In Basketball, It’s Basketball Coaches Who Should Coach Strength & Conditioning

It’s an age of specialisation, in good and in bad. For example, basketball strength & conditioning is run by specialist S&C coaches – not by basketball coaches.

Because of this specialisation, things have been turned upside down. The goal of S&C should improving the basketball performance. But often this is not the case. Rather, the goal of specialist S&C coaches is to improve the S&C test results.

The specialists are not the ones to be blamed for this distortion. They’re doing their jobthe best that they can.

Basketball coaches should take the blame since they’re the ones to assess the S&C coaches’ work based on the players’ test results.

In any case, it’s time we as basketball coaches things back into our hands.

We’ve been led astray by S&C coaches, by their use of technical S&C language and attention to mundane details of weight lifting that do not affect the transference at all.

S&C coaches want to defend their turf and basketball coaches have taken their bait.

This is bad because S&C coaches’ understanding of S&C’s transference to basketball performance tends to be hollow. Just ask them to explain it in detail.

Unfortunately, basketball coaches’ understanding of the transference tends to be just as hollow.

Current thinking goes something like this:

  1. Vertical jumping ability correlates with the quality of basketball performance.
  2. The back squat 1-repetition maximum correlates with VJ.
  3. To improve VJ, S&C coach sets out to improve players back squat and squat jump.
  4. To measure the success of S&C training, we measure squat 1RM and squat jump without arm swing.

This linear train of thought is deceptive. Even though the correlations mentioned are valid, squat jump and back squat are never used in basketball games. So, they are not important per se.

Rather, it’s the lower body power in general that’s important. That power underlies a multitude of basketball techniques – sprinting back on defense, defensive footwork, jumping for a rebound, and so.

From this viewpoint it’s absurd to discuss whether back squat or front squat is the better exercise for basketball.

It’s clear that we should do a lot of other different squat and lunge exercises. That is to improve general, comprehensive lower-body power.

Traditionally S&C training is linear and uses a limited range of exercises as prescribed for 4 to 8 weeks. That’s not going to optimally prepare players for complex game situations where they need to execute unpredictable movement patterns.

Think about it this way: would any basketball coach program his basketball practices like that? Run the same prescribed drills in the same order for the same amount of time in every practice for 4 to 8 weeks?

Of course not. Just as well, neither should an S&C coach.

To improve the state of affairs, I think we should stop hiring specialist S&C coaches without basketball background.

Rather we should have basketball assistant coaches take responsibility for the team’s S&C training. It takes basketball coaches less time to learn enough S&C than it takes S&C coaches to learn enough basketball.

That’s because transference to basketball performance is the key feature of S&C training. Actually, it’s the only feature.

Positivistic Basketball Coaching Paradigm 

When I first posted the ideas presented above, I got some feedback.

On the average, S&C coaches disagreed with me intensely. That was not a surprise but rather an indication of what I am writing about: without basketball background, it’s hard for them to see even what the problem might be.

A lot basketball coaches seemed to recognise the problem immediately.

Then, why do teams, clubs and schools keep recruiting S&C coaches with no basketball expertise whatsoever?

The dominant paradigm in basketball coaching is the positivistic paradigm. You can also call it reductionistic, Tayloristic, behavioristic, analytic, scientistic, mechanistic.

See the table below for for a list of the paradigm’s underlying assumptions, their applications to the basketball context and examples of the applications.

Underlying assumptionAssumption applied to the basketball contextExample of the assumption applied
Theories are universal. The same principles “can describe human behavior and phenomena across individuals and settings”.There is an optimal technique for each task in basketball, and every player should use the similar technique.“The thumb of the shooting hand should be spread to about a 60-degree angle to index finger.”
Emphasis is put “on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels of performance.”Basketball is best learned in a linear fashion – gradually and systematically moving upwards in the hierarchy of skills, from simple to more complicated ones.“The crucial part of the game is to “present a systematized method by which maximal skill development may take place in the game of basketball.”
The functioning of a system can be explained and predicted through the functioning of its parts.The effectiveness of a player correlates linearly with her relevant anthropometric and physical characteristics.“His strength is in his shooting touch, but as he builds muscle, [Lauri] Markkanen will be nearly unstoppable to defend – – -.”
There are absolute laws in human sciences, like there are in natural sciences.There are optimal tactical decisions that always benefit a basketball team.“Teams have realized that they can improve their offense by simply changing their shot selection. Take more threes and score more points.”
To make learning more efficient, skills are broken down into simpler skills.Jump shooting in games can be improved through improving jump shooting without defense in practices.“You can practice and improve your shooting by yourself, but it takes patience and dedication. Once you understand the mechanics, you will only need a ball and a basket,”

Given the positivistic coaching paradigm, you’ll assume that the professional skills of an S&C coach are generally applicable.

That the skills can be effectively utilised in any context – any sport, any level, any age group, and so.

That in order to be an effective basketball S&C coach, you don’t need to be a basketball expert.

For a lot of people, this is a convenient conclusion, for different reasons.

  1. S&C coaches are provided with a wide range of employment opportunities.
  2. For the management, a certified S&C coach looks like a legitimate, sure-fire hire.
  3. The basketball coaches have some workload taken off their shoulders.

The positivistic basketball coaching paradigm is so predominant that it’s seldom questioned, or even explicitly acknowledged. All those involved may very well believe they’re doing the right thing.

The Goal of S&C Is to Improve the Tactical Dimension

In the positivistic coaching paradigm, it is assumed that the functioning of a system can be explained and predicted through the functioning of its parts. Or that the functioning of a team can be explained through the functioning of its players alone.

However, a team is complex system, and in such systems there is also top-down causation. The functioning of a player is affected through the functioning of the team.

Also, the interaction between the autonomous parts of a complex system produces emergence. Thus you can’t know in advance how players will play together.

Another key theory of the complex coaching paradigm is the mediation model presented below. [Modified from Delgado-Bordonau and Mendez-Villanueva 2012]  It shows how different dimension of a player’s skills and capabilities are interconnected.

So, a player’s technical skills are the foundation of her tactical skills.  She can only execute tactical manoeuvres her technical skills allow.

Parallelly, her physical capabilities are the foundation of her technical skills. She can only execute technical acts that her physical capabilities allow.

This implies that technical skills and physical capabilities are not important per se, but only for as long as they transfer to the tactical dimension.

That’s why the transference isn’t everything – it’s the only thing. And that’s why an S&C coach’s job is not to improve to the physical dimension.

Rather, it’s to enhance the tactical dimension by making sure that physical dimension serves optimally as the foundation for the technical dimension that serves optimally as the foundation for the tactical dimension.

How can a coach learn to do this job effectively?

It is best to start by being a basketball coach. Or by first attending to the most directly relevant dimensions – the tactical, technical, and mental ones.

From this point of view, the coach should then look into how the physical dimension is connected to the other dimensions. Even if she focuses on the physical dimension of basketball, she remains a basketball coach – or what she wanted to be in the first place.

The other option would be to start out as a specialist S&C coach and gradually become a basketball coach. The problem with this is that specialist S&C coaches are first and foremost interested in S&C coaching – not in basketball.

To become effective basketball coaches they should learn to understand the other three dimensions as well. To do that, they should reverse their initial point of view. They should become something they didn’t set out to be in the first place.

Integration and Other Implications

So, the whole coaching team of a basketball team should consist of basketball coaches. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it does, because of the prevalence of the positivistic coaching paradigm.

What else did the discussion above imply? Some remarks here.

  1. Physical training should be integrated and intertwined with other types of training. It’s all basketball training, so physical training shouldn’t be separated from other training temporally or spatially.
  2. When a training facility is renovated or built, this integration should be considered. It’s hard to optimally integrate training if there’s no weight-lifting room in the building.
  3. The goal of physical training is to enhance the basketball performance. So, the quality of physical training can’t be assessed through physical testing. It’s harmful if improving the test results becomes an end in itself – and it easily does.
  4. On the other hand, some physical testing is beneficial. Physical capabilities are important in basketball, and they must reach certain levels.
  5. Points 3 and 4 form a paradox that we can’t get rid of. We must deal with.
  6. Basketball coaches must have an understanding of all dimension of the mediation models – including the physical capabilities. Otherwise they are unable to optimally enhance the transference of physical training towards the collective tactical skills.
  7. The training process should be run by basketball coaches. That’s because the primary goal of training is to enhance the collective tactical skills. When it comes to the other dimensions, the transference towards the tactical skills is the only thing.
  8. This approach should considered in all levels of basketball coach education.
  9. To improve the team’s training process, basketball coaches may consult S&C coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists, and so.
  10. Sometimes players need direct help from certified professionals: physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists.
  11. Basketball coaches must have a clear understanding of what falls within the scope of the basketball training process we are qualified to handle. Outside that process, we don’t have authority or competence. Most of us are not physicians and so.

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