Games, drills, and instruction

Since the publication of The 21st Century Basketball Practice, and more specifically Fake Fundamentals: Volume 2, many coaches have questioned the de-emphasis on standard drills. This is predictable, as coaches have used these drills for generations. When not examined critically, they make sense. They are used so frequently that they are otherwise beyond reproach. 

The belief appears to be that one cannot teach through games. Therefore, as a coach, one uses drills to teach or one uses games and relies on the players to do the learning for themselves.

This is an interesting juxtaposition.

First, whether through drill or game, players do the learning. A coach saying or demonstrating something is not the same as a player learning something. As John Wooden said, “You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.” Players learn. A coach may or may not facilitate or enhance the learning, but the learning is done by the player.

Therefore, when the criticism is that using games relies on players to do the learning, I agree wholeheartedly. There is no other way. A coach can learn, of course, but his or her learning does not necessarily affect the players’ learning. As a coach learns more about coaching, teaching, feedback, basketball, etc., he or she may use this new understanding to enhance or adjust one’s coaching, instructing, and feedback, and this in turn may assist the learner, but this is not a 1:1 relationship. A coach’s learning affects his or her behaviors, which may affect the learner positively (or negatively).

As for using games as a primary method of teaching, a coach can instruct during games just as with drills. A coach can give feedback. A coach can manipulate games to focus on specific skills, such as with a no-dribble game. Using these methods, a coach can assist the learner through the games, just as a coach would assist the learner through a drill.

The difference is the specificity of the instruction or feedback. When a player makes an error in a three-person weave, what is the cause? What is the instruction? In my experience last fall, the most frequent feedback was to yell “thumbs down.” How many turnovers in a game are caused by the improper location of the thumbs at the end of a two-hand chest pass? Furthermore, the instruction missed the most common mistake, which was the traveling of the players as they received and passed the ball. How many turnovers are committed in an average middle-school game because of traveling violations? Conservatively, I would say over a dozen in the games that I refereed this season, and it was only that low because we overlooked so many to try and keep some flow in the games.

What is the feedback when a player makes a passing error in a 2v2 or 3v3 game? Often, the feedback will move to the perceptual side of the skill. This is an aspect of the skill that is not practiced in the drill. Therefore, we do drills to practice the physical element of a skill, but when we scrimmage, our feedback focuses on the perceptual elements, as many errors – beyond travels – are caused by something within the visual, perceptual, or cognitive elements: The mistake was due to not seeing a defender, or not perceiving the speed of movement correctly, or choosing to make the wrong pass.

In a game, my feedback is specific to the mistake. If a player makes a mistake in a 2v2 or 3v3 scrimmage at practice, there is a likelihood of a similar mistake happening in a game. By inducing the mistakes in practice, the coach can assist the players with the correction of the mistake, whether through feedback or through a simplified drill or game to increase the number of repetitions of this situation.

In this way, one uses games as a teaching tool. The coach does not rely solely on the game to do all of the teaching; the coach supplements the lessons of the game, the trial and error, with specific feedback at appropriate times to assist the learner.

When refereeing soccer, I have argued that few, if any, of the coaches who I have refereed are good at coaching. My observation has nothing to do with the specifics of their system or their style of play, and everything to do with their feedback.

Numerous times, a player has missed an open shot in front of the goal, and the coach has yelled, “Shoot at the goal,” as if the player was confused about the objectives of the game. Last weekend, however, when a player shot at the goalie from close range, the coach instructed her to shoot at the far post next time. Based on the situation, that was appropriate feedback. Now, in a perfect world, the coach could instruct through questioning, but this was in the middle of game with time constraints. Rarely is it a perfect world. Later, faced with a similar situation, she shot toward the far post and scored. This is an example of informative feedback positively changing a behavior.

When the player missed wide, and was instructed to shoot at the goal, there was no behavior change. She tried to shoot at the goal and missed. Why? I don’t know. I’m not a soccer expert. However, if a player missed a layup, and the coach said, “Shoot at the basket,” would that have any positive effect? The player was shooting at the basket; she just missed. Does she need to shoot higher? lower? use the backboard? What caused her attempt to miss? When the soccer player missed, why did she miss? Balance? Pressure? Technique? Focus? Whatever the cause, this should be addressed specifically by the feedback and during practice through game-like drills or games.

As an example, in warmups, teams shoot at goal with a goalie standing on the line. However, in games, when a forward is one on the goalie, as in the drills, the goalie always runs out at the player to take away the angle and reduce the time. Why isn’t the goalie doing this in the practice drills? The drill, and consequently the feedback related to the drill, is unrelated to the game. The drill is not teaching anything, and consequently, there is little learning by the players.

Instead, a more game-like drill or simply a SSG with appropriate feedback would assist the learner in situations that she is likely to face in a game.

Using games as a teaching tool is not an attempt to reduce the role of the coach. Instead, it actually requires a more creative, more knowledgeable coach to see specific mistakes and create simplified drills or games to address the specific mistakes rather than doing a three-person weave like everyone and hoping that yelling about the thumbs will lead players to see the court better and make quicker, better decisions.

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

1 thought on “Games, drills, and instruction

  • Hi, great article.

    Im a level 2 basketball coach, I’m coaching mini ages 4yrs and upwards, I’m always putting players into small sided games I feel this helps younger players learn far quicker and by giving them on 2/3 coaching points this stops them from getting too confused and allows players to only concentrate on a couple of things.

    If seen coaches give too many instructions the players forgetting and getting confused coaches having to repeat, waste time for both players and coaches.

    Simply, easy, fun and exciting is far better then constant drills.

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