Our perceptions of coaching and what it means for player development

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A picture is worth a thousand words. Here are two pictures of very different camps in Africa. In the top picture, you have a sponsored camp directed by an NBA player. In the bottom picture, you have a grassroots camp sponsored by a nonprofit grassroots program in Africa.

Most people associate the top picture with a well-coached drill, and the bottom picture with children running around out of control.

When I look at the two pictures, I see that every player has a ball in the top picture, but only one player is involved in the drill. In the bottom picture, I see 6 balls for 25 players, and every player is involved (I also happen to know that the one ball not being dribbled was flat).

In the top picture, I cannot be sure of the purpose: Maybe shooting, dribbling, triple threat moves. However, it does appear that there is no defense, and the players stand in a line at least 9 players deep between turns. In the bottom, I know the purpose was dribbling.

In the top picture, at least two players are doing their own thing while in the back of the line, and those in the front watch the one person who is going. In the bottom picture, I count at least five players laughing and smiling.

Again, most people would characterize the top picture as an ideal drill, and chastise the bottom picture, but what do the pictures show? One person doing a drill versus 25 despite the top group possessing one ball for each player. Lots of smiles in the bottom group. Unopposed practice in the top versus a form of opposed practice in the bottom.

This is an issue in coaching. The top picture is deemed to be good because it is organized, supervised, and orderly, whereas the bottom picture is denigrated for being out of control, lacking focus, and just playing around. But which environment really provides more opportunities to develop skills that will transfer to the game? Dribbling around a cone with no defense once every 10 turns or dribbling amongst a number of players and chasing other players while attempting to tag others?

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

5 thoughts on “Our perceptions of coaching and what it means for player development

  • Great post. My theory is that any camp/clinic that is run by a former college, pro, european pro or big college program is almost a guarantee to produce the typical ineffective camp (as summarized in your pic above).
    4 days following this schedule:
    – Start each day with lines organizing kids by height
    – 6 station groups consisting of meaningless defensive drills (chopping feet drill most likely), rebounding, ball handling (circle ball around body, fig 8, etc), shooting drills, passing (partner passing of course), cutting and screening (no way any kid will remember any of this later), and 1 on 1 moves w/ an emphasis on holding the ball in triple threat and jabbing endlessly.
    – Now that we’ve thoroughly mind-numbed every kid with boring and ineffective drills, play 5 on 5 games.
    – Lunch
    – After lunch – repeat above stations just in case the earlier drills didn’t entirely suck the life out of every child
    – more 5 on 5 games
    – contests – Knockout of course, FTs, 1 v1 , etc
    – End of day speech that from Pro, college player, etc that is really for parents watching from stands and not the kids.
    – Rinse and repeat for 4 days for an incredibly high price with over 500 kids. Kids leave having learned almost nothing. But they did get an autograph and to patiently learn to wait in lots of lines.
    BTW, this type of camp has been done by maybe the most famous college coach of all time and their college neighbors for over 30 years.

  • I think another reason beyond but related to ‘coaching as we were coached’, is that, for the most part, humans aren’t very good at reflecting on how we learn most effectively. People generally remember negative events more than positive ones and overestimate the effects of these events. I am not talking about traumatic events but merely negative ones. Games are fun and therefore positive, drills are often boring and therefore negative. So when someone reflects on learning a skill, they remember the drill more vividly and correlate that with learning. In reality it was probably some combination of the two (or, more likely the game alone) that raised the skill level.

    This happens in schools as well. Drilling and homework are organized and structured, as well as universally despised by children so they MUST be effective methods. Games are fun and can be chaotic so they MUST be a waste of time.

    In my opinion real learning or skill acquisition comes from the students taking ownership of their learning. Ownership comes from a more internal motivation (as discussed by Deci & Ryan) created by an environment of autonomy, competency and purpose. Drills or instructor-centered instruction fosters dependence on an ‘expert’ and the idea that skills are transferred from an expert to a novice rather than a game based or student-centered environment where students see themselves as the most important person in determining their level of improvement or skill level.

    The ex-NBA player remembers the drills he did with his coach/trainer as being more important than the 1000’s of hours he played with no coach present as being most important to his development and assumes that improvement comes from the drills rather than the play.

  • Again, I agree completely. Much of this, I believe, is fueled by a need to reduce something very complex (talent development in a complex sport such as basketball) into something simple; the media needs one simple threat to weave into a story rather than attributing one’s skill development to 100s of different things.

  • Great post, I started to realize these errors in some of my old drills, I would go and watch other coaching sessions and noticed the lack of reps the players were getting and how un game like the drills were. That was a few years ago now and now everything is competitive or seemingly chaotic.

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