Recently, I read several articles that suggested that children need more skill development. Of course. It is the same as suggesting that players should play hard or that practice makes you better. These are uncontroversial statements with which almost nobody disagrees. However, nobody defines skill development. It is similar to fundamentals. These are terms that are used frequently and rarely defined because everyone assumes that we know what each other means. What do people mean by skill development?
Based on tweets, articles, and YouTube videos, skill development is synonymous with unopposed practice: A single player performing a drill that incorporates aspects of a recognizable basketball skill, such as dribbling, shooting, or finishing.
When I searched for “skill development for basketball”, this was the first video on YouTube. What’s the purpose? Where’s the skill? First, the coach tells the players which move to do. It is a preplanned move without any defender. Is that how moves are made in games? Second, the coach tells them exactly where to change directions. Third, when do players make 180-degree change-of-direction moves? Again, what’s the purpose?
This is not skill development. There is no skill involved with this drill. This drill practices the technique of dribbling and layups. Will it improve performance in games? Doubtful.
I read a comment online about a women’s basketball team this weekend that said that the team had not spent enough time in layup lines because they apparently missed layups in a game. Do players really need more half to three-quarter speed layups at an ideal angle with no defense to improve game performance? Basketball Canada’s Performance Director Mike MacKay says that the most missed shot in basketball is the poor-angle layup. Why do players shoot layups at a poor angle? Defense. What aren’t players practicing in traditional layup lines? Poor-angle layups against defenders! The practice does not match the game situations.
A drill like the one above looks important, especially when led by an NCAA Coach of the Year, but it has nothing to do with skill development. This is the problem with comments about skill development that lack definitions. If these people want children to spend more time in drills like the one above, then I disagree. I do not think that children need more time in these drills. Children do not need more time with fake fundamentals. Children need more time developing skills, and skill development, in my world, requires the constraints of the game.
Now, there is a time and place for players to work on specific technique, especially with beginners or players attempting to change a habitual technique to a new performance. However, most practice appears to focus on technique with almost no skill development.
The drill above “produced 16 All Americans and four National Players of the Year” at the junior-college level. Sure it did. The coach says “game speed” about 15 times. What is game speed? Game speed is meaningless when you are making a preplanned move. Cones don’t play defense. When coaches yell out “game speed”, they refer to speed of movement, but the far more difficult aspect is speed of thought. It is easy to go fast from point to point when you know the exact location and move in advance. It is much different to attack a defender at speed and make a decision as to when to make a move and which move to make. That is the skill. Dribbling around cones is just technique. It is not complex; it is not even hard.
Again, if this is the type of skill development that people want more of, I disagree. Players would improve more by playing nothing but pickup games than by doing hours of these repetitive technique drills. But, of course, the practice looks good. The coach says all of the right things. The coaches had some success. Of course the success was attributable to these drills! And that is how these fake fundamentals persist from generation to generation. Everyone agrees with the need for skill development, successful coaches call these drills skill development, so everyone does these drills or something similar.
Skill is more than the action; skill includes the perception, which requires scanning the environment (devoting attention to the right areas based on anticipation and previous experiences), interpreting visual cues (using past experience), and making decisions. Without the perception – when the coach tells you when to go, where to do, and what move to use – the practice is technique, not skill.