What is skill development?

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.

For more on skill development, check out 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development, now available as a Kindle or a paperback.

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

4 thoughts on “What is skill development?

  • In my opinion one of the reason that this type of training is so popular is that it is often designed by adults, for adults. When I say ‘for adults’, I mean they are viewing it from an adult perspective and advertising to parents or coaches rather than from the viewpoint of the learner. That is ultimately its downfall.

    I often catch myself in my classes viewing an assignment or question from the view of the teacher/adult rather than the student and have to modify the assignment to fit their needs rather than my viewpoint.

    The adult, while not always an expert, is often experienced enough in the game or concept to practice a skill in isolation and apply it to the game. Part/whole. Whereas learners need to see the whole concept/game and learn while immersed in the game so they can use all the visual cues they will need. They then, MIGHT benefit from practicing that skill in isolation for a very short time and then going back to the game. Whole/part/whole.

    Nearly everyone learned to drive and no one learned in a way taught as in the videos above. Imagine going out and saying, “I’m going to practice only left hand turns today.” People instinctively would realize that wouldn’t help them become a better driver because it is not driving, yet coaches and teachers teach new skill in this way all the time and then bemoan the lack of progress or learning.

  • Mike:
    I agree. Adults underestimate the difference between themselves and the children who are learning.

    There is the perception that parts are easily combined into the whole, but the parts that we practice are not necessarily the same as the ones used in the whole skill. For example, a step slide in isolation at a slow speed, as is often practiced, has almost nothing in common with lateral movement at full speed. Not only is there no transfer, there is negative transfer when players attempt to use the same movement pattern at full speed as they use in slow motion.

    There is also the belief that the way I did it is the right way and a reluctance to try something different. That’s my difference; I believed that the way skills were taught were not the best way, so I constantly seek out new and different ways of teaching skills, all the way back to when I was a college student.

    Some technique practice is not wrong per se, but it’s insufficient, and in some ways, it can be wrong, as with the step-slide example.

    We wonder why players shoot 70% in practice and 30% in the games, but we don’t question the practice because it is what everyone has always done. It’s just normal game slippage, it’s fatigue, it’s pressure, whatever…It’s never because the constraints of a game – the defense, the passing options, etc. – are absent in practice. Instead, it’s faster, faster, faster, more, more, more….

  • Brian, I bought that Phil Martelli DVD recently and was going to watch it and use it in my practices. Thanks raining on my parade 🙁

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