Games are important. We play basketball to play basketball, not to train to play basketball. Initially, games serve as the best method for introducing numerous skills and concepts. If one tried to teach novice players everything about basketball before allowing them to play, nobody would play the game because most people would quit before they learned half of basketball’s rules, concepts, strategies, techniques and tactics. By playing, players learn the rules, skills and strategies through a trial and error process that is refined through coaching and experience.
If playing is the best way to learn, why is it not the best way to improve one’s skills? Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson wrote that it takes approximately 40 hours to play a game at an acceptable level. That is more or less one youth season. After this period, playing the game has minimal effect on skill development. As players play, they gain experience which improves their game in some aspects, from decision-making to anticipation, but improving specific skills requires deliberate practice.
A competitive game does not offer enough repetitions to improve. More importantly, players perform skills automatically during games. Deliberate practice, a necessary requirement to improve one’s skill level, requires concentration. During games, players perform skills at an unconscious level; however, improvement requires altering the performance at a conscious level.
To improve a player’s ball handling, playing against quick defenders in a game is good, but due to performance pressure, the player sticks with his or her best skills. If he or she is not an adept ball handler, he or she finds the easiest way to handle the defensive pressure. For some, this means passing and allowing another player to handle the pressure. This may be the smart play, but it avoids the problem. The player does not improve by passing. Some players handle the ball defensively: they turn their backs or their shoulders and back the ball down the court. Again, while preventing a steal, this does not improve the player’s handle.
Instead, players must improve their ball control and the quickness of their moves. They need to practice against defenders in a learning-oriented environment devoid of performance pressure in order to use new skills, not the path of least resistance, and make mistakes without consequence.
Many coaches preach perfect practice; they do not want mistakes. However, without mistakes, nobody improves. If players only do what they can do, where is the improvement? They get better at doing the same thing the same way. If I only work on basic arithmetic, I improve my ability to add and subtract, but what happens when I need to multiply or divide?
Improvement occurs during practice when players attack a specific skill with concentration and immediate feedback. However, why does practice fail so often?
Practices fail to improve player’s skills because there is the absence of a specific goal, immediate feedback and/or player concentration. With enough repetitions, there is marginal improvement. A poor free throw shooter improves from 60% to 63% if he practices enough. However, 63% is still terrible and when one operates with 40% error, a 3% increase is insignificant.
In practice, most coaches rely on drills. If players need to improve their shooting, they do more shooting drills, which works to a small degree, as something is better than nothing. However, drills are tools, much like the exercises used by a teacher. Good teachers do not rely on exercises to teach; they instruct and offer feedback.
When I was a college assistant, we did shooting drills every practice. We had some good shooters and some bad shooters, and everyone stayed pretty much the same, except one player. The one player worked out every day for an hour. He videotaped himself shooting and studied the tapes. He had a specific goal (improve his shooting technique); he had immediate feedback (me); and he concentrated on the objective (studied video, tracked every shot and kept a journal).
Practice drills lacked these elements. Group shooting drills were not designed to help a specific player and there was not enough time to give each player specific feedback. Often, the coaches huddled while the players finished a shooting drill, eliminating all feedback. Players lacked sufficient concentration to make daily improvements on their shooting techniques.
For a drill to have its intended effect, the goal must be clear and specific. In my workouts, I alert players to the goal. Some players need improved footwork, while others need to hold their follow-through. Without a goal, shooting drills maintain, they do not improve. Players must concentrate on the task. If players’ minds wander, they lack the attention necessary to concentrate on the specific objective; without the concentration, players work on auto-pilot, maintaining the same flaws. The coach must provide feedback so players feel the difference between a correct repetition and an incorrect repetition; players must learn the difference so they can self-correct and provide their own feedback based on the shot’s feel.
Practice makes permanent. Shooting drills done without a specific task, immediate feedback or player concentration ingrain the current shooting habits. Getting better at shooting poorly is not the goal, but it is often the manner in which we practice. To alter or change performance and habits, players must train at a conscious level to override the automatic skills. They need to re-train new habits and correct shooting mechanics, which takes effort and concentration.
Players and coaches cite practice duration to validate their work ethic or dedication. However, duration is unimportant; most players spend approximately the same amount of time engaged in basketball activities. Why do some improve more than others? Ericsson suggests the difference between expert performers and others with similar opportunities and talents is deliberate practice: expert performers engage in more deliberate practice, though overall time is relatively equal. While most players spend the off-season playing six games per weekend, the expert performer works on his skills with a dedicated effort and mental focus on his specific task. Improving basketball skills is like the old adage: “Work smarter, not harder.” Work ethic is part of the equation; however, the difference is how the work is directed.