My newest book, 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development, features a chapter on pickup games and a section on free play. I argue that these environments are ideal for skill development, and I use examples from my development, as well as research, to make my point. Of course, most basketball people (such as Stan Van Gundy and Kobe Bryant) argue against games for skill development, and many people view the number of games during the developmental years as the problem with skill development in the United States.
Not all games are equal, and I see distinct differences in terms of learning and skill development between pickup games and offseason leagues and tournaments. In Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach, Frans Bosch wrote: “The link between sensory and motor patters must be shaken up in order to generate motivation to learn.” Bosch’s concern is monotony of training.
I have argued similar points, although with different terminology. My primary problem with offseason leagues and tournaments is the monotony. I know high-school teams who play the same teams in the regular season and in their spring and fall leagues. AAU teams often play virtually the same opponents almost every weekend in tournaments. Additionally, when you play three seasons with the same teammates and coaches (fall, winter, spring), where is the variation? When a coach uses the offseason to improve the team’s plays, defenses, etc., where is the variation? Practice and games become monotonous because players and teams play nearly the same style against nearly the same opposition.
Contrast that experience with my offseason experience when we had no AAU teams. We often played pickup games at our high school after school during the spring. In these games, we played with and against the same players, but we frequently had visitors from other schools who joined the games. These visitors disrupted the potential monotony. Also, we self-organized our games; we changed teams each day, and oftentimes within the day, and played with and against different players. We also did not have a coach present, and we were able to experiment, try new things, and play different styles. We never ran a play or our team’s typical offense. We played.
On other days, we went to a park and played against other high school and college players, and adults who were off work, typically construction workers. This changed the environment. Rather than playing in a gym, we played outside. This is a change to the sensory information and introduces new environmental constraints, as the sun behind the basket, the temperature, the wind, and more affected skill performance. Additionally, players changed frequently at the park, and you never played with and against the same exact players. On some days, I was the best player at the park; on other days, there were many older and better players. It changed. The games changed. The style of play differed depending on opponent.
When playing pickup games, there were always new problems to solve. Match-ups, opponents, teammates, court, etc. provided variation and disrupted the monotony. Today, when children practice and play with the same group, and play against similar opponents, where is the variation? Where are the new problems? Where is the opportunity to explore and experiment?
These environments are different, and consequently the learning and skill development differs between an organized spring league and a pickup game. This does not mean that all offseason leagues are bad. However, it does mean that a coach should be aware of the differences in order to disrupt the monotony of training. Play different opponents. Play different styles. Play players in different positions. Play without running plays. Differ the practice structure. Maybe organize fewer team activities and encourage players to organize the activities for themselves; when I coached with the Santa Monica Surf AAU team, the club ended a different gym on Monday nights for pickup games rather than organizing another night of practice for the players.
The offseason should be focused on skill development and learning. How does that occur? When does that occur? Are drills the only way to develop skills? Is it so bad for players to play with other coaches and players during the offseason?
Monotony of training leads to de-motivation and overtraining, which disrupts learning and skill development. Variation will stimulate learning and increase motivation. “Learning and motivation are stimulated by the constant emergence of unfamiliar totals of sensory and motor patterns that do not fit into existing, familiar sensorimotor relationships. We learn through confrontations with something new, rather than imprinting something familiar” (Bosch, 2015). How can you confront your players with something new to stimulate their learning? As Bosch wrote, “Variation is the key to efficient coaching.”