What’s the difference between the best players at any level and those who aren’t quite as good? The ability to play the game at different speeds. At my last practice with both our boys 5th grade and girls 7th grade AAU teams we did a drill where the players were asked to start dribbling from a standstill, accelerate quickly for 2-3 dribbles over a 10 foot distance, then slow down to a walk while dribbling for 10 more feet, and finally execute a quick crossover dribble and accelerate at full speed for 2-3 more dribbles into a jump shot. What do you think happened?
Almost every player struggled to execute the drill properly. Which part was the hardest for them? The walking! They would go fast at the start just as the drill called for, but then the players would only slow down ever so slightly to a fast jog instead of walking. It took multiple stoppages of the drill and continued demonstrations of what they should be doing before they started really walking and dribbling slowly. Why is slowing down so hard for young players? Most young players truly believe that they must be going full speed at all times in order to beat their defender. What they don’t understand is that it is not top-end 40 yard dash speed that enables an offensive player to get free, rather it is the ability to deceive and change pace that truly separates great players from lesser ones.
If you ever have a chance watch an NBA game in person relatively close to the court you’ll be struck by two things. First, before the action starts. it’s the sheer size of the players. They are huge human beings, most of them with athletic gifts most of us can only dream about. Once the game begins you’ll notice that for huge portions of the game individual players are not moving very fast at all. Players are constantly changing speeds both with and without the ball. They walk one way and then suddenly burst out off a pin down screen. The dribbler comes off a screen and roll with a nice, slow hesitation dribble and then all of the sudden they attack the rim at full speed for one or two dribbles. NBA players understand that is the change of speeds that gets you open, not the speed itself. (Of course having top end speed helps too!)
Conversely, watch any youth basketball game and you’ll see players running, dribbling, and driving while rarely changing pace. Everything is done at peak speed resulting in players that are out of control. The best players in youth basketball are those that have begun to understand that you can’t just play at a high rpm all the time. You have to dial it back, set the defense up, get them thinking one thing, while getting ready to do something else.
Great players often describe how they felt during a great game by saying that “the game just slowed down for me.” I’m betting that not only did the game slow down for them, but they also slowed down during the game.
How can you improve your ability to control your own pace? Coaches should use drills that require players to slow down or speed up or both. If you are a player spend time working on playing at different speeds and be conscious of the speed you are playing at during games or drills. Self-awareness can help you understand when you need to slow down, speed up, and manage your speed. Look for opportunities to use a burst a speed after a slower movement. Work on going fast and then coming to a stop or slowing way down (think James Harden, who has world class deceleration). Improving the ability to control your pace is critical to the development of any basketball player. Slow down!!
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