The evolution of basketball, play, and practice

Kobe Bryant’s comments earlier this season about the lack of skill development in American players highlighted the angst felt by many who are involved with basketball in the United States. Whether right or wrong, basketball has changed over the last generation. I find it hard to argue that the U.S. cannot produce skilled players anymore when I watch NBA games with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and others, but when I watch recruiting videos of 18 and 19 year-old non-elite players from the U.S. and Europe, I find myself favoring the European players (Of course, part of the argument that is missing is that I am comparing players who play for the junior national teams in their home countries to players who would be ranked well outside the top 250 players in the United States). 

For the last decade or more, one of my questions has centered around practice, skills trainers, and early specialization. Players today play more organized basketball and receive far more coaching than I did as a youth, but when I watch players from my neighborhood who are sub-elite as I was, I do not feel as though the extra playing, practicing, and coaching has enhanced their skill development in any way. Part of this is probably the old man in me, but when I watch games with my friends, we are convinced that we were more skilled, although less athletic, than the players in similar situations to ours.

If players play, practice, and receive coaching more, why is the skill level stagnant?

Many blame the coaches and AAU. In many ways, coaches are more knowledgeable than when I played. There are more books, videos, DVDs, clinics, etc. for coaches to learn. They may not be better coaches, as coaching encompasses many things, but today’s coaches tend to know more about developing various fundamentals, different offenses, defenses, and more.

AAU is a problem, but not in the way that it is blamed most often. Yes, players probably play too many games. However, in the offseason when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I probably played a pickup game of some kind – recess, open gym, park – almost every day. Our offseason in the spring was playing pickup for 90 minutes to 2 hours followed by lifting weights for an hour 2-3 times per week. Then, we played in a loosely organized spring league on Sundays, but the league was not affiliated with clubs or high schools: You signed up, and they put you on a team. After our games in the league, we often went to the park and played pickup games or 21, and on Sunday nights, I played 3v3 at a local indoor court. Between all of these games, I cannot imagine that teenagers today play more AAU/club games in the spring and summer than we did.

Therefore, to me, the game are not the problem. It is the kind of games. From the last game of our high school season until tryouts in June for our summer teams, I had no coaching. I had no personal trainer. I had no skills coach. I had no organized practice. Even in the spring league, we never practiced, and the coaches were basically there to substitute and prevent fights. Somehow, we managed to play the entire league one spring without a coach; we were the leftovers, and myself and two high school teammates basically took over. If anyone asked, we said that my dad was our coach, and that he was on his way. It really was not fair to the other five guys on the team, because we almost never left the game, but so be it. It happened.

I remember when I was in junior high school, and one of my older friends made the high school varsity summer league team. He told us about his summer schedule. They were going to play 40 games in 6 weeks between local summer leagues, team camps, and a couple tournaments. The parents and coaches thought that the idea of playing so many games during the summer was amazing. We looked forward to it. Nobody said that the players were playing too many games or they might burnout. Everyone thought that the schedule was the advantage, and the reason that my high school was competing for state championships. To pay for the games and the travel, the players worked at the high school basketball camps for elementary and middle school children. That week of camp at the high school was the most coaching that 95% of those children received between February when the middle school season ended and November when it started again, and the coaches were varsity high school players.

That was the offseason. A spring filled with unstructured activities followed by a bunch of games with the high school team for 6 weeks during the summer. The elite players made a travel team and went to the Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas with an All-Star Team from the entire city.

Compared to basketball today, the biggest difference is not the total number of hours or the number of games: The biggest difference is the amount of structured, organized, and adult-centered activities.

Coaches blame AAU because they believe that games and tournaments have replaced practice. In my experience, the AAU games and tournaments have replaced unstructured play.

In an attempt to recover the learning that has been lost by the absence of the unstructured play, players have turned to skills trainers. Parents believe that the AAU team does not practice enough on fundamentals, and they take their sons or daughters to a skills trainer to compensate for the vacuum.  This idea never crossed the minds of parents of children my age.

Therefore, unstructured games have been replaced by AAU Tournaments and sessions with skill trainers. Despite the organization, coaching, and specific skill training, the game has not improved (in the estimation of many), and the answer, according to many, is replacing games and tournaments with more structured practices.

In The 21st Century Basketball Practice, Fake Fundamentals, and to a certain extent SABA: The Antifragile Offense, I have presented an argument, and hopefully solutions, for the reasons that the extra structure that has replaced the unstructured learning of my youth has fallen short.

Imagine the differences between a pickup game and a session with a skills trainer. I recently have heard coaches blame the obsession with individual skill workouts for the decreasing emphasis on passing the basketball. When I went to the park to play pickup games, I never brought my ball because balls had a way of turning up missing at the park. Therefore, I joined with others who were shooting. If you made the shot, you got change; if not, you rebounded. There is passing involved; there is randomness and variability; there is a delay between shots. At a skills session, someone rebounds for you; you never have to pass the ball; and you shoot repetitions from the same spot over and over in quick succession.

Once the game starts, you adapt to new teammates and new defenders. After a while, if you play on the same courts, you grow familiar with players. My Sunday night games were played against the same guys almost every weekend. Initially, however, you have to learn. There are no coach’s instructions or plays to follow. When a guy manages to cut into your driving lane every time, you figure out how to adapt. When everyone wants to be the point guard, you adapt. When you get stuck on a bigger or quicker guy, you adapt. Every game, every possession presents a new learning experience. Does a skills session present these same learning experiences? Does an organized offseason practice in advance of a tournament present these learning experiences? Does a spring league with the same opponents and teammates as the high school season present the same learning experiences?

How do we learn? When do we learn? Do we learn by taking the same exact shot six times in a row?  Do we learn by training with the same coach and/or skills trainer year-round? Do we learn by practicing with the same teammates for 3-4 years? These experiences enhance performance (familiarity with teammates, shooting the same exact shot repeatedly), but not learning. What is the goal for the offseason, performance or learning?

Why do we believe that the biggest developmental phase for a college player is between his freshmen and sophomore seasons? Why is the biggest jumps for most NBA players between their first and second seasons? Is it the access to better coaches? Is it the better facilities? Is it better practice competition? Is it more games? Yes, to an extent, it is all of it. The big jumps occur because players adapt to the new surroundings, the new level of competition, the new teammates, the new coaches, etc.

After four years of high school, they have adapted to a certain level. During the first year, they are learning, but the learning does not always translate to immediate performance. By the second year, the learning has solidified, and improved performance is expected. This could be one reason that research has found that those who go one-and-done improve more than those who stay in college. The players never plateau: They learn and adapt and before they can show the new performance levels, they move to a higher level of competition where they have to learn and adapt again.

This is a long-winded way of stating that AAU is not the problem. Coaches are not the problem. The players are not the problem. The generation is not the problem.

The problem is that we need to replace the self-directed learning that once occurred during the offseason in pickup games and at the park. This learning was more random and variable than most practice sessions. It was more game-like than most practice sessions. It forced players to be more adaptable than most structured games. It was far from perfect, and in many ways, that is why it was effective.

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

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4 Responses to “The evolution of basketball, play, and practice”

  1. Scott Walters says:

    I buy it. Now….how?

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    1. Parents make better choices in terms of club programs/coaches.
    2. Realize that one does not need a coach to learn; you can play or practice on your own.
    3. More informal games; fewer formal games.
    4. During the high school offseason, let the players play. Do not use the time to memorize even more plays.
    5. If the high school-age AAU/club program us for exposure, don’t play in tournaments outside of recruiting windows. Allow players to use that time for rest, other sports, working out, or pick up games.
    6. School districts and rec centers can offer more open gym hours for players to play.

  3. Clay Kallam says:

    I’m running open gyms right now, and a young coach will help me this year — and he’s very good at skill work, and a good coach. But one thing I like to do at open gyms (as well as during practices and even during games) is let players figure out what they can do and can’t do.

    Over the years, some girls have surprised me because they’ve figured out how to do things on the court that I couldn’t have anticipated they would — but if I had limited them, they wouldn’t have added those abilities. Of course, some girls try stuff and never get it, and at some point, that has to be pointed out.

    Still, giving players the freedom to make mistakes and not, as my young coach wants to do, criticizing them for bad shots and bad decisions immediately will pay dividends. If you want the most out of all your players, at some point, you have to let all your players try to find their own way, even if the first steps on the path are very, very shaky.

  4. BrianMcCormick says:

    Clay:
    That’s an important point. Unintentionally, our instructions and demonstrations can limit players. I saw this last year when watching Mike McKay of Canada Basketball work out with a provincial team. He explained a drill, and sent them to use the entire gym. The players were paired off, and there were 9 or 10 pairs for 6-8 baskets in the gym. He did not tell the players where to start or how to finish, but every group went to the spot where every team starts its pregame layup drills, and every player attempted to finish a traditional right-hand layup. Subconsciously, through years of playing, they had learned that a layup drill starts from a specific spot, and unless otherwise instructed, a traditional layup should be used. Why should every drill start from there? How many times does a player drive from half court in a straight line to the basket for a layup? What about other angles? What about other shots? This happens with virtually any team with players who have experience because that is virtually the first thing that players learn. Start here for a layup.

    That may be an unimportant example, but it demonstrates what happens with a lot of our instructions. I see players who have open shots or open driving lanes, but they have to triple threat first rather than just going because that’s what they do in drills. The drill, which attempts to teach something that most coaches value, has a negative consequence in some cases.

    The perfect example is an NBA workout that I watched. Player development coach was working with the PG on right-handed layups off the right foot, the exact shots that youth coaches spend years trying to get children not to shoot! Anyway, the player could not do it. He didn’t get a single rep right. Later, they played a pickup game. The PG attacked and shot a right-handed layup off of his right foot. The coach got his attention. The player said, “I don’t know what I did. I just made a shot.” Oftentimes, players can do something when presented with constraints that force a specific skill execution that they can’t do without those constraints or when consciously trying to do something.

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