I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the optimal way for a basketball team or individual basketball player to practice. The key question that needs to be answered is, when we practice, what are we trying to accomplish and what type of practice helps us best reach that goal?
In any practice setting we are ultimately looking for a concept known as “transfer”. Transfer refers to how well the learning we have done in practice improves our performance in games. In other words, does what we are practicing actually make us better in games or are we just getting better at the “drills”.
Motor learning scientists describe two types of practice, block and random. If you attend a practice at any level of basketball you are likely to see both types of practice in action. Block practice is the more traditional approach to practice that involves getting a high number of repetitions that repeat the exact same movement over and over again. An example of block practice would be shooting ten lay-ups in a row dribbling in from the right wing. Random practice requires a player to read, react and make decisions on every rep. The player will never do the exact same thing twice. An example of random practice would be driving ten times to the basket against a defensive player.
Let’s think about the pros and cons for each type of practice and how to incorporate them into a team practice or individual basketball workout.
There is no doubt in my mind that block practice helps youth basketball players learn the basic fundamentals of the game. If you throw a kid out on the court that has never touched a basketball before, they will struggle. Block practice helps build a fundamental base for each player by providing them the opportunity to work on basic skills in isolation without the worry of reacting to a defender or teammates. The less experienced the player, the more block practice is needed. Repeating a skill builds fluency enabling the player to eventually attempt their new skills in game settings. As players become more skilled, the amount of block practice can and should be reduced, but not completely eliminated. Block practice remains a core piece of my individual basketball workouts to help players warm up and focus on proper shooting form which is more difficult to do in a random practice environment. That being said, I still try to incorporate some randomness into these types of drills by varying the shot locations and approach direction.
The obvious drawback to block practice is that actual games are not played in blocks. No one gets to shoot one right handed layup at the perfect angle with no defenders at a pace they are comfortable with, let alone ten in a row. It just doesn’t happen that way. Players have to react to their environment in a game. Where are the defenders? Where are their teammates? Should they take this lay-up or pass the ball? Once basic skills have been acquired the success or failure of a player largely depends on their ability to make decisions and execute those decisions under game conditions. Block practice will not help a player with their deficiencies in decision making. Block practice will not improve a player’s basketball IQ.
Random practice helps players improve their ability to execute in games and their decision making. By varying the environment in which a player has to execute a particular skill, true learning and transfer are increased. How does random practice look in an individual workout? A player shoots from different spots on the floor, executes a different move, or finishes the play in different way. The variance makes the workout more like the game. A team setting is where the value of random practice can truly be unlocked. By creating situations in which the coach “shapes” the beginning of the drill, key skills can be worked on within a game-like structure. Small sided games that start with a particular action (say a backscreen on a wing player) can allow coaches to place an emphasis on that particular scenario within the “game” setting. This requires players to execute the skill while playing the game rather than in isolation.
Random practice does not look as organized or structured as block practice. Players will make lots of mistakes. Many coaches are averse to random practice for these very reasons, but mistakes lead players to adapt, adjust, and ultimately improve. It is also more difficult to assess progress because the transfer will not show up until later when the player uses the newly learned skill in a game. However, it has been found that the variability of the practice leads to the player being able to better transfer the skill to a game.
In short, both block and random practice have their place when it comes to player development. Using each type of practice in the proper context will lead to optimal learning and transfer to game performance for players.
If you want to take a deeper dive into Block vs. Random practice check out this video from Train Ugly.