The problem with two-ball dribbling drills

For the last year, many people have made a big deal about Stephen Curry’s pregame dribbling drills and attributed his dribbling acumen to these drills. These drills are neither hard nor complex, and every month or so, a video goes viral of a 6 or 8-year-old performing similar drills. Here is the latest 6-year-old dribbling phenom featured on ESPN this week:

Now, I like two-ball drills, and they can motivate players to practice because it is easy to see improvement. There is a time and place to practice them. However, these drills do not show anything more than the player’s familiarity with the drills, rhythm, and coordination. Rhythm and coordination are important to basketball success, and they are a reason that I use two-ball drills with young players. Unfortunately, we too often confuse success in the drills with actual dribbling skill as required in a game.

Today, I worked with a player, and we used some two-ball drills. The drills were more of a distraction than anything, as my purpose was to rehab the player from a nagging injury. The rehab was based primarily on walking and running, and I added some basketball drills to make it less boring, as the primary goal was increasing the length of time (endurance) rather than intensity, technique, or anything else.

The player is a college point guard and probably deserved to be all-league last season. She had multiple games with 8+ assists and had games of 20+ points and 10+ assists. By any measure, she is a competent, and probably a very good, dribbler in basketball games at a reasonably high level of competition playing a schedule that included several nationally-ranked teams.

When we started, I told her to do the two-ball drills that she does usually, as I know that she likes to do two-ball drills on her own before practice and games, like Curry. However, like Curry, she typically does these drills in a stationary position, and I asked her to walk while doing these drills, as walking was the primary purpose. Because of her experience with the drills, she quickly transitioned from stationary to walking and walking backwards with few mistakes. It was not difficult. These were the beginning two-ball drills:

After these drills, I introduced a few drills that she had never tried previously. She struggled initially. These were simple drills, and drills that I demonstrated competently although I have not touched a basketball since October and do not consider myself to be an expert dribbler.

and

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Simple drills (although more complex than Curry’s warmup because they include movement). I expect a college point guard to be able to do these drills without too much difficulty.

Her first attempts were messy, and she made mistakes. She struggled. However, after one or two trips to half-court and back, she could do the drills.

Now, did her dribbling ability improve between the first repetition and the third repetition? No. This is the learning effect. Regardless of one’s skill, it takes a few repetitions to learn something new. In this case, she did not need to learn to dribble; she has demonstrated dribbling proficiency, and her success or failure in an unopposed two-ball drill would not change her proven success in games. Instead, she simply had to learn the timing, rhythm, and coordination of the specific drill. That’s what she learned by doing the drill. She learned a specific pattern that is useful only in the singular drill.

This is the problem with two-ball drills. For beginners, they have some value because beginners need to learn to manipulate the ball and develop their rhythm and coordination. For younger players, the two-ball drills can have a motivational value. However, for most players, these drills teach a pattern. Once the pattern is mastered, there is no more learning by repeating the drills over and over.

Is repeating the pattern the reason that Curry is an adept dribbler? No. Instead, the rhythm and the pattern likely have a positive benefit in terms of routine and relaxation. As a pregame routine, there is a mental and emotional benefit that the drills may provide. But, in terms of learning and improving, two-ball drills teach a specific pattern that is useful for the specific drill and has limited, if any, transfer beyond the drill.

Are expert dribblers good at the two-ball drills? Generally, yes. Are the two-ball drills responsible for their expert dribbling? No. Two-ball drills primarily teach a pattern, which is why proficiency in the drills is based more on exposure than skill. Truthfully, when non-beginners struggle with these drills, it is due more often to lack of coordination or rhythm than to poor dribbling skill. The limiting factor is the ability to repeat the pattern, not the ability to dribble.

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

3 thoughts on “The problem with two-ball dribbling drills

  • Brian – I enjoyed reading this article! I do think you have a point about developing rhythms and patterns with 2 ball dribbling drills. I do think this type of dribbling drill can help improve ball handling ability when going from stationary to running or walking. By adding running and/or walking in to the mix, it makes it tougher to develop systematic patterns. Performing different drills with 2 basketballs makes it a lot tougher to develop direct patterns. 2 Ball Dribbling drills definitely help you to react in ways to make your ball-handling better with both hands. Great article!

    Here is a youtube video of me performing the 2 ball dribbling drill: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIYygNvyZBU

  • Lamar:
    If a player can dribble capably in a game, how are 2-ball drills enhancing his or her skills? For beginners, there is some benefit because they are developing ball control. Once the ball control isn’t their limiting factor in a game, what is the purpose of a 2-ball drill? What specifically does the drill improve? Once the pattern is learned, how does the drill improve game dribbling? Essentially, for non-beginners, the challenge is to learn the pattern, but the pattern does not translate to the game. There are some ancillary benefits, such as confidence, rhythm, kinesthetic differentiation, and some other aspects of basic coordination, and these may lead to small improvements in dribbling if these are weaknesses of the player. However, there is little specificity to the game and consequently direct transfer is limited.

    I wrote about something similar previously:
    http://learntocoachbasketball.com/steph-curry-dribbling-drills-and-myths

    “However, that is the point: There is a difference between complicated and complex.” Two-ball drills are complicated, but not complex.

  • This is almost 2 years old article but I have to comment, I am glad I am not the only one thinking about effectiveness of basketball drills. After some period of repetition most drills have limited transfer and many are detrimental to the targeted applicable skill. That will depend on the physiology of the athlete, mainly the balance of cognitive power within the motor cortex of the individual. To maximize benefits of a workout it must be tailored to a specific person. Everyone is wired a bit different 🙂

    In any case game-applicable learning seems to be happening at the beginning of each drill when the athlete stumbles for a few reps. Learning may possibly be at the maximum when random movements transition into a rhythmic repetition.
    So it makes sense that doing different randomly mixed up drills for a short time, e.g. under 10 seconds each, would provide most learning opportunities and maximize benefits of the workout. Off course this is after the initial beginners phase when learning the drills and developing reasonable level of ball control in the first place.

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