Coach, Why Do We Practice This?

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.

Specificity of Learning and Power Law

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.

Defining Basketball Practice

Before we go any further, we should define what basketball practice means. 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.

Game-likeness vs. the Number of Repetitions

Given the specificity of learning principle and the power law, 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. 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.

A Definition of Basketball

I started this blog 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.

So far 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.

What Follows From the Definition

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.

Tactics, Techniques, and Physical Capabilities

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. Seen from another point of view, this speaks about the importance of technical and physical preparation in a long run.

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 so, 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.

Enhancing Transference

This 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 next 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 above. 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.

Why Coaching Stays the Same

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.

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.

What Coach Should Not Do

So far 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.

We need to review critically the methods we use. It is necessary to question their underlying assumptions. Otherwise we will keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

This is a list of dubious characteristics that drills may have. The list is based on the earlier entries of this blog series but it is written from a contrary point of view. So, instead of discussing what we should practice, we are now discussing what we should not practice.

I’m not saying that these characteristics make drills harmful. In fact, these types of drills have been used for ages and they will probably help your players improve . For example, players do enhance their dribbling skills by dribbling around cones.

Rather, what I’m saying is that these characteristics are warning signs. They tell you that the drills probably are not optimally designed – that learning could be enhanced by modifying the drill.

1) Do not put cones on the floor. It hinders players’ perception-action coupling. That’s because when players dribble around cones, they must look down. The incentive is all wrong because while dribbling, the player had better look up. You should have something taller for players to dribble around – like human beings or chairs. Exception: when necessary, you can use cones to mark the sideline and baseline. That’s quite game-like.

2) Do not isolate technical skills. Shooting, passing, and dribbling should be worked on together. For example, in a dribbling-oriented the passer should have an option to pass and shoot.

3) Do not break the rules. Coaches may have players e.g. jump side to side with the basketball in their hands and then take a shot. Do not do this. Yes, it does add to the variability of shooting practice, and yes, variability is a good thing. But it is also something that players eventually need to unlearn. You are better off using the numerous methods that comply with the traveling rules, as well as other rules of the game

4) Do not play without naming offense and defense. Meaning, do not run drills where whoever gets the loose ball, will attack towards a certain basket. Often a coach will e.g. take a shot, two players fight for the rebound, and whoever gets the ball, he will try to score at the same basket. Don’t do this because it’s not game-like. A requisite for the proper perception-action coupling is that while you go for a rebound, you know whether you’re on defense or offense.

5) Do not run static drills. Often players stand in one place for extended periods of time and dribble, pass, or shoot. Why? There’s no reason why. It’s not game-like.

6) Do not run drills that require ad hoc, non-game-like techniques. Often when doing the one-handed shooting drill, the player will start with the palm up in front of his chest and the ball on the palm. (See the beginning of the video above.) Then he twists the wrist around in order to get the ball to above his head while keeping the palm under the ball. This twist is the key to shooting the one-handed shot fluently and also quite difficult to master. But most importantly, it is a useless, non-game-like skill.

7) Do not run complicated drills. Drills should be kept as simple as possible so that you do not unnecessarily overload players’ working memory.  In other words, they should be allowed to pay full attention to the complex  basketball situations that arise. That is instead of trying to figure out where they should be going next because of the complicated structure of this very drill.

8) Do not run many different drills. That is because teaching players new drills takes valuable practice time and puts a load their working memory. So in order to teach new things and to add variability, rather variate your old drills than add new ones.

Practical Consequences

Now, what happens to your practices if you follow the line of thinking tentatively established above? The exact practice content will depend on the circumstances, but the line will lead into a certain direction. In one word, I’d say that this line of thinking will make the practices plain.

There is nothing fancy, no gimmicks. Everything is game-like. On paper, the plan looks quite traditional but the trick is in details and in what is not done.

In coach learning and education, one of the recurring surprises is how differently coaches transfer theoretical contemplations into practice. Coaches who agree at a theoretical level may run very different practices. The opposite is true, too: quite different underlying assumptions may lead to quite similar practices.

As an example, here’s a real-life practice plan of mine. It’s an hour long session for a group of players between the ages of 13 and 16 – not a team but a group that does extra practice once a week.

Three Closing Remarks

Looking back on the previous blog above, I think there were three key points missing. They are critical regarding the practical value of these musings.

1) The progression is derived from the game. 

To start a season, Coach does not need a detailed plan on how the basketball-specific training progresses. Rather the practices are kept as game-like as possible. This is the procedure:

  • At the very first practice, the team scrimmages.
  • Coach determines which tactical and technical skills need to emphasized and worked on.
  • These tactical and technical skills are emphasized and worked on.
  • The team scrimmages and tries to implement the improvements
  • Coach determines which tactical and technical skills need to emphasized and worked on next.
  • And so on, day after day after day.

2) Intensity is the key to the game-likeness of the practices.

Practices do not become game-like simply by having players scrimmage. Because games are intense, the scrimmages must be intense, too. Otherwise they will not prepare players for competition. Otherwise the scrimmages will not show what the team needs to work on.

If there is one key ingredient to the effectiveness of the practices, it is the intensity of scrimmages. Simply put, if your players play hard at practices every single day, they can not help but improve.

3) Head coach is the key to the intensity of the practices.

This all may make coaching sound simple. But that is a misunderstanding. On the contrary, this approach makes Coach’s workmanship all the more valuable.

That is because it is difficult to maintain the intensity – practice after practice after practice. The head coach has the responsibility. He draws the line between what is acceptable on this team and what is not.

Also, it is difficult to determine what skills the team should work on next. Regarding this, Coach must make speculative and subjective decisions. Those decisions are based not only on scrimmaging but also on how Coach sees e.g. the team’s future opponents and the team’s chances against them.


13 thoughts on “Coach, Why Do We Practice This?

  1. Great post, Harri. I’d add that the next step is to talk abput small-sided games, where player’s can get more touches and specific situations set up to work on tactical skills, such as running the dribble hand-off, or executing the 2-on-1 fast break

  2. Pingback: Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 2) | Coach Harri Mannonen

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  7. Pingback: Coach, Why Do We Practice This? (Part 7) | Coach Harri Mannonen

  8. Pingback: Please, No Cones on the Floor (Coach, Why Do We Practice This – Part 8) | Coach Harri Mannonen

  9. Pingback: Theory Into Practice (Coach, Why Do We Practice This – Part 9) | Coach Harri Mannonen

  10. Pingback: On Progression and Intensity (Coach, Why Do We Practice This – Part 10/10) | Coach Harri Mannonen

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