Making practices game-like and training skills

The big discussion in practice design is transfer. What transfers from practice to games? In making practices game-like, do coaches create sufficient repetitions for skill development? If NBA players practice in isolation, should children do the same drills? 

One of the primary misunderstandings tends to be that it has to be all or nothing. Practice is either all games, or all technique. Instead, as expressed in this tweet, the games in practice inform the next activities in practice, and practice can be simplified as necessary.

The more common approach is to start with isolation and end with a scrimmage. However, when do you know to advance from isolation? When do you add complexity? In isolation, are you exposing errors? When you wait until the end to scrimmage, and the scrimmage exposes errors, do you have time to fix those errors?

For instance, when practice starts with two-line passing drills (a Fake Fundamental), what error does the coach correct? Based on my experience, the focus is either on the thumbs at the end of the follow-through or the spot where the ball hits the ground on a bounce pass. In a game, how often is the mistake caused by the spot where the ball hits the ground or the direction that the thumbs point after a pass? In games, players tend to throw the ball too high or too low because they are passing on the move, passing to a moving target, and/or dealing with time-stress caused by defensive pressure. Passes are often too late or too early because of the movement and the defense. However, which problem is it?

If practice starts with the game, and one of these problems occurs, the coach can simplify the practice with the subsequent activity to focus on the specific error. However, none of these errors is exposed by a two-line passing drill. Players complete pass after pass, and we assume that they know how to pass the ball. Then, they play in a game, and make mistakes. Why not start with the practice that induces the mistakes to learn what needs to be practiced?

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

25 thoughts on “Making practices game-like and training skills

  • One rebuttal to this I think could be that coaches can infer from the last game what they need to work on in the next practice. So for example, if the team played a game on Sunday and the coach deduces that the most glaring weaknesses were a lack of boxing out and an inability to knock down open outside shots, he might devise a handful of drills to work on those things in practice. After the scrimmage and end of practice, he might evaluate again and plan on what to work on in the next practice session.

  • Paul:
    You haven’t read Fake Fundamentals, have you?

    I would agree that that is the approach most often taken. However, through this approach, coaches tend to stick to the same general drills: three-man weaves, shell drill, zigzag, bull in the ring, etc. Do the same general drills solve the problem or mask the problem?

    Let’s take boxing out: Pick your favorite box-out/rebounding drill. Is boxing out in the drill the same as boxing out in the game? No. Every player boxes out well in a box-out drill because it is the only thing that the player has to focus on. However, in the game, boxing out becomes more complicated. In the drill, you generally know who and where to box out, and there is a clear intention. In a game, do you have to box? who? where?

    In the game where they missed the boxouts, do you know why?

    The previous game certainly can inform the next practice. However, what mistakes are you trying to correct?How far removed from the game do you need to be to correct the mistakes? If the mistakes appear in games, but not practices, doesn’t that provide information too?

  • Practices determine games and games determine practice. You mention some generic drills like three man weave. Coaches need to determine their style and then formulate skills and drills that teach the style.

    I find a lot of coaches use generic drills that they either did when they played or use drills because a certain coach uses them. Again what ever chaining method (forward or reverse) or whole part/part whole teaching method a coach uses the skills/drills have to match performance objectives.

  • I haven’t read Fake Fundamentals. As far as the approach most often taken, of course there are more people that do something wrong if there are more people that do the thing in question—this does not mean that the thing itself is wrong. That being said, I agree with your overall point. Mindlessly applying the same general drills without thought as to what specific need they’re addressing at each particular point in time is bad coaching. It’s autopiloting as a coach, and a trap that’s easy to fall into. I think that skilled coaches are particularly adept at evaluating their team in a game and scrimmage and seeing what needs to be worked on, and devising and using the right drills to do so.

    I don’t have a favorite block-out drill. I have many different block out drills that address different needs. If the kids aren’t driving their man back hard enough, I’ll use Bob Huggins’ drill where they sit down back to back and get up together in order to drive each other back. If I feel like the shooter’s man is ball-watching and floating on the perimeter too often, I’ll throw a tweak into the Kentucky two-line shooting drill, where instead of just passing and going around for the next shot, you have to pass, close out, and block out the shooter before you go around for your shot. If the issue is side-fronting the low post and then being out of position for rebounds, I’ll work on starting with a side front and then jamming your arm bar as leverage as you spin inside of him for rebounding position.

    Of course, there are many times where the issue is not just technique, but rather a hunger for the ball and a feel for where the ball is going to bounce off the rim, and being comfortable with jumping and getting after it in a crowd. If this is the assessment, a small-sided game is the answer. To that end, you’re absolutely right that it’s not all or nothing—practice should be a mix of drills and small-sided games.

    I just think it’s important to make the distinction that a drill-drill-drill scrimmage approach does not mean that mistakes aren’t being made in practice, or that the coach is simply teaching fake fundamentals, or that there will be no transfer to the game. The best coaches, even those that heavily lean on drills, are adept at making sure that doesn’t happen.

  • Paul:

    What you describe here – “If the kids aren’t driving their man back hard enough” – is a foul. Once a player displaces his or her opposition, it is, by rule, a foul.

    Second, personally, I would never box out a shooter outside of five feet from the basket. Fake Fundamentals discusses this, but, again, it often is judged to be a foul. Shooters, regardless of distance, are allowed to land without being boxed out. I simply wonder why this is called frequently when it is a three-point shooter, but not a two-point shooter.

    Any time you focus on one specific thing, there will be improvement. That is one reason that block practice leads to immediate improvements more than random, variable practice. However, does the improvement transfer once other elements – complexity – is added?

  • Deon:
    Precisely. I call those drills Fake Fundamentals. The InnovateFC blog calls it pseudocoaching. Same thing.

  • When it cmnes to boxing out and driving your man, I’ve never once seen it called a foul in my 5 years of coaching. I’d love to see the rule, but it is something that goid rebounders consistently do.

    On shots, I’m talking about after the landing. If you’re close to your man, I do believe in the physical check to keep him from following his shot. If he’s on the outside and you have distance, I teach them to instead do a visial check to be ready to make contact if he crashes in. Either way, I want them to check their man either physically or visually.

    When it comes to immediate improvement via block drills, yes, the drill in itself is not a cure. But you can take that immediate improvement and then emphasize that it be replicated in small-sided games, scrimmages, and games.

  • Paul:

    Rule 4, Section 37, Article 2: To obtain or maintain legal rebounding position, a player may not:
    a. Displace, charge, or push an opponent.

    “Driving their man back” constitutes displacement. Now, it is not often called, and it is missed a lot because it is tough to see when you referee, but it is, by rule, a foul.

    Many “fouls” on three-point shooters occur after the player has landed. I believe these are fouls after the shot – on the box out – and should not be shooting fouls, but such an example was shown on the referee training video as an example of a shooting foul even though the player had clearly returned with two feet to the ground before he was touched. I do not like this call, in many cases (I do believe that you have to protect shooters, but think it goes too far with some officials, especially on 3-pointers), but it is called frequently.

    As for the final point, correct. And you won’t know if it has had an effect until you put it in a scrimmage or game. Improvement in the drill may not really be improvement. It could be concentration. It could be from the simplification. Improvement in block drills leads to false confidence that a skill has been learned or a problem fixed. Why not start with the SSG and the emphasis, and see if that fixes the problem? If not, work backward toward the isolated skill. That was the original tweets point.

  • Thanks for the rule clarification, it’s always good to know that stuff.

    Absolutely, improvement isn’t apparent unless it happens during live action. As John Wooden says, you haven’t taught until they’ve learned. I disagree, however, with the notion that drills lead to false confidence. When done right, if anything they show kids just how far they have to go. If a drill is “easy”, it’s not the right drill. Which is what I mean when I say that good coaches are adept at evaluating players and choosing the correct drills to use in the next practice.

    Why not start with a game and work backwards? I have no problem with this approach, and no doubt that coaches can be successful with this. I do quibble with the notion that coaches that do this are coaching and teaching true fundamentals, and coaches that don’t are pseudocoaching and teaching fake fundamentals. I think that’s condemning a hell of a lot of great coaches.

  • Paul:

    Admittedly, it is rarely called. Speaking as a referee, it is a difficult call to make because you rarely see the entirety of the action away from the ball unless it is a three-person crew. I have called it on FTs. It’s also why fouls are called on shooters for boxouts, but not away from the ball: the referee sees the entire play.

    While I’m at it, there is no such rule as “over the back.” When I referee, I laugh at coaches when they continually yell for over the back calls. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the rule book.

    I apologize. That is a conclusion from a Richard A. Schmidt paper, I believe: “Block practice leads to a false confidence in terms of improvement.” Because block practice leads to immediate improvements, due to the nature of the practice, players and coaches tend to overrate their improvement. I have written about this with regards to private coaches and the lack of transfer from a private session to a game.

    No, I only think that it is fake fundamentals and pseudocoaching when they use drills that are pointless.

  • Yeah, I’ve been on the bench for many coaches that yell over the back several times a game. Most of the time, it’s when one of our players fails to block out or make any contact and the opponent simply outjumps him from behind and gets the ball. Just wondering though, if it’s not in the rule book, then what’s the motion referees make in games (including NCAA and the pros) when players make contact from behind while going for a rebound. They blow the whistle, call the foul, and then raise two hands in the air and then make a downward motion. I always thought that was “over the back”?

    In regards to the paper, better wording might be “Block practice *can* (or *often*) leads to false confidence in terms of improvement”. Your sentence appropriately uses the word “tends”, and I agree with that. Usually I feel that the players are too confident after a practice, I probably didn’t challenge them enough in that practice. In fact, verbatim, this is a line I used in my last practice—“I know I’m getting on you a lot, and you’re probably not feeling too confident right now, but when it comes to practice I don’t care about your confidence. I care about getting better.”

    I had to later ammend that and let them know to play with confidence in the next game, but my point was that confidence isn’t something you get from a practice or drill. It’s an attitude you have to have, but you also have to address your weaknesses and push yourself to get better. I think the best players and people are both their #1 fan and their biggest critic at the same time.

    I hope that didn;t go off too much of a tangent. At the end of the day, the facilitation of confidence and improvement is an art in itself as much as it is a science. In both art and science, you can’t mindlessly do things just to do them—there has to be a purpose.

    Lastly, when it comes to pointless drills, what is pointless in one context might be purposeful in another. Take the three man weave. If the kids struggle catching and passing on the run, the three-man weave might serve as part of a purposeful warm-up before addressing the problem in a small-sided game. Or, I love what Gregg Popovich does with his weave his and full-court passing drills. He calls them out with the designation “one way” or “down and back”, and players have to self organize in a timely fashion and execute the drill. As one group goes down one way and passes the volleyball line and the next group of 3 is going, he might tell the first group, who is now at the opposite baseline “5-man weave down and back”. They have to communicate that the entire team and get organized in lines of five. If they take too long, Pop is yelling at them to hurry up. It’s a brilliant exercise in leadership and communication to start a practice. What one coach might do pointlessly, Pop uses purposefully and his players get a lot out of it.

  • Hi Paul,

    What Brian is trying to say (please Brian if I’m wrong I apologize) in regards to his quote about “Block Practice leads to false confidence”, is that whatever you are trying to achieve within your team can be done within a SSG, which is what you want to be practicing for the real game.

    With the 3-man-weave I personally don’t think Its a drill that I want my players to do, (Just my opinion) Why? Because If I wanted to progress passing on the run, I would create a SSG (such as Tip) that develops transition, press breaking ect which involves catching on the run. This would simulate what we want to achieve during game and is very realistic because the outcomes are the same as it would be on game day. I would also practice our press breaker as a SSG and emphasis passing on the run. The 3-man-weave (again my opinion and brilliantly explained in Fake Fundamentals) does not hold the same outcome at all. But to each of their own.

    Coach Pop and yourself believe that the drill can really create other elements; that’s fine for yourself and himself but that can be achieved in my opinion, in a SSG, with competitiveness and unpredictably creates the best forms of transfer and improvement.

    At the end of the day its what you believe is right 🙂

  • Paul:

    I do not referee NCAA or NBA, so there rules may differ slightly. However, in the NFHS rules, that motion is not in the rulebook. Calls that are made, that we think of as over the back, should be pushing or charging calls. I don’t know exactly the motion that you are referring to, but on an “over the back” call, officials will wave their arms to signify that it was a loose ball foul, and therefore no team possession. If there was team possession, and the foul was on the offense, there would be no free throws in a bonus situation. If that’s not what you mean, I’m not sure.

    As for Pop’s drill, it’s nor purposeless because he has a purpose. Is it a good drill? I don’t know. It works for him, but he’s not using it as a passing drill. Therefore, if someone told me that the three-man weave was a good drill for passing because Coach Pop used it, I’d find that dubious.

  • Shayne:
    Yes and no. That’s the general point, but not the specific point with regards to the false confidence. The false confidence has to do more with transfer. When I shoot 100 free throws in a row, for instance, I start to make a lot of FTs in a row. Making 90/100 might lead me to believe that I am a 90% shooter.

    In a game, when I go to the line for a 1-&-1, and miss, my 90% has not transferred. The tasks – shooting 100 shots in a row vs. shooting one shot – are not the same. When I shoot 100 shots in a row, I’m really practicing one time because I only retrieve my motor program from my long-term memory one time – on the first shot. The motor program stays in the short term memory for 20-30 seconds, so when I shoot 100 shots with no contextual interference or no rest between shots, I really only practice the shot one time. When I shoot a 1&1 free throw, it’s the same as the first shot in my series, but has little to do with the 100 shots. If I am fouled 5 minutes later, and return to the FT line, it is not like the second shot in my series; again, it is like the first shot in the series.

    Therefore, practicing the skill in block conditions leads to a false confidence because the improvement is greater under these conditions within the session or the block than the transfer to a future situation or a new environment.

    The objective in practice is to create conditions where the improvement in practice transfers to games as close to 100% as possible.

    These conditions can be SSGs, but they do not have to be. In Chris Ballard’s book, The Beautiful Game, he wrote about Chip Engalland and Steve Kerr. They would sit and talk on the sideline, and Chip would say “Go!” and Kerr would sprint to the other end, catch and shoot one shot, and then they would sit down again. Why? Because those were similar to the conditions he faced in games. He’d come off the bench to make a shot or he’d go long stretches in games between shots. Those are different conditions than sitting at the three-point line shooting 100 3s in a row.

    Now, false confidence is not always bad. It’s bad for learning. When I have a game tomorrow, I want the players to leave practice feeling confident for the game. Therefore, shooting blocks of shots is a strategy to improve confidence. However, the mistake is confusing building confidence with learning/improvement. If they shoot better in tomorrow’s game, it isn’t because they improved their shooting in those 100 reps on the day before the game; it’s probably due to small numbers (randomness), the defense, or confidence. Otherwise, if they shot poorly in the next game, you would have to make the same argument: the 100 reps on the day before the game made them into a worse shooter. In truth, when most players take less than 10 shots per game, there is great fluxtuation from game to game, but this does not mean that players improve, get worse, improve, get worse, etc.

  • Hi, Shane. I’m not sure if that is entirely what Brian is trying to say—because he does mention that practice isn’t all or nothing (drills or games). If SSG are the end-all, be-all, we should be doing nothing but SSGs during practice. But I don’t think that’s the debate here. It’s moreso a matter of how to structure our practice. Brian advocates a TGFU approach, a SSG game followed by drills and then a return back to the game. Personally, I prefer to start out with some warm-up drills, then some transition games, some perimeter/post work, and then a mixture of drills and games for the rest of practice. We all have different preferences in terms of practice structure, I don’t think that any is inherently better or worse. I do think it’s important that practices include both drills and games. The best coaches from Auerbach to Wooden to Wooten all did this. Just wondering—what’s Tip? I’m always down to learn a new drill or game.

    Brian, I’d argue it’s a good drill for him, because of the way he runs it and what he gets out of his players. At the start of practice, they’re getting the blood flowing and warming up the legs and hands, while at the same time there’s a heavy emphasis on communication. The players have to relay to each other what the coach is calling out and immediately execute it. The movement is continuous and the energy is sky-high. On the DVD, all the audience in attendance started clapping at the end of the drill. It’s one of the best warm-up drills I’ve ever used with my players, personally, It just so happens to contain the 3-man weave. I’d argue that most drills are neither good nor bad. It’s how you use them.

  • I have both Fake Fundamentals and 21st Century Basketball Practice.

    Each answers any questions you may have with the emphasis on one simple notion-
    Do practice activities transfer to game skills?

    Highly recommend them. I re-read one or the other almost daily.

  • Todd:
    Thank you. If you haven’t left a review wherever you purchased the books, and could simply copy and paste this response as a review, I’d greatly appreciate it.

    Glad you found value in the books.

    FF has been received far better than I anticipated, so I have started work on FF, Vol. 2 that should be available in the summer. Actually slightly disappointed, as I expected some people to take exception to it and tell me that I am wrong; I suppose I am not reaching a wide enough audience, and my sales are limited to those who know me and my beliefs already.

    Thanks again and good luck.

  • Brian- I provided a review for FF I think, but it may have been 21st Cent Practice. I’ll double check at Amazon.

    I’ve also watched your YouTube videos. SABA is great too.



  • Todd:
    Thanks. I checked and saw the review. Appreciate it.

    Glad you liked the videos. Working on a SABA book as I write this.

    SABA, then FF Vol. 2.

    Back to work…

  • Hey, Todd. I’ve read and followed Brian’s work for a number of years now, including 4 of his books, so I’m pretty familiar with the methodology and reasoning. I plan on reading the two newest books eventually, but I don’t think I need to read them to come from an informed standpoint.

    I don’t think you can say the question “do practice activities transfer to game skills?” is answered unequivocally, although as always, there’s a lot you can get from Brian’s work, and I don’t see how you could not read his stuff and improve as a coach.

  • So, let’s say you are teaching kids how to basket cut immediately after passing. You would start with a small sided game and tell them the focus is passing and cutting and then move to an isolation drill if necessary instead of the drill first and then the game? Not questioning the method. Asking if that’s what you mean.

  • Kevin:
    Yes. I play cut throat. Two rules: #1 catch and square; and #2 pass and cut. If you catch and don’t square to the basket, or pass and don’t cut to the basket, it’s a turnover. If there is some issue with cutting to the basket, I’d instruct or teach first. If necessary, maybe Id regress to a pass and cut layup drill or something like that. Does that make sense? I mean, there’s no absolutes; everything depends on what I see, what’s happening, who I am working with, etc.

  • Are you talking a 5v5 (or whatever # of players you have) scrimmage with cut those cut throat rules? Is that what that means?

  • Typically I would play 3v3 or 4v4 depending on numbers. Like to have 3 teams. Use those rules. Score and stay on offense; get a stop and go to defense; new team enters on defense.

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