Basketball on the Edge – Player Development (How to Deal with a Lack of Skill)

Last week I wrote about how allowing players to play through their mistakes can help build more confidence and aid in player development. In today’s article I’ll put forth another a second player development idea that coaches at all levels can implement immediately.

Coaches at all levels of basketball frequently use some form of “punishment” when players don’t execute a particular skill correctly. For example, players are practicing their free throws and they have to run a sprint for every missed shot. Is the player trying to miss their free throws? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. Their misses were not from a lack of effort. Maybe at older ages it could be lack of concentration, but mostly it is a lack of skill that prevents players from making free throws.

When a coach has players run in a situation like this what is really happening? Players are being punished for their lack of skill. Players who need more practice shooting free throws get less time because they are running instead of shooting. Coaches should strive to get players more reps, not less, with weaker skills or new skills they are just learning. Players may get more nervous knowing that a miss means they have to run. They may concentrate more on the potential punishment rather than on the free throw itself. Doing one thing to try and avoid something else is not a formula for success.

There was a free throw shooting drill we did in college where you had to swish five free throws before you could leave practice. If you didn’t make 5 swishes within the time limit you had to get up early the next day and shoot 100 free throws. I would try so hard to be perfect (a swish) that my shot mechanics suffered as did my mental approach to free throws. This drill caused me to become a worse, less confident free throw shooter for about half a season. I never understood why a swish was better than any other made shot. The need to be “perfect” (a swish) rather than just successful (a made shot) never made sense to me. By trying to swish every free throw in order to avoid the punishment I started aiming the ball rather than letting my muscle memory take over as it had for so long. I became discouraged even when I made a shot and it wasn’t a swish. My mistakes (misses or made shots that weren’t swishes) made it hard for me to perform at my best because I was worried about the punishment. Whatever my coach was trying to accomplish in that drill backfired with me.

Does having players run because they cannot make a layup suddenly transform their ability to make layups? Wouldn’t it be better for the coach to offer players more opportunity to practice layups or more instruction on how to shoot a layup correctly? More instruction and more reps seems like a better formula for improving the skill than some “punishment.”

It is especially important at the youth level to remember not to punish players for a lack of skill. As I have written about before, making mistakes is critical to the learning process. In order to learn a new skill, players must be given the opportunity to try the skill without fear that there will be a punishment for failure. On my fourth grade boys basketball team we are constantly encouraging our players to shoot their layups with their weak hand. We do it in practice, we do it in warm-ups, we do it in games. We say, “Great job shooting that one with your left hand,” even if the ball doesn’t go in the basket. How else are the players ever going to develop their weak hand layup? In three years they will all be so much better off for having missed a ton of layups in fourth grade practices. Those mistakes will eventually lead to an improved ability to make weak hand layups as the players get older.

What coaches should hold players accountable for is a lack of effort. If a player doesn’t run the floor hard in a game or is loafing through a drill by all means there should be a consequence for that. As I wrote last week, that doesn’t mean coaches should have a quick hook for every mistake, but it does mean players should know that lack of skill is ok (as long as they are working to get better), but a lack of effort is not acceptable.

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