Training Partners and Playing Time

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.22

During the playoffs, NBA analysts often spoke about Russell Westbrook and Derek Rose training together with Rob McClanaghan in Santa Monica all summer. Training with a similarly talented, similarly driven player is the best way to improve.

In my MMA class, Bart spoke about the importance of training partners. In MMA, or any martial arts discipline, it is hard to train without a partner: you cannot practice a sweep or a submission in jiu jitsu without someone to sweep or submit. Bart talked about the mutual learning curve: the more your training partner improves, the more that you will improve. Westbrook and Rose illustrate this very well.

On most teams, the training partners are one’s teammates. However, unlike in a martial arts class or even an NBA off-season training facility like McClanaghan’s, teammates do not get the same opportunities. Teammates are teammates, but also competitors for playing time. This creates opportunities or leads to dissension.

Often, coaches try to prevent dissension by giving players a role. In Swen Nater’s and Ronald Gallimore’s book about Jon Wooden, You Haven’t Taught until They’ve Learned, Nater writes about his frustration with a lack of playing time. He met with Wooden, and Wooden inspired him by telling him how valuable he was because he had to push Bill Walton in practice and help Walton improve.

The problem, usually, is that playing time (and playing time usually leads to differences in practice repetitions too) usually affects the rate at which players improve (the younger the player, the more the playing time is important for development). Let’s imagine that Rose and Westbrook were teammates, not training partners. Rose plays 40 minutes per game, leaving Westbrook with eight minutes per game. Is Westbrook going to improve at the same rate as Rose? Doubtful. He may retain the athleticism and size to push Rose in drills from a defensive perspective, but the longer the discrepancy continues, the greater the disparity in their skills will be. Fortunately, they play for different teams so each gets to start and play 40 minutes a game, so they return in the summer and continue to challenge each other.

This is the forgotten element of playing time at the youth, high school and college level. Players have a mutual learning curve in practice. The more that one’s teammates improve, the more he or she will improve. If only five players play in each game, they improve, while the other seven players stagnate. Practice scrimmages become less competitive as the discrepancy grows bigger game by game.

During my last season coaching high school basketball, every player played in every half of every game. Based on scores, we improved more than any team in our area or our league. I believe much of the improvement stemmed from competitive practices because of the mutual learning curve. We did not have big mismatches in practice. The worst players developed because they received real game time, which increased their motivation, attention and intensity at practice. Subsequently, they pushed the better players to perform better because they were playing harder, paying more attention and developing better skills.

Most people disagree with the philosophy of playing everyone. However, if players are not playing, there has to be another way to supplement their development. Wooden worked extra outside of practice with Nater so that Nater could continue to push Walton. Without the playing time, the coach has to structure some other way to enhance the players‘ development to maintain the positive mutual learning curve or everyone’s improvement stagnates (which, honestly, is what generally happens with most teams; they improve their timing, their rotations and their sets during the season, but individually, players stagnate).

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

5 thoughts on “Training Partners and Playing Time

  • Great post, Brian. I agree entirely. One question: do you think players, when competing in practice, should be paired against players of equal skill? Will a lesser-skilled player develop at a higher or slower rate while practicing against a better-skilled opponent/teammate? I see both arguments, but lately have begun to see a bigger disparity in this area, too.

    Additionally, how does this impact team-building? If the best players are often separated, will girls resent them? Your position on Question 1 would obviously affect that response, too.

  • I match up girls in my head to create equal teams, but I don’t generally tell the girls who to guard. In drills, the only time that I split up groups was social reasons, as a couple girls would not accomplish anything if paired together. In scrimmage situations, I think girls generally know who to guard. I will challenge a girl who I think may lack confidence or may be picking an easier target because of a fixed mindset or other reason. In that instance, I will switch a match-up and challenge the girl.

    I do see the benefit from both sides: weaker with stronger and strongest with strongest. I would alternate. I try not to group the same players together all the time for competitive and team-building reasons. When a really good player is with a weaker player, there is an opportunity for the good player to lead and assist the weaker player, which is a valuable learning experience for each.

    Because I play a lot of 3v3 as opposed to 5v5, players have many different match-ups. If the majority of time is spent in 5v5, players can pair up and only face off against one player. In 3v3, they match up against three other players as a minimum. As I said, I try to change these teams every practice too, so players play with and against different players.

  • Training with a better player will actually improve the weaker player. Although this training will not have any impact on the better player, if it improves the weaker player, it may actually be beneficial for the team.

  • Jonathan:

    Three points to think about:

    1) If the weaker player improves, he can challenge the better player better, thus making the better player work harder and ultimately helping him improve more.
    2) The better player can work on a weakness against the weaker player rather than only sticking to his strengths, and therefore improve by adding a new skill or improving the performance of a weaker skill.
    3) The better player can help the weaker player, thereby improving his learning through the teaching process. Research has shown the cooperative learning process to enhance the development of a motor skill.

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