Thoughts from a Long Time Reader

First of all, I’d like to thank Brian for allowing me to post on his site. Over the years, I’ve been a regular reader of Brian—whether through his books, the Hard2Guard Newsletter, or this blog—and I’ve had the chance to have many discussions with him in the comments section of this site, on Twitter, and through email. I’m honored to have been given the chance to contribute to this blog and look forward to doing so moving forward. To give some background, I don’t have outstanding credentials. No PhD here. I’ve been coaching youth basketball for the last 5 years, and I don’t really have a list of achievements that I can give you. Hopefully whatever Brian sees in me, maybe someone can detect it and let me know because I’m way in over my head with this.

Before I came across Brian’s work, I had no idea what a games approach was. I was an old-fashioned, stress the fundamentals, use all the standard drills, stick to the script type of coach. As I went along, however, something nagged at me. The athletes who performed best in the drills weren’t necessarily the ones that performed best in the game. Many coaches attribute this to athleticism, but that answer didn’t quite jibe with me. The best performers weren’t necessarily those who could jump the highest, or run the fastest. The best players were, I found, those who were mentally intuitive, who had great court vision and could think a step ahead on the basketball court. The best players also had a high basketball I.Q. I often felt like the success of my players almost happened independently of our work done in our drills, because most of the drills don’t teach the court vision, the tempo of the game, and the basketball IQ.

When I first read Cross Over and eventually found this website, from the outset I was intrigued by this idea of teaching games for understanding, of the science behind motor learning and the gap between how coaches teach and how players learn. The idea of the perception-action coupling, that all skills include both the perception and the action, that developing skilled players entails including, as much as possible, the perceptual qualities of the game, was an eye-opener for me as a coach. Immediately I sought to implement a games approach in my practices. It didn’t go so well, mostly because I didn’t know how to implement it. So the next season I went back to how I had coached before—teaching the fundamentals, drilling in a block practice fashion by working on ballhandling for five minutes, then shooting, and so on. The drills went well. I was organized. The players became more technically proficient. Even still, I was pulled in by this idea of using a games approach, and my mind constantly went back to it. As soon as the season ended, I set out to research and study this kind of approach in a number of ways.

I sought out books on the topic at hand and read as much as I could. I followed coaches and sports scientists on twitter and went through my timeline each morning, reading their discussions and favoriting the links they shared for further reading. I watched coaching DVDs and noted the drills that fit the criteria of a gamelike drill, ones that include not only the action, but the perception as well. I began building a bank of those drills that I now use in my practices. I found other blogs that share the philosophy and emailed with various coaches back and forth. I started my own blog, HoopThink, not because I felt like I had anything special to say, but because I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I wanted to get feedback from other coaches. I also learn a lot when I write things down. I’m too self conscious to keep and write a journal, but yet I’m willing to publish something for the masses to see. Go figure.

Last season, I used the approach fully for the first time, with the confidence that I had a good plan of action. It was the most fun I’ve ever had as a coach. The players’ engagement level was off the charts, and their improvement level from the beginning of the season to the end was the best that I’d seen. Since I coached three youth teams that season, I’m convinced that it wasn’t a fluke, that there was not just correlation between how our practices were run and how much the players improved, but there was causation as well—a tangible link between the theory of motor learning and the performance that occurred as a result. So you could say that I’m hooked, and I’m in it for the long haul.

For the fall, I have three teams, a 3rd grade team, a 5th grade team, and a 6th grade team. I had the 6th grade team in the summer, and the other two teams are new. I’m an AAU basketball coach for Bay City Basketball, a local grassroots program in San Francisco. AAU gets a bad rep from some corners, but I really feel that there are programs out there that do a lot of great work for the basketball community. In the winter I coach for Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where I’m Head Coach for the JV boys team and an assistant for the Varsity boys team. I also work for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, where I manage a basketball camp in the summer.

My goal, going forward, is to continue to study the games approach and use it to develop youth basketball players. I’ve decided to go back to school, a local community college, to transfer and major in Sports Psychology. I want to use my education to equip all players with the skill-set to be great players on the court and great people off the court. Coaching is my passion, and having only done it for 5 years, I have a lot to learn. As I continue along my journey and try to learn as much as possible, I look forward to posting on this blog. Hopefully other people get something out of it.

Once again, it is an honor for me that Brian has asked me to contribute to the web site. Knowledge about motor learning and sports psychology is, I feel, at the verge of a tipping point, and the Internet is the perfect catalyst for information to spread about how to coach and how kids learn. The Internet has been an absolutely pivotal source of growth for me as a young coach, this web site most of all. I look forward to being a part of this.

By Paul Cortes
Basketball Coach at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Bay City Basketball, and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department

21 thoughts on “Thoughts from a Long Time Reader

  • Thanks Coach Paul for sharing your coaching transformation. Coach Brian is one of my favorite youth basketball coach. Though I’m not a coach but a parent involved in my sons basketball education, my son calls me his coach. I’m honored.

    I have found more coaches teaching the old school way these days than I ever thought possible. Like you I have bought many of Brian’s books, videos, etc. My son has attended a few of his clinics here in Chicago. The challenge and fun part is coming up with creative ideas to have a game centered approach with just the two of us. We have a 90/10 workout plan which includes 90% game approach & 10% box drills. The drills are used for warm up for the most part. And then the fun begins.

    My sons enthusiasm and love of the sport continues to grow as does his basketball IQ. I look forward to your writing in the future Coach Paul. And thanks to you Coach B!

  • I appreciate the feedback, Nepa. I think it’s great that you are not only involved in your son’s development, but that you are actively researching and studying the art of coaching. I think that enthusiasm and love of the sport is a key positive of game-centered practice. Allowing kids to build a connection with the game, you build that love for playing that engages them and keeps them invested in their own development. That being said, whether you use a games or drill-based approach the most important thing is that you care about your son’s long-term development and well-being, Keep it up!

  • Mr. Cortes,
    Thank you for sharing your journey. Perhaps many of us are in a similiar position.

    The time has arrived for us to move on. Rather than try propagate the games theory, advance it. Share our drills and insights. Real stateside traction for the games approach will only occur when it is a common thread among those who are winning.

    I’d love to read about the ‘bank of those drills that I now use in my practices’ on your hoopthink blog or here on Brian’s blog.

    Should anyone be interested, I’d share what I’m doing. Anyone else game?


  • Thanks, JJ. The problem is, coaches that have studied and use the game-centered approach are those that care about developing their players, which means that they aren’t going to take many of the shortcuts that some coaches take to win games. Playing zone defense, running set plays, only playing the best players and barely playing the bench, cheating and playing kids down a grade, etc. So I don’t know if any developmental approach, traditional or not, will be the common thread among teams that are winning, because the common threads are more than likely to be the shortcuts just listed. At least amongst youth players.

    I have a ton of stuff written down in my notebooks that I refer to, that I need to transfer to fastdraw to make it easier to share. Posting different small-sided games is a great idea. Brian has a nice set of videos if you check out his youtube. I also recommend checking out Basketball Immersion, John Carriers website, and Train Ugly.

  • Hey there,

    The more and more I read on a games-based approach practice the more I like the idea.

    I once read this quote from Bobby Knight which is along the same lines as perception-action coupling – “Perform drills that force your players to think”.

    I believe this decision making skill is something that we don’t put enough emphasis on in drills. So as you said in the article, players can become great at the technical skills, but then struggle when it comes to game-time.

    I’d love see some of the drills you’re using published on the blog!

    – Coach Mac

  • The thing is, technical skills do get better in small-sided games. If you let the kids play a game of dribble tag where they can only dribble with the left hand, the left hand improves. If you play a game where players can’t dribble and can only make bounce passes, they improve their bounce passes. Yet there is this misunderstanding that if you don’t put your kids in isolated, block drills, you’re abandoning the fundamentals. Yes, there is a place for teaching specific techniques. I used layup progression yesterday with my 3rd graders because they do need to learn the footwork of how to shoot a layup. But the majority of practice should not be unopposed. If we acknowledge that basketball is a thinking man’s game, then why don’t the majority of practices entail that the players actually think?

  • Paul:
    I think this is a key point that I have tried to articulate previously. Playing games or using a games-based approach does not mean abdicating skill development or fundamentals. It is a way to practice and improve fundamentals in context, which is essential to the transfer from practice to games. If you watch many of the “experts” on skill development, and the videos that they post on YouTube, the drills are far removed from the game. The context is absent. The drills may lead to improvement in games, but not necessarily.

    A huge problem in skill development and coaching is the belief that improvement in practice is the same as improvement in games. Coaches often get blamed because players look good and show improvement in their block-drill individual workouts, but not in games, so parents, trainers, players, etc. blame the coach because they’re paying the trainer $100/hour so they are invested in that practice working. It’s hugely unfair to the coach. It’s one of the worst aspects of basketball in the U.S. today.

  • Each of us is scouring the internet for ways to improve our coaching and practices and we believe in game based, opposed, maximum touch practices. We see the superiority of the method. If we are right, we will outperform on the scoreboard, W/L column and in retention. And if so, others will eventually see it.

    The JV squad which competes for the best conference record every year at the same school the varisty is unable to do so will draw notice. When you lose by 1 point to a team with 4 of the best five players on the court, quietly congratulate yourself because you did right by your kids. Smile at seeing your team improve versus opponets the second time you play in the same season.

    Zones, set plays, opponents not playing their bench or playing kids down are not beating your team; if they were then our game based method would not be superior!

    I’ll make the plea again: Who else wants to stop talking about why game based is better, and instead spend energy improving the better? Who else wants to share what we are doing in practice? Brian has good material in his books. But we all coach at different levels with different philosophy’s. Who else has practice material so I can high grade what I’m doing? No one wants to know what I do?


  • JJ,

    I love your passion. I was just making the point the scoreboard cannot be the ultimate measure of our success. You’re 100% right that if we compete and improve, we can feel good about ourselves and doing right by our kids. However, those of us who decide we’re all about developing our kids have to concede that we might lose some games where others who cheat, stick their kids in zone defense, and only play their top 6 players all game might win. That being said, I do believe the games approach works and that the kids play better as a result, so it should lead to more success and people can see for themselves how much the players improve throughout the season.

    I think you’re spot on when you say that we need to move on from merely talking about using the approach and build more of a community that we can share ideas and resources. I think Brian’s done a great job of sharing drills, as have the other websites I’ve mentioned. For my part, I’m going to look to share a lot of small-sided games and ideas on my blog and when I post here as well.

  • Paul,
    Each year I set a goal to in retrospect lose a game because of going deep into bench for playing time. I play all my kids. I’ve evolved enough to have my bench be indistiguishable from starters; that is we’ll use 15 different starting lineups in a 20 game schedule. Everyone gets an opportunity. Team spirit is fantastic. We lose games each year, just never because the bench plays a lot!

  • Sharing practice specifics is the best use of our time; we can all high grade what we do. Each coach has his own unique personality, philosophy, analytical understanding, situation, level of play, access to facilities and mix of talent among the kids. My place is as a JV Girls coach at a modest sized high school and we play fast.

    The first things the girls need is a basic motor skill: the catch and finish at full speed. That is, up and down the court with two our three balls, sprint, pass, catch, finish, grab the ball out of the net and go the other way. Depending on the drill and once proficient, we can make 30+ layups in a two minute set. I’ll run three or four of these (15-20 minutes each practice) until they are proficient, then back down to two (10 minutes). Girls straight our of middle school require some time to be functional in this area; girls with a quality season of freshman basketball are close to being good at full speed layups. I know these defenseless drills might be anathema here, but girls basketball is a game of layups, period. I did come up with a progression to one of these drills which involves opposition for going forward. Last season after our final game, the officials volunteered to my AD that we were the best team they saw all year (which can’t be true): “They made their layups.” We never ever do layup lines, not even in pregame warmups.

    Turnovers are the most important basketball stat under the college level. To the real question, how do we teach cognitive awareness? What drills? What loads to teach specific behavior?

    Full court drills:
    *Football: NO DRIBBLING, score by catching ball in paint. A game to six scores is rigorous! Great press break teacher. This or “10 pass” every single practice.
    *2v2 Transition.
    *Transiton slight advantage from random spots both 2v2 and 3v3
    3v2, 2v1 is familiar drill, but it once or twice in the preseason and the kids have mastered it and we move on.
    *2v1, 1v1 is a favorite. I’m obessive about executing 2v1 properly; I love the 1v1 on the way back. Very rigorous with two balls.
    Nugget (5v4 full court, layup v paint, 10 sec shot clock)
    Diagonal. From Train Ugly guy. 2v2 using side and main baskets. Having used still not sure about it.
    Ping Pong 3v3v3 or 4v4v4. Chaotic up and down
    Blitz (2v1 trailer & 3v2 trailer) Good until the kids master the offensive advantage.

    Half court drills:
    *10 Pass or 50 pass. Complete 10 passes in a row or first team to 50 passes. NO DRIBBLING.
    *4v4 series: 4v4 start with no dribble, basket cuts, then add screen away, then load adding the dribbling for getting to the basket only. (A dribble without purpose is a turnover.) Also, 4v4 run in cirlcle pass out match up. These are always make it take; also three ball reversals or seven passes or an offensive rebound and offense stays on offense. Load for what you value. I shrink the court to at least the volleyball line. Similiar to cut throat. We use this a pregame warmup drill rather than lazy 3v2.

    Rugby Series. My press buildup, shamelessly adapted to my needs from Brian’s work. Full court can only pass backword until the front court. Used to teach stopping the ball and press rotations.
    *1v1 full court
    1v2 full court
    *2v2 full court
    2v3 full court
    *3v3 full court
    4v4 full court

    *Starred drills are used most often.

    These are the cognitive awareness drills we perform. As can be seen, we maximize touches and running in practice with the ball. We have a few other things we do in practice which do not take much time, getting a few close in shots up, for courage and toughness, and for posts. Free throws are 2 sets of 2 shots between rigorous drills to get their breath back and get water. Our transition game is taught in a buildup to scrimmanging to end practice.

    Hope this helps. There is a lot there. I high grade what we practice every year. Paul, I am really looking forward to see your bank of drills!


  • One thing that I will add about drills: Most drills that I use started as a solution for a specific problem. When I have that problem again, or when I want to emphasize that skill or aspect of a skill again, I use the drill. I don’t believe that I need a huge list of drills. Essentially, I play 2v2, 3v3, or 4v4, and I add a constraint to emphasize something specific to solve a problem. Constraints basically are used to restrict or add time or space or to overload or emphasize a skill.

    Some drills that I use – like Tip Transition as an example ( – I use on an on-going basis because I like the way that they set up a specific drill or they make a good use of space or time.

    To me, the most important aspect of drills that are less game-like is to make sure that they do not teach or rely on different cues than the game. For instance, practicing dribbling moves against a cone versus against a defender. Not only is it not game-like, and the visual cues of a game are absent, but the player’s eyes are directed downward to the cone. Making a move in space is not game-like, as there is no defender, but at least there is not the negative of the misdirected visual attention. I dislike the three-man weave for this reason too: (1) Few coaches want players to outlet and follow the pass; and (2) 90% of the pass receptions are travels, especially in young children when the drill is used most frequently. If you need to practice passing and catching on the move, why not jump stop on the catch to prevent the travel or dribble directly from the catch as one would do in the game? I use two-line passing drills into 2v2 for this with younger players, when passing and catching on the move is the problem.

  • JJ,

    That was a really detailed response and I appreciate the amount of thought and time put into it. I think it’s really interesting that you have adapted Brian’s 2v2 Rugby into a full-progression that you use to teach your press break. I’d love to see it and ask some questions! I’m also very interested in your transition buildup. The free throw between drills is similar to Bob Hurley’s validations that he uses in his practices. A lot of stuff I use is straight from Hurley as he has about 12 dvds that are just loaded with small-sided games and competitive drills.

    Like you, I try to include some kind of no-dribble drill in practice, as I feel this is the best way to work on passing. After a dynamic warm-up with halfcourt shots (shout out to Steve Kerr), I try to start with some kind of mixed transition drill, where there are no teams and the flow of the drill dictates whether players are on the court and, when they are on the court, whether they’re on offense and defense, like 3v2/2v1, which isn’t the best drill but the example I give here because everyone knows it. The key is that before I start breaking players up into teams I want them to do a drill or two together as a unit. I usually start with Cardinal 2v1, a halfcourt 2v1 drill that involves outlet passes and a chasing defender. This drill is also a part of our pregame warmup. Then I move to a full-court mixed drill.

    After the “warmup drills” we’ll separate into two teams and play some sort of full-court transition game. Usually this is something like Chris Oliver’s 3v3 Conversion or a popular drill at our program called the Olympic Drill, which has two teams that have to attack the opposite basket 3v2 with a defensive chaser and then press until the other team gets past halfcourt.

    About a half-hour in after our first water break, I’m toying with a new idea this season of breaking players into “guard/post breakdown”, a small-sided version. Since I try not to positionalize young players, I’ll break them into two equal groups and one will be working on post 1v1 one practice, and then they’ll be perimeter 1v1 the next practice—the other group vise-versa. Send them to different baskets, tell them the set up for their perimeter or post 1v1, and then allocate attention to both as they play. This isn’t fully fleshed out yet, just something I’m tossing about in my mind at the moment.

    When we come back together, I like to take different segments to work on motion-offense, man to man defense, and rebounding. For motion-O, I prefer a no dribble game where they have to to score or complete a certain number of passes in a row. They have to cut or, if you teach it, screen away after passing the ball, and for spacing purposes they must always be cutting/rolling to the rim or filling a spot, no moving aimlessly about in the midrange or 35 feet away from the basket or its a turnover.

    For defense, I use Shell drill with a command. It starts off like shell and goes live on a command. There are different commands for different days: live, switch, trap, drive, change ends, etc. I love doing this because you review the positioning but quickly move into a chaotic situation where you have to rotate and communicate just like in a real game.

    For rebounding, I like to play games where players have to fight each other to go get the ball and score inside the paint. I think it’s not so much about technique as it is desire to get after it and get the ball.

    And then of course we’ll work on our various offensive actions as well. Throw in some shooting and a scrimmage this is a jam-packed hour and a half. I know I didn’t outline many specific drills here but this is just as idea of how practices have gone for me.

    A lot of these drills are hard to explain or understand without a visual representation of how the drill works. For example, I have some kind of idea how your 2v2 or 3v3 Transition would work but the devil is in the details. I’d love to see exactly how you set it up and how the drill flows. On the same note, it’s hard to for me to explain many of the drills/games that I use here in one concise post, because I feel like I’d be sacrificing the level of detail that I’d like to give. I’m going to make it a point to share on my blog, on a regular basis, different drills that I use in my practices.

  • Paul,

    1) Yes, I love the no dribble drills; they teach a myriad list of good things. A ‘restricted dribble’ must be added at some point, restricted meaning any dribble must result in the basket being attacked. Importantly, this reinforces the drive on offense, and stopping the drive on defense. Otherwise the dribble the most overused thing is basketball. I could write a chapter on this…

    2) I use the Rugby series to teach my press. It’s a simplified Run & Jump; a man press with zone principles. I stripped it down. Everyone finds a man. We allow the inbound pass, but force it as close to the baseline as possible. The designated ‘jumper’ starts in the paint/FT area and is matched up with the inbounder. Everyone prohibits a forward pass. On the first dribble the jumper sprints to double team the dribbler (who likely has her head down). Double team occurs until the ball is passed, jumper stays on new man while other girl rotates out (important). Rotations occur from there and are taught our of our Rugby Series of drills; takes a bit to get but builds team trust. Additionally, we have two calls in the press, ‘deny’ (to increase tempo; deny entry pass, jumper starts top of key and doubles from there) and ‘jump’ (trap first pass). Both calls are to simply ‘change it up’, particularly out of an opponet timeout. Chapter 9 on Brian’s Blitz basketball is the complicated version. Forrest Larson does the best job teaching the best press imo. I could write a chapter on this…

    3) Post/guard break downs: I typically do a block of this competitively each practice. When you play bigger teams you’ll be glad you did. We switch screens on defense so all my kids learn to defend the post, and defend it well. Post play is quite important in half court offense; hi lo action is particularly powerful. Post work is fun, too. My assistant coach is strong with the posts and tends to stay in this area. I could write a chapter on this…

    4) I’m pleased with my transition buildup. Multiple out of breath officials: “Coach, are wind sprints the only thing you do in practice?” I’ll write a chapter on this. It progressive and more gamelike than the link posted. Tease: The ‘loop’ is vital.

    Sounds like more detail is sought on some of my drills. Gotta say, however, firts I’m going to look hard at what you noted in your most recent comment. Perhaps I can replace something I do with what you have there. That’s why I’m here.


  • Great conversation between the three of you. I’ve been reading Brian’s stuff this offseason, and am looking forward to implementing a lot of it this year (open gym actually starts today.) The more info, examples, and sites that we can provide, the better off everyone will be.

    I’ll try and post any results I’m seeing as the fall and winter progress. Thanks again to all!

  • A quick update from the first day of open gym (high school varsity and JV combined, 17 players attened):

    After conditioning on the track, we started with Sharks and Minnows, which worked out very well. I can see this being a staple for us. After that we tried AdiTag, which I think both the girls and I still need to be sold on. Next was a layup competition: 2 teams, each out of bounds at the half court line, one player on the line with the ball. On the whistle, they each drive for a right handed layup. After they make a shot, they pass to the next girl in line, who has come out on the HC line, and goes for a left layup, with the next girl going right handed, etc. Play to X (20) made layups. We did that one once, then I talked about the Texas layup study (48% one-foot vs. 80% two-foot) and ran it again. We finished up with 4v4 full court Cut Throat. Overall a very good start.

    Thanks again all. Looking forward to continued discussions and debates.

  • Dib:
    Sharks & Minnows and AdiTag are games I typically play with beginners/elementary school players. They are my beginning tag games. With high school players, I play individual tag, foosball tag, Swedish tag, and team tag, primarily. When I have the resources, team tag is by far my favorite tag game; when I lack the resources (balls), individual tag is usually my fallback option. Individual tag ends up a lot like Sharks & Minnows, but it’s continuous rather than stopping every time the players cross the court.

    Individual Tag:
    Foosball Tag (from my friend Casey Wheel):
    Team Tag:
    Swedish Tag (from my friend Andreas Holmgran, who is Swedish):

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