Steph Curry, dribbling drills, and myths

Stephen Curry is amazing. Before the season started, I tweeted:

Curry is the best player in the NBA, and if he continues the same trajectory, he could end up as an all-time great. However, the drill above is not the reason for his ridiculous skills. I know this because I used to do this drill with 9-year-olds.

It looks impressive, but it has very little to do with dribbling in a game. First, he’s stationary. The way that your hand contacts the ball changes when you are stationary, walking, or running. We used to do the same basic drill, but add forward and backward movement. Second, in a game, you react to opponents, not to tennis balls. Tennis balls do not provide the same informational cues as an opponent.

If I trained a player such as Curry, I would do similar drills in the offseason primarily because I would want him to rest and not to overtrain. Drills such as these given an illusion of importance, and players are motivated by the challenge. It is easy to see improvement in the drills. This motivation and improvement increases confidence. The increased confidence is the biggest quality that transfers from these drills to game performance, especially when the player believes in the drills.

However, that does not mean that every young player should start tossing tennis balls while he or she dribbles. It is interesting that these drills garner so much attention, but almost nobody has highlighted a comment from the profile that was written about Curry in ESPN last year:

DRIBBLING THROUGH THE rocks and tire tracks at Jack’s hoop honed Curry’s ballhandling skills, while the unpredictable backboard and the unforgiving rim tested his touch and inspired the perfect, impossibly high parabolic arc of his shot. But the court also polished his composure; this is where he first obtained the Tao of Point Guard. “This was a visionary place for me,” Curry says. “Make it work no matter what you have to work with — that’s something that stuck with me very early on as a point guard. Adjust. Get creative. Try a different angle, a different lane, a different move or a different shot — just make it work. Out there on my grandpa’s court, there was no better place in the world to breed that kind of creativity.”

Of course, there is nothing sexy about working out on an old country court; especially not compared to fancy lights, tennis balls, and other complicated-looking drills. However, that is the point: There is a difference between complicated and complex:

Complicated machine-like systems typically follow one path to achieve a specific end, and as such are highly predictable; but also highly vulnerable. Complex systems achieve their objectives through a process of exploration and on-going adaptation; negotiating obstacles, solving problems through trial- and-error, and flexibly adapting to changing circumstances.

Dribbling a basketball and catching a tennis ball is complicated, but it is not complex. Dribbling through rocks and tires that create unpredictable bounces and inspire creative solutions is complex. Dribbling through defenders is complex, not complicated. Therefore, despite the media’s attention to his current dribbling drills, it is easy to argue that these drills simply maintain skills that he developed as a child as his grandpa’s house.

51xPC1K9yaL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_Note: For more on complex and complicated, Stephen Curry, and skill development, check out 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development on Amazon.com or Lulu.com.

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

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8 Responses to “Steph Curry, dribbling drills, and myths”

  1. coachumlaut says:

    Interesting read as usual. It got me thinking, though…

    If by some fortunate incident you were given the possibility to coach Steph for some time, what would be some actual setups/drills you would use to further the development of such an incredibly advanced player like Steph Curry? My favorite approach to balance skill differences in youth basketball is to use 1-on-1 games, pairing players up in challenging constellations as to get each player automatically into their learning sweet spot. At the same time, I use confined areas, additional defenders to put the ball handler into a disadvantageous situation, allow/demand physical contact etc.

    Would things like these be applicable to challenge someone of Curry’s caliber in your opinion?

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    To me, the hardest part of training an NBA player is the short offseason and the need to recover. As I mentioned, I probably would experiment with some of these drills and the others that I have seen Curry doing with his trainer, not because I believe that they are magical, but because they are stationary and do not require a lot of physical effort. Within the next five years (maybe two), the training will be virtual reality, so you will be able to practice moves in relation to virtual defenders in 3-D space. That’s where training is going. You’ll be able to simulate full-speed movement without requiring the player to exert full-speed physical effort.

    For your players, I agree with everything that you suggested. I used to do primarily 1v1 and 1v2; now I prefer some 2v2 and 2v3 because ultimately, when trapped, the correct decision is to pass. If passing is not an option, you change the player’s posture and behavior. Is that teaching a bad habit? Maybe. However, if the objective is not just to advance the ball but to advance the ball and enter it with a pass to a teammate, that is more like what you want in a game. I used to do a game called 2v2 Gauntlet that is probably in Cross Over, if you have it. 5-6 sets of 2. One pair on offense; the other pairs on defense with the ability to move into only certain areas of the court (quarter court, basically). Offense tried to advance the ball to the other end. This requires passing and dribbling under pressure.

    There are other things that I do, but I don’t want to go through all of them, as they are part of my next book that is nearly finished.

  3. Coachumlaut says:

    Thanks. Crossover is on my shelf, I’ll have a look at it again. One of my current favs is this 1 on 1 game, I’ll copy and paste what I posted already in another forum. Maybe it’ll be beneficial for others as well.

    I recently stumbled across this drill right here, and really like it, because it’s so adaptable as well as highly energetic. Forgot where I found it though, sorry… O1 and X1 start at the sideline, between middle line and 3 pt line, with 2 cones positioned at the sideline at the top of the 3 pt line extended to limit the accessible area. On the coaches command O1 rips the ball and tries to dribble to the other sideline within 5 seconds without crossing the boundaries. If he doesn’t succeed, he is out and the next 2 players step in. Should he make it to the sideline in less than 5 seconds (foot on the sideline), he dribbles up to the circle, touches it with his foot and then attacks the basket in a direct line. In the meantime, X1 has sprinted from the sideline underneath the basket, touched the baseline and then closes out on O1.

    You can run this with a scoring system: Baskets count 2 points, defense gets an extra point if O1 exceeds the 5 second limit in the first part of the drill.

    Use both sides of the floor simultaneously.

    Variations:

    – instead of using 5 seconds on the coach’s command, limit the number of available dribbles
    – confine the available space for the drive to the basket (see Option 1 in the screenshot)
    – X1 has to touch the weakside block before closing out, while O1 has to touch the ballside block before getting out using a retreat dribble (see Option 2)
    – and so on…

    s9.postimg.org/mcw3w1mkv/S25_C_415100810330_Page_1.jpg

  4. Coach Z says:

    I wonder if Steph really knows why he is able to dribble like he does. I wonder what percentage he thinks comes from the above type drills. I agree with you that very little of these stationary drills with tennis ball, cones, etc translate to the game for a younger player. Does Steph know that his extraordinary skills came from the thousands of hours playing his dad, brother, sisters, friends in 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 games and from watching hours and hours of NBA games in person (probably as a ball boy on the baseline) ? It’s sad that people all over the country will have their kids start wearing these glasses and toss tennis balls at them thinking it will result in better in game dribbling.

  5. Tom Curtiss says:

    Brian, nice to read your article here on “Dribbling Drills and Myths!” I agree fully with your comments on using Tennis Balls or other things to make the drill seem more complex. It isn’t real when you are on the court and facing good defenders. We really try hard to make our drills “game like” to get a better transfer.

    Thanks for your view point.

    Tom Curtiss
    Shot Science Basketball

  6. BrianMcCormick says:

    Coach Z:

    I remarked on this to someone last year about Curry’s shooting; I have seen two shooting coaches (or their followers) who argue that they teach shooting differently claim that Curry is an example of their method. And, depending not the shot, they are not incorrect. However, it is funny that they argue against each other, and point to the same example as their model. Because he is the best shooter, everyone wants to point to one example that proves their point, and that one example may be accurate, but not every shot is the same as that one example.

    My point is that so many people want to attribute talent, skill, improvement, etc. to one thing, that we ignore the complexity of the talent development process. Last season, the media attributed the improvement of a second-year player to his team, because his team has a staff known for its skill development. I know the assistant often cited as their top skill development guy. I watched a game and heard this and texted the assistant that I know. He took no credit. The player had been away with his national team all summer, and the assistant attributed much of his improvement to the practices and games with his national team (not to mention the natural improvement that I believe happens in a player’s second year at a level because of the comfort with routines, speed of play, coach’s expectations, lifestyle, etc; essentially, you adapt to the new level toward the end of the first season, and see much of the improvement in year 2). But, the narrative was that this team excels in player development, and he improved, therefore he is testament to the team’s work.

    We want easy answers to complex questions, and we like to point to the best player as evidence of our easy answer. I would argue that all of it helped Curry improve. Anything will tend to have a small positive effect, especially for a short time. However, the question is whether or not it will have the biggest or longest effect – is it worth the time and effort.

  7. Ross says:

    I agree 100% with the article. We see guys like Steph Curry and Blake Griffin doing these drills and people assume that’s why they are so good on the dribble. I’m sure guys like Roy Hibbert or Ian Mahinimi do similar drills yet it’s unlikely that you’ll see them dribble full court in a game, nevermind set up an offence.
    These are innate abilities that these guys have. You can improve on them, but it’s got to be there in the first place.
    Even talking about Steph Curry’s grandad’s place is interesting. I’m sure Seth Curry would have played on that court too. He’s a good player but no where near the level of Steph. Did they approach that practice time the same way? Who knows.

  8. BrianMcCormick says:

    Ross:
    I don’t agree that these are necessarily innate abilities. There are certain underlying qualities and abilities that enhance Surry’s ability to shoot and dribble, but I do not believe that the entire dribbling or shooting skill is innate. If it was, he wouldn’t need to practice so much.

    As for Seth, now that you mention it, in the stories about Steph’s formative years, I have never heard Seth mentioned. In the pictures of Steph watching his dad shoot before his games, I have never noticed Seth in the pictures. The difference between Steph and Seth is especially unusual because the youngest sibling generally becomes the better athlete.

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