260cm basket are the “right” equipment for all Under-12 age groups. People often get upset, even angry, should someone suggest using other types of baskets and balls.

What I think we should have is an open discussion about basket height, ball size and other rules in all U12 age groups. The discussion should not be about what is “right” – e.g. what we adults are used to – but about how to best enhance children’s enjoyment, motivation and motor learning.

What I have here is calculations concerning the Finnish boys’ average size at different ages in relation to the basket height, ball size and ball weight. These calculations do not tell us exactly what should be done, but they do provide a basis for an intelligent discussion.

It is quite obvious, though, that some modification definitely need to be made. For starters, consider this:

For an average 6-year-old boy, shooting a mini basketball at a mini basket is like it is for an average a 20-year-old to shoot a 1486g ball with a circumference of 113cm at a 400cm basket.

For the calculations, see this PDF file:

Relative basket height, ball size and ball weight in youth basketball

Blog: What Should Collectivistic Player Development Be Like?

If the good of the team is all that matters, what then separates Collectivistic Youth Basketball (CYB) from Peak by Friday basketball (PFB)? Charlie kind of brought up this point of view in a comment to a blog of mine.

Recently I’ve written about basketball being essentially a collectivistic sport. CYB in a nutshell is: a player’s goal should not be to play well but to help his team succeed optimally.

On the other hand, Brian McCormick has written about PFB: “Winning now is the only thing that matters, and often this stunts the development of players who need time and space to explore, make mistakes and learn.”

Yep, CYB is right and good and PFB is wrong and bad. But they look awfully alike, don’t they? What’s the difference then?

Here are some thoughts on the dilemma.

1) In CYB, the strategy should be to even the odds, so that kids will achieve success in a somewhat even fashion. In PFB this is not done.

2) The odds may be evened in e.g. these ways:
* Constantly change the rosters. In tournaments have players from different clubs play on the same team.
* Use different equipment and rules that favour different types of kids and enhance motor learning. Use ball of different sizes.
* Modify rules so that they keep the final scores close and grow the role of chance. Instead of one game of four seven-minute quarters, have four short games of 7 minutes and change the line-ups between each game.

3) Sometimes in youth sports it is claimed that the main focus is on developing the individuals, not on the good of the team. But what if that attitude actually harms player development? Doesn’t it dismiss the main skill for a player to develop – the skill to co-operate and interact with his teammates for the common good?

4) There are ways to measure the individual impact, too, if need be. Say you run a tournament with short games and constantly changing line-ups. Or you can do this in a team practice. You can keep score on which players’ teams win the most games. This could something to consider e.g. when running a try-out camp.

5) Maybe all other individual statistics but wins should be initially ignored? Maybe collective stats should rather be used as the basis for selecting fields of improvement? Maybe praising players based on their stats (mainly scoring) makes them view them incorrectly, i.e. as an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

6) In CYB the coach does not change the practice schedule or content in order to succeed in the next game. In PFB that is done, as “Peak by Friday” implies.

7) To complement CYB training, it might be a good idea to have individual workouts with one to four players per one coach.

8) The fact that most people will not engage in competitive sports as adults does not mean that they should not do so as kids, as some claim. Isn’t it rather the other way around? Since it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most kids, shouldn’t they be constantly given chances to win all kinds of championships?

9) In order to optimize chances of winning, players need to specialize, i.e. play a certain position. As shown, players of certain size will most probably play certain positions and need certain skills. Yet to optimize improvement in the future, players need good overall general skills. How should a coach solve this problem of specialization and general skills?

10) One suggestion is playing 3-on-3. Relatively more players will have a chance to handle the ball, and the cognitive load is lighter than when playing 5-on-5. Yet all the basic element of the game are there.