Traditions Die Hard: Where is science-based or research-directed coaching?

The Internet makes information available like never before, yet there appears to be no changes in the way that the majority of coaches teach children. Last week, I worked out a college player during the lunch break of the college’s youth camp. I stayed and watched some of the camp. Despite having a limited number of players and enough balls for each player plus six baskets to use, I saw lines of players standing around and very little action. Today, I attended a practice in India and saw children dribble through cones for 40 minutes doing a drill that was taught at an NBA-sponsored coach’s clinic. Finally, I graded papers for my Introduction to Coaching practice plan assignment, and nearly every student started his or her practice with jogging around the field or court followed by stretching. Every student used a very linear model: stretching, block practice/technique drill, block practice/technique drill, scrimmage. Every sport was the same.

Why are players still dribbling through cones? I would argue that the drill practiced more bad habits than positive habits. If the drill is for coordination or for very beginners learning to manipulate a ball, I understand. However, to me, this is not a ball handling drill and certainly is not teaching a player how to make a crossover move that will work in a game against a live defender.

What are the constraints of a game move? The biggest is reading the defender and making the appropriate move. Next is protecting the ball away from the defender while simultaneously attempting to go past the defender. Cones do not offer practice on these constraints. The drill is designed poorly, as the weaving in and out of the cones is not done with the same type of set up and push off that one uses to beat a defender, and the drill encourages a higher dribble to make it around the cones.

Why are teams still jogging around the court and static stretching? Beyond tradition, if anyone thought about this, how would stretching a muscle prevent its injury? How does jogging at a sub-maximum speed prepare one’s body for a full-speed activity?

Why must all practices progress in the same manner – stretching, block 1, block 2, block 3, scrimmage? Is there a coach’s manual that instructs all coaches to wait as long as possible before scrimmaging? Why aren’t different forms of small-sided games and scrimmaging used earlier in practice to build up to a full-sided scrimmage? Ironically, the one student who described using random training in his practice serves in the U.S. Army and wrote a practice plan based on preparing his troops for a simulated exercise in front of commanding officers. He used a linear progression in his plan, but it evolved nicely and made sense for his given situation.

When I watched the practice today or the camp, the activities looked like important, skill-developing drills. I doubt many people beyond myself would consider these drills to be inappropriate. Of course dribbling through cones develops better ball handling. Does it? Is it the best use of time and space?

I spoke to tennis coach Ted Murray today and he mentioned the same thing. He went to a local tennis academy and watched the instructor have the players “warm up” by jogging a couple laps around the court. Then, he lined up all the players and walked from player to play and fiddled with their forehand grip. In 30 minutes, not one ball was hit! How do you get better at tennis without hitting the ball? How do you enjoy tennis if you never hit the ball?

Youth coaches always complain about the lack of practice time, which is an issue. However, if you know it is an issue, why waste so much time doing ineffective drills? Why waste time stretching?

These block practice and technique drills look like they practice skills, and we assume that these skills transfer. Do they? In David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, Jan Benthem, the chief architect of the Amsterdam airport, says:

“Normally, everything is split up and problems are solved separately. That makes individual problems easy to solve, but the connections between the problems become very complicated and something simple ends up in a real mess. If you integrate it in the first place, that turns out to be the most simple solution” (p. 228).

Skill building is the same. If you separate skills and practice one skill at a time, it is easier to solve the problem. For instance, in a drill like dribbling through cones, it is easier to solve the problem of controlling the basketball. However, when you connect that skill to the game, new problems arise. Players have to connect the practiced skill to a game skill, and the constraints are very different. The skill ends up in a mess because making a move against a defender is unlike making a move against a cone. I agree with the architect: if you integrate the skill from the beginning – start with a more complex skill that involves a reaction to a real cue, like a tag game or even a simpler drill where players dribble at each other and crossover to avoid the other one – it actually becomes the simpler solution.

This contradicts conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom states that you start with the most simple task that one can do and you progress as the player masters the initial task. I looked through a curriculum with this model yesterday, and it seemed like children would play basketball for 10 years before acquiring all the requisite skills to play a game. What child is going to play basketball for 10 years without playing a game?

Instead, the simpler solution is to move to more complex tasks and move back and forth between complex and simple tasks to teach, refine and reinforce different skills. Game success depends on the connections between the skills, and progressing with simple task after simple task leaves the connections in a mess once the player is presented with the game problems.

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 “Traditions Die Hard: Where is science-based or research-directed coaching?

  • Well said. Many coaches and players don’t put a lot of thought into what drills they participate in. They just do what they saw someone else doing and assume it’s making them better. There are so many better ways to improve ball handling than just telling kids to go through the maze of conses. That was a great example.

  • When you see college teams doing static stretching, is it any wonder that youth volunteer coaches are slow to embrace change? How do we get the message out? Brian, keep the ideas flowing.

  • Bryan:

    I know. Unfortunately, many coaches overrule the strength coaches because the coach thinks he or she knows better. Unfortunately, nearly every student in my coaching class handed in a practice plan assignment that included 10 minutes for jogging and stretching. My first reaction was to fail the whole lot! Even after discussing it, I have a student arguing for stretching based on the ACSM guidelines for aerobic fitness. People simply do not understand sports.

  • Bryan,

    I think the greatest complaint any coach has is when a skill doesn’t transfer to a game situation. How many times does you team look excellent in a drill only to fail miserably once they get in a game situation? Could you please suggest resources that would help create more simulation practices while developing both technical and tactical skills. I am a high school varsity coach that runs a 4th- 12th grade program.

  • Jamie:

    I remember you. Most of the drills that I use are in Developing Basketball Intelligence, Blitz Basketball, and my Playmakers Basketball Development League curriculum (

    I explained it to the coaches in my club like this: First, pick the skill to focus on. Next, think about how you want that skill executed in the game. Next, manipulate constraints – person, environment, or task – to ensure quality practice and emphasize that skill. Finally, simplify as necessary based on skill level.

    Skill = Passing
    Game execution = have to find an open player and pass when defended
    Constraints = to emphasize passing, take away the dribble.
    Simplify = eliminate players. Also, for younger players, may be necessary to give the offense a slight advantage.

    Based on these, what are you left with? 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, or 5v5 game with no dribble; any number of keep away games where the objective is to complete passes, not to score a basket; any number of keep away games with an offensive advantage – I believe soccer coaches call these games Rondos.

    In no way do you remove the skill (passing) from a game situation. The court rules are intact; players cannot travel; they have to complete passes against a defense. However, the skill is emphasized by eliminating the dribble (and even more so when eliminating shooting) and simplified by reducing players and/or giving the offense an advantage. You’re left with a drill like this one:

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