I start with the premise that the game is the best teacher. In every moment of a game, players make decisions. Even when I stand in the corner, I make the decision to spot up rather than cut to the basket (of course, this is different when the coach controls everything and tells the player to stand in the corner, regardless of what happens, but that’s not how I coach).
No drill can replicate all the small decisions that we make on the court or develop the experience to see and feel the right decisions. Intuition comes from experience, and players need experience to make these decisions.
Coaches often refer to statistics that show that players spend 90-98% of the game without the ball in their hands. When we think about decision-making, we tend to think of decision-making with the ball. What about the decisions without the ball? How many drills focus on this 90+% of the game? Some defensive drills address the 50% of the time spent on defense, but what about the 40-48% of the time on offense when one does not possess the ball? How do you practice the movements and decisions in a drill? How do you teach spacing or when to cut and when to spot up in a block shooting drill? Doesn’t making the correct decision as to whether or not to spot up or cut have a lot to do with one’s shooting success, especially considering that tight defense reduces shooting percentages in the NBA by 12%. I imagine the effect of defense is even greater with less skilled, non-NBA players.
Because the game is the best teacher, we should play only games, right? Not necessarily. Not all games are created equal. As the competitive pressure increases or the audience grows, players are less likely to experiment or try new skills. By doing what they have always done, they are not improving; they are not stretching their skills. This may be okay for professional players, but it is not how we should coach developing players. As a coach, you want this behavior in a close game in the playoffs, but is that how you want players to play during the offseason or during practice scrimmages?
Similarly, if players spend 98% of the game without the ball, do those two minutes on the ball provide enough repetitions to improve dribbling, passing, shooting, and finishing skills? Probably not. Although players spend most of the game without the ball, ultimately it is the plays with the ball that matter the most, as shooting percentage (true shooting percentage or effective field goal percentage) is the statistic that best correlates with winning. Players have more ball contacts – more opportunities to pass, dribble, shoot, and finish – in 3v3 games compared to 5v5 games, but are those repetitions sufficient?
We use drills to increase repetitions of a specific skill and to simplify the skill to improve the skill performance. These are valid reasons for incorporating drills into practice, but the execution often is flawed.
To increase the repetitions of a specific skill, the repetitions must be specific to the skill execution in the game. Dribbling through cones is a different challenge, and a different skill, than dribbling in a game. The main objective when dribbling through the cones is to complete a course as quickly as possible; the main objective when dribbling in a game is to create a pass or shot. The primary visual cues when dribbling through cones are the cones; in a game, the primary visual cues are the defenders, the basket, and your teammates. When dribbling through cones, your visual orientation is on the ground; in a game, the ground gives you no information relevant to completing your objective. Therefore, dribbling through cones does not increase the repetitions of a specific skill used in the game. It is a fake fundamental; it appears to practice something important, but in reality, there is very little transfer from the practice to the game because of the different objectives and perceptual information.
Tag incorporates some perceptual information and increases repetitions by giving everyone a basketball and removing other skills (passing, shooting). Playing 2v1 or 1v1 gives the offense an advantage and increases the number of repetitions compared to a 5v5 game. The coach also can set up the drill in specific areas or with specific constraints to emphasize specific situations in which to improve one’s dribbling.
To simplify the skill, we reduce the complexity. Complexity is temporal-spatial; it is related to the amount of time and space that you have to perform a skill. When you reduce the number of players on the court, and maintain the same-sized court, you increase the time and space available. There are fewer potential interactions. Fewer potential interactions reduce the cognitive load because decision-making is simplified. In 2v2, when you run a pick-and-roll, ultimately there are two options: you shoot or you pass to your teammate. You have to decide when to pass or shoot, but you have only three people to read: Two defenders and one teammate. Also, your technical skill performance – passing and dribbling – does not have to be as precise because of the lack of help defenders. In 5v5, you have the same basic options – pass or shoot – but you have three additional passing options, and you have to read the location, movement, and intent of 6 additional players.
Too often, when we simplify the skill, we remove the skill from the game context. We eliminate the interactions rather than reducing them. We remove the decision making and focus strictly on the physical element. This may be appropriate, especially with beginners, as some players may need to eliminate the perceptual elements to concentrate solely on the physical. However, when we remove all perceptual variables to concentrate on the physical elements, the next step should not be a 5v5 game; we should not add all of the complexity at once.
Because the game is the best teacher, we start with the game. When additional repetitions or simplicity is required, we increase time and space, reduce potential interactions, or eliminate other skills to concentrate on the specific skill (for instance, eliminate dribbling to concentrate on passing in a no-dribble game). Depending on the skill, we can reduce all the way down to 1v1. When offensive players need more simplicity, the drill can give the offense an advantage. When this remains too complex, we can move to an isolated drill to increase the physical repetitions in order to improve the learning outcomes. However, these drills should represent the task correctly, unlike dribbling through the cones. Often, the difficulty is not the physical element, but combining the physical with the perceptual; isolated physical practice will not improve the skill in these instances because the practice does not address the weakness.