This is the eighth installment of the video series that I filmed for the Positive Coaching Alliance as part of PCA’s Conversation with the Cavs Event. In the video you’ll hear me talk about why a win at all cost approach limits skill development in youth basketball. Topics discussed include: Zone defenses, set plays, small sided games, and many parents’ desire to have their child play on a “winning” team vs. a team focused on skill development
Here are some tips that will help you to improve your basketball skill set during team practices, individual skill training sessions, and games.
If you are “good” at a skill chances are that means you can perform it in isolation during a drill. You might be able to make ten left-handed layups in a row during a layup line drill as a fourth grader. That’s a good start, however to truly master the left handed layup you need to be able to make them in games after beating your man off the dribble and adjusting the shot in the air when the help defender gets in your way. Your ability to execute the skill must become automatic under dynamic, ever-changing conditions. There are a lot of variables during a game (defenders, teammates, score, time) that will require your attention. When you can execute a skill automatically without thinking about it you will have an advantage because you can better focus in on the in-game variables rather than the skill. The bottom line for improvement is this, don’t be satisfied being “good” at something, strive to master it so it becomes automatic and you can execute the skill under any circumstances.
Why is this true? It goes back to the concept from tip #1. If a player has to concentrate on the skill of dribbling the basketball down the court there is no way they can process everything else that is going on out on the court. They won’t see their teammate breaking open under the basket, they won’t know how their defender is guarding them, they won’t be able to see that their teammate is about to screen for them. Too much mental energy is being expended on just dribbling the ball without losing it. A player who is a great dribbler is freed up to focus on the other variables in the game, allowing them to better “see” the game. Players with the best overall skill sets are usually the ones with the highest basketball IQ.
Sure you may be able to execute a crossover-behind-the-back double move during a practice session with no defense in front of you, but you struggle to execute a hard, low, wide crossover against a defender. Why are you working on three pointers when you can’t make 8 out of ten 15 footers with no one guarding you? The point is, focus on the core skills before you add the fancy, more advanced skills. I spend the first 15-20 minutes of every training session working on form shooting and footwork regardless of the age or skill level of the player. This is a great way to keep the focus on core skills that are the foundation of more advanced techniques. This leads directly into the next tip.
Nothing frustrates the coach in me more than watching players tie their shoes, head out onto the court and start jacking up three pointers that have no chance of going in. Start right under the basket focused on form shooting. You’ll build good technique (by practicing the right way), and you’ll build confidence (by seeing the ball go in the basket). Check out these videos to see the series of form shooting drills I use with my players.
You can’t improve what you don’t measure. It’s difficult to determine how much better you are when you don’t record your data from a training session, practice, or game. It may not be possible to get stats from every practice or game, especially if you are a younger player, but you can definitely record the results of your training, even if you only do it once a month or even once every three months. By knowing those numbers you’ll be able to analyze whether your current training regime is working. If it’s not, you can figure out what changes you need to make to improve the effectiveness of your training. If you have access to game stats, even better. That way you’ll be able to tell whether your skill development is transferring to game situations. Ultimately, game performance is what really matters.
You should know what you want to work on before you even step out onto the court. I see way too many players go through the motions when they could actually be working on their game. Just like a teacher or coach writes a lesson/practice plan you should too. Know what you want to work on and then use drills that work on that skill. Leave improvement to chance and chances are you won’t improve.
If you are afraid of feedback or don’t want to be criticized constructively, you don’t really want to be great. The only way to learn is understand what you are doing well and where you are making mistakes. That feedback could come from a coach or even better a self-analysis. Mistakes should be corrected immediately. 10 minutes from now you won’t remember what you did or how it felt. Correct the mistake when it happens and you’ll get results. Rewatch this Steph Curry video to hear Alan Stein talk about the first time he saw Steph and how his desire to correct mistakes stood out even among other great players.
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You may have never heard of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), but if you are the parent of a child that participates in youth sports you should begin to make yourself familiar with the concept of LTAD. LTAD is a model created by Dr. Istvan Balyi to guide the athletic development process from age 6 through retirement from the player’s chosen sport. The LTAD approach emphasizes age-appropriate skill development to maximize the athlete’s potential and builds progressively throughout a player’s career increasing the level of detailed coaching and instruction as the athlete reaches the next level of the model. We know that individual children progress through different developmental stages at different rates; the LTAD model makes the connection between athletic development and those developmental stages that all children go through.
Read through the stages of LTAD as described in this excerpt from Long-Term Athlete Development by Istvan Balyi, Richard Way, and Colin Higgs. Following the excerpt I’ll share my thoughts on ways the current youth basketball environment is falling short when it comes to LTAD.
To implement the LTAD model, people must fully understand the seven stages. Administrators, coaches, and parents should also remember that moving from one stage to another is based on the athlete’s development and not just chronological age; however, chronological age can be used as a guide. Some stages also identify a developmental age. For example, the beginning of the growth spurt identifies a specific developmental age, which occurs at widely varying chronological ages. Males and females develop at different rates, and their ages differ through the stages. LTAD, therefore, requires the identification of early, average, and late maturers to design training and competition programs that match athletes’ trainability and readiness.
Until age 6, it is all about play and mastering basic movement skills! Children should be able to have fun with physical activity through both structured and unstructured free play that incorporates a variety of body movements. An early active start enhances the development of brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotions, and imagination. It also helps children build confidence, develop posture and balance, build strong bones and muscles, achieve a healthy weight, reduce stress, sleep well, move skillfully, and enjoy being active.
From ages 6 to 9 in boys and 6 to 8 in girls, children should participate in a variety of well-structured activities that develop fundamental movement skills and overall motor skills including agility, balance, and coordination. However, activities and programs must maintain a focus on fun, and formal competition should be only minimally introduced.
From ages 8 to 11 in girls and 9 to 12 in boys, or until the onset of the growth spurt, children are ready to begin developing foundational sport skills. The emphasis should be on acquiring a wide range of skills necessary for a number of sporting activities. Although it is often tempting to overdevelop “talent” at this age through excessive single-sport training and competition (as well as early positioning in team sports), this can have a negative effect on later stages of development if the child pursues a late specialization sport. This early specialization promotes one-sided physical, technical, and tactical development and increases the likelihood of injury and burnout.
The ages that define this stage for boys and girls are based on the onset and duration of the growth spurt, which is generally from ages 11 to 15 for girls and 12 to 16 for boys. This is the stage at which people are physiologically responsive to stimuli and training; in other words, the time to start “building the engine” and exploiting the sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training (see chapter 6). Children should establish an aerobic base, develop speed and strength toward the end of the stage, and further consolidate their basic sport-specific skills and tactics. These youths may play and do their best to win, but they still need to spend more time on skill training and physical development and less on trying to win (process vs. outcome). Concentrating on the process as opposed to the result of a competition leads to better development. This approach is critical to developing top performers and maintaining activity in the long term, so parents should check with their national organizations to ensure that their children’s programs have the correct training-to-competition ratio.
This stage is about optimizing the engine and teaching participants how to compete. They can either choose to specialize in one sport and pursue a competitive stream, or continue participating at a recreational level and thereby enter the Active for Life stage. In the competitive stream, high-volume and high-intensity training begins to occur year-round. Ages 15-17 for girls and 16-18 for boys.
Elite athletes with identified talent enter this stage to pursue the most intense training suitable for international winning performances. Athletes with disabilities and able-bodied athletes alike require world-class training methods, equipment, and facilities that meet their personal demands and the demands of the sport.
Young athletes can enter this stage at essentially any age following the acquisition of physical literacy. If children have been correctly introduced to activity and sport throughout the Active Start, FUNdamentals, and Learn to Train stages, they will have the necessary motor skills and confidence to remain active for life in virtually any sport they choose. For high-performance athletes, this stage represents the transition from a competitive career to lifelong physical activity. They may decide to continue playing their sport, thus being competitive for life, or they may become involved in the sport as game officials or coaches. They might also try new sports and activities (e.g., a hockey player taking up golf or a tennis player starting to cycle), thus being fit for life.
How does this model differ from what we typically do with our young athletes?
In the LTAD model specialization is not recommended until age 15 for girls and age 16 for boys! Think about how many families you know whose kids are specializing at age 8 or 9. Is that good for those young athletes? The research says no. Athletes that play multiple sports develop better fundamental movement skills that make them better athletes later in the sport they eventually choose. Specialization leads to overuse injuries and burnout. I have heard too many stories of kids that dropped out of a sport at just the time they should be thinking about specializing.
From ages 6-9 the focus should be on fun, not developing super athletes. Here’s the bottom line takeaway for parents and coaches, if you are coaching kids in this age group or your child is this age, make sure that whatever sports program they are involved in puts an emphasis on having fun. “Elite” travel teams at this age make no sense and harm the long term athletic development of your child.
Even in the “Train to Compete” stage which carries athletes up to age 18 the recommended ratio between training and competition is 50/50. In the earlier stages athletes should spend the majority of their time training and a significantly smaller portion of their time in competition (games). I am certain that this is rarely the case in youth basketball. My son’s fifth grade travel team has 4 hours of practice a week and then anywhere from 1 – 5 one hour games on the weekend during the season. If we have two games on a weekend we meet that ratio, if we have five, the balance is out of whack. Of course, this doesn’t take into account players who may practice on their own throughout the week as well. The bottom line is our young athletes would be better off if they spent more time working on their game and less time playing games.
Part of the reason for this is that during a typical youth basketball game the average player gets very little time with the ball. Unless your child is the point guard or the best player on the team, they won’t get very many touches over the course of a one hour game. On the other hand, well designed team practices or individual training sessions can maximize the number of reps each player gets utilizing the principles of both block and random practice techniques.
According to Balyi, overemphasizing competition in the early phases of training will always cause shortcomings in athletic abilities later in an athlete’s career. Players need a base level of athleticism before they need sport-specific skills. Without that base of athleticism many young players are doomed to a career that ends too early.
Clubs in many sports demand their players commit to year round involvement and 3-5 practices per week at ages 8 or 9. The LTAD model would not recommend this level of intensity until age 15 or 16. We are rushing kids through the early stages of the LTAD model with the idea that we are helping them develop their talent and achieve greatness. The reality is that we are driving kids away from sports before they have an opportunity to really discover who they are as an athlete.
Too many programs, coaches, and parents place a huge priority on winning at young ages. Listen, I love to win as badly as anyone and I hate to lose, but I also understand that coaching is about providing a positive experience for players regardless of whether we win or lose. I try to develop my players as people, as well as athletes. The short-term approach to training and performance with an over-emphasis on immediate results that is taken by many coaches ignores the fact that the path to sports greatness is a long one.
I would argue that for most young athletes the ultimate goal of sports should be to arrive at the “Active for Life” stage with a positive, confident outlook on sports, health, and general well-being. Sure, there will be those outliers that play college or professional sports, but those athletes are much rarer than we would all like to believe. If we, as coaches and parents, put the emphasis on developing good people who love being active then I believe we will have gotten the most out of our young athlete’s youth sports experience.
The LTAD development model benefits basketball players on all levels of the talent spectrum. The recreational player has more fun and is more likely to stay active throughout their lifetime. The elite player follows the proper progression for making the most of their talent. The next step in the process of transforming youth sports is Long Term Program Development to help program directors, administrators, and coaches implement the LTAD model to create sustainable programs of excellence that build young players both as athletes and as people.
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No matter your age, chances are you’ve played Hide and Seek. It’s a great game that every kid (and some adults!) love to play. Basketball players are constantly playing their own version of Hide and Seek during a game. One of the hardest skills to teach a young player is how to move without the ball.
If you have ever had the pleasure of watching first or second graders play basketball you have probably witnessed the following scene. One player with the ball, two teammates way across the court standing still with their hands up yelling for the ball (Hiding), two other teammates surrounding the player with the ball trying to get a hand-off (Seeking taken to the extreme). I have a second grade daughter so I see it all the time with her team and the teams we play against. Players at this age are just beginning to learn where to go and what to do when they don’t have the ball.
No matter what level of basketball I have coached from kindergarten girls to high school varsity boys getting players to understand how to move without the ball has always been a huge challenge. So often I’ll hear players (or their parents) grumble about how they don’t get the ball enough and yet, when I watch them play, they are guilty of hiding all over the court. It’s not that they are actively trying to “hide” from the ball, it’s that too often players just stand there waiting for the ball to come to them instead of seeking the ball and making themselves available for a pass. It’s easy to get in the bad habit of hiding out on the court. When a player gets used to standing or cutting lazily or jogging down the floor they are hiding.
What can a player do to become better at seeking the ball rather than hiding from it?
You must first be aware of what is happening around you, of where the opportunities are, and how you can take advantage of those opportunities. If you are not actively thinking the game you are missing chances to get yourself open, get easy baskets, or help a teammate who is being pressured. Look for every opportunity to cut, sprint, or move to an open area of the court where you can catch the ball. Trust me when I tell you that you are not open as often as you think you are. Too often you are hiding, concentrate on seeking the ball during a game and watch the opportunities to get it in your hands more often increase.
If your teammate is being double-teamed, or if they have picked up their dribble and their defender is pressuring them, you must be 10 feet from the ball or you are hiding. If you are under the basket 25 feet away with your arms up waving for the ball in this situation there is no chance your teammate can get you the ball. The pass to you will be stolen. It’s too long of a pass for a teammate to throw while being pressured or double teamed.
Our 5th grade boys team last season improved dramatically against the press when we coached our guards to cut through the ball side elbow in the back court to receive a pass from the other guard instead of drifting down the opposite side of the court or moving diagonally into the middle. By cutting the distance the pass had to travel, we cut our turnovers against full-court pressing defenses.
Here’s a common situation. The ball is on the wing. There is no one on the ball side block. A player is on the opposite block. Instead of cutting hard to the ballside block and getting in front of their defender the player just stands on the opposite block and never moves. That is hiding. The defense can relax, they’re in better helpside position. The offensive player is not putting any pressure on the defense to react or move, making it harder for the offensive team to score.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have been a part of the following scenario. Guard has the ball in the middle of the floor in a fast break situation. A player on the wing is jogging next to their defender. I yell from the sideline, “Run!” and suddenly the player starts sprinting ahead of the defender and gets a pass from the guard for an easy layup. I always ask players after that occurs, “Why did I have to yell “Run!” for you to start sprinting? Don’t you like to score?” As a player, getting baskets like this requires no basketball skill at all. Just don’t be content to hide next to your defender as you both casually jog down the court.
Don’t just talk about wanting the ball more, make seeking it a priority. Some of getting the ball more is simply desire and effort. Some is knowing where to be or how to get open, skills that are gained through experience. In your next practice or game put a FOCUS on seeking the ball and see if it makes a difference. The less time you spend hiding on the court the more opportunities you’ll have to get the ball and impact the game in a positive way.
Hide and seek is a great game for the backyard or recess time, just make sure that on the basketball court you seek way more than you hide.
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Imagine the following scenario. Two players spend an hour each day during the summer in the gym. Both players put in the same amount of physical effort. Both players perform the exact same drills. Both players have the same amount of motivation and desire to improve. Despite this set of facts, by the end of the summer player one has improved significantly while player two has only made moderate gains. What might account for this difference in performance?
There is a secret to improved performance that separates the best players from the average players. What is the secret? Self-awareness and self-evaluation. The best players are constantly aware of what they are doing. They analyze their performance of a given skill and then think about how they can improve. I tell the players that we work with that they need to know not just the outcome (did I make or miss the shot) but also understand the process, in other words, where did the shot miss (long, short, left, or right) why did it miss (poor follow through, off balance, elbow out of alignment, etc.) and what adjustments do they need to make to avoid missing again. Great players do this in very specific terms. “That shot missed short, I need to raise my elbow to get a higher release point.” Or “I thumbed the ball on that one and that caused my shot to miss left.” Other players might just say, “I’m really off today, my shot won’t drop.” No specificity, no remedy for improvement.
Kyle Korver of the Cleveland Cavaliers is one of the greatest shooters in the history of basketball. Korver uses the following 20 point checklist to analyze his shooting mechanics.
1. Wide stance.
2. Exaggerated legs.
3. Drop through heels.
4. Engage core.
5. Slight bend at waist.
6. Up strong.
7. Elbow straight.
8. One hand.
9. Fingers spread.
10. Slight pause.
11. Elbow up.
12. Land forward.
13. See the top of the rim.
14. Ball on fingertips.
15. Strong shot.
16. Shoulders forward and relaxed.
17. Ball and arm risen straight.
18. Hold the follow through.
19. Keep the release point high.
20. On turns, square shoulders.
Here is a quote from Korver about how he uses the checklist to keep his shooting stroke locked in.
“As I’m shooting, I have this list in the back of my head, and I know I’m not doing one or two of them. Once I feel I get all 20 of them clicking, then I’m going to have natural rhythm in my shot.”
Do you think Korver is a better shooter because he studies his shot with this level of scrutiny? Of course he is! What Korver is really saying here is that he’s constantly aware of what his shot feels like and the fundamental skills required for him to shoot at a high level. When he is off, he analyzes what is going on and then makes corrections. This level of self-awareness is rare, but successful players constantly use this type of self-talk to drive improvement.
Think back to our example from the beginning of the post. Why did player one improve so much more? Player one was self-aware and continuously evaluated their own performance looking for ways to improve. Player two took the same number of shots with the same level of physical effort, but they never analyzed what they were doing. They “got shots up”, but didn’t have the same mental approach as player one. Player one understood what went wrong when they missed a shot and then attempted to correct that flaw on the next shot. Before you can fix something, you must understand why it was broken in the first place. Great players like Kyle Korver have a mental framework for what a particular skill should look and feel like. When something goes wrong, they are able to use that mental framework to help them decide what needs to be done to get them back on track.
I had a talk with my sixth grade boys’ team at practice yesterday about the need to be aware of what you are doing in practice. Are you listening? Are you working hard? Are you in the right position on defense? Why are you turning the ball over? Why are you getting so many rebounds? I want them to begin to understand the principles of self-awareness and self-evaluation. If you are just out on the court playing and not giving much real thought to what you are actually doing your road to improvement becomes much longer.
If you are the parent of a basketball player or a coach, help your player(s) become more self-aware by reminding them to think about what they are doing each moment during practice. If you are a coach, stop practice in the middle of a drill and remind them to be aware of not just the outcome of the drill, but also the process. Provide examples of the type of self-talk that improves performance, “I got that rebound because I boxed out with two points of contact and then I aggressively pursued the ball.” “I stopped my man from driving because I closed out on balance.” “I turned the ball over because I didn’t jump stop, ran over my defender, and got called for a charge.” Then ask players what they could have done differently that might have resulted in a different outcome. This is how learning happens and these are the types of small learning moments that are lost over the course of a drill, a practice, a game, and a season.
Look for opportunities to be more self-aware on and off the court. By using that awareness to self-evaluate you’ll stretch yourself to grow into a better player and more importantly, a better person.
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