Learning from the problems of college basketball practices

Originally published in the Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.8. Subscribe here

Because of my books, clinics, and travel, I know coaches and players from Canada and Europe who develop with FIBA rules and matriculate to the United States to play college basketball. Increasingly, I hear from these sources that college basketball is boring. These players appreciate the opportunity to play basketball and receive a free education, but they are dissatisfied, especially with the coaching and the practices. They cannot wait for the season to end, although they plan to play in Europe after graduation. In the most recent instances, this angst has nothing to do with playing time, team’s success, or other issues that lead to common complaints; one player leads her team in minutes on a league champion, and another is the team’s best player and likely all-league selection. 

The two primary complaints are the sameness of practices, and the coach control during games. One player said that every practice is exactly the same. This is believable based on the dozens of college practices that I have attended. If you created a standard template of a college practice, at least 80% of practices would be the same, give or take a 10% difference. The majority of time is spent on block practice shooting drills, shell drill for defensive rotations, pseudo-transition drills for layups and conditioning, and non-competitive practice of offensive sets.

I understand the desire to do the same basic things from practice to practice, and my practices tend not to have great variety. I dislike explaining complicated drills; if we do a shooting drill, I want to shoot, not talk about which line to fill after a player rebounds. Doing the same drills limits the explanations on the drill’s execution, which leaves more time to do the drill and to give feedback on the skill being practiced.

When the team does the same drill every day, how do players improve? What do they learn? What does the monotony do for their motivation?

The goal tends to be to get through a drill with fewer and fewer mistakes. Is that improvement? In a three-person weave, coaches use a time limit, and players make a certain number of shots in that time, or coaches count mistakes and punish players after a certain number of mistakes. They may restrict the number of passes or the type of passes.

Imagine the coach puts 3 minutes on the clock and the team has to make 30 layups in the 3 minutes. On any mistake, that group is out and a new group starts. What does this encourage? What does this teach? The consequence likely increases task concentration to avoid the punishment. Players go fast because of the time limit, but not too fast because they want to avoid a mistake. Essentially, they practice in their comfort zone.

Ignore the questions of task representation and transfer to a game because of the lack of defense and the defined movement patterns; do these constraints lead to improvement? Does completing the drill in 3 minutes with 30 made layups demonstrate learning or improvement?

Maybe. With young players, it may demonstrate an improved ability to make layups. With others, it may demonstrate an improved understanding and execution of the weave pattern. Of course, is that important? Do we care whether or not players can run in a weave?

With college players, would this show improvement? We know college players can make chest passes. We know college players can make layups. What have these players learned or improved by achieving the goal?

Nothing. It is unlikely that this goal makes them better passers. What is a better passer? Passing more accurately, delivering passes with better timing, reducing turnovers, and completing more difficult passes are four ways that one could improve her passing. Does a three-person weave improve accuracy and timing? Does it reduce turnovers? Does it improve the ability to make more difficult passes, such as passes in a smaller window? Without defenders, I do not believe that it addresses these.

Similarly, how does a player improve his or her finishing? The player could improve her percentages on the same shots that she shoots currently or she could expand her finishing to make more difficult shots. When every finish is an uncontested outside-hand layup, does the college player improve? No. She practices a shot that she makes nearly 100% of the time, but does not improve her ability to shoot when defended or her ability to use other finishes.

What, then, is the purpose of the drill? What are we doing in practice when every day is the same? How are the players learning or improving?

As for the coach control during games, FIBA uses a 24-second shot clock. A high-school player who played with a 24-second shot clock moves to the U.S., and plays at a higher competitive level with better players, but the clock moves to 30 seconds. Worse, for many of her teammates, a 30-second shot clock is an adjustment because most U.S. players finish high school without playing in a game with a shot clock.

The longer shot clock facilitates more coach control. College coaches tend to be controlling and prefer a deliberate game. They tend not to trust their players. They run play after play. They engage in “playstation coaching” (HT: @InnovateFC).

A 24-second shot clock makes it more difficult to coach in this manner. It is possible to run a play on each possession, although the play cannot be too complicated. When the play does not produce the desired shot, there is not enough time to re-set and run another play. Players make decisions. Players make plays.

I watched one player on television. He was recruited as a point guard. He dribbled across half-court, entered the offense, cut to the corner, and stood at the three-point line. This was the offensive system, as it happened repeatedly. There was little ball movement, and a lot of dribbling. College coaches blame AAU, but at these levels (low D1, D2), coaches have players for four years. They cannot develop a better offensive system with players who are there for four years? More to the point, your point guard developed with a 24-second shot clock and a high-school coach who values ball movement and decision-making; rather than hide him in the corner as his teammates dribble in circles, and then blame AAU, use him more! Hide the ball stoppers in the corner and use the players who move the ball!

Like everything, there are good college coaches and bad college coaches. Unfortunately, many are beholden to a single practice plan and do not appear to know how to structure practice to elicit the behaviors that they desire. Instead, they prefer to rant in their press conferences and deflect blame.

One of the oldest theories in sports psychology is the inverted-U theory developed by Yerkes and Dodson (1908). Arousal is placed along the x axis and performance along the y-axis. Along the x-axis, the arousal level moves from low to moderate to high; in other words, from boredom to optimal to anxiety. The inverted U moves from poor performance (boredom) to maximal performance (optimal) to poor performance (anxiety). The optimum level of arousal is termed a just-right challenge; this is just beyond the players’ current level of performance, also termed practicing at the edge of one’s ability. Dan Coyle (2009) referred to this as the Sweet Spot.

The three-person weave is not at the edge of a college player’s ability; it is boring, as there is low arousal and general disinterest, which is the reason that coaches resort to the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation: They punish players who perform below standards. Daniel Pink (2009) cited studies that found that external rewards and punishment improved performance on mechanical tasks, such as a three-person weave. On cognitive tasks, or tasks requiring creative thinking, more external rewards hurt performance. Coaches say that they want creative players or players with high basketball intelligence, but they use mind-numbing tasks and resort to punishment to elicit the desired effort. The problem is not the players’ motivation; the problem is the practice.

The coach’s control during games has the same effect. It decreases motivation. It reduces decision making and creativity. Players play hard because they want to win, and they play hard for their teammates, but their internal motivation is dampened. For some players who have played for the same coaches for their entire lives, this may not be a surprise. For those who have played for more progressive coaches, and/or those who have played with a 24-second shot clock that requires quicker play and more player decision-making, this coaching increasingly leads to boredom and frustration.

The challenge is to find a coaching style that challenges players and increases their motivation through varying the tasks, connecting drills to games, pushing players outside their comfort zones, and empowering players to make plays and make decisions. Doing the same thing every day and/or running set plays on every possession will not achieve this goal.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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