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From Good to Great: Using visualization to enhance practice.

by Brian McCormick, CSCS
Founder, The Cross Over Movement

Today's basketball players face numerous criticisms; they don't play hard enough, they lack fundamentals, they play too fancy, they are selfish, etc. However, one concept frequently overlooked is player's imagination.

Today's generation plays as much as any generation, yet the perception exists that players lack the understanding of how to play. Basketball increasingly is a structured activity, with most players playing solely during organized practice, games or workouts, ignoring the pick-up games on the playground where past generations spent hours.

In this structured atmosphere, players lose some freedom to experiment. Every possession is a set play and each moment of practice is a drill meant to improve the players' skills. Unfortunately, the loss of freedom hinders overall basketball skill development, as players learn to move only within the context of a certain set play or continuity offense and players learn to master drills, not necessarily the skills the drills aim to improve.

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In baseball, hitting tees, soft toss and pitching machines are adequate teaching tools one can use to develop correct hitting mechanics. However, these tools do not adequately prepare a player for live pitching, for the pitch recognition and decision-making skills necessary to hit live pitching successfully. A player can work on the mechanics of his swing in a batting cage, but hitting a live pitcher is a more involved process, and one which cannot be replicated: a player must hit live pitching to improve his hitting against live pitchers.

Similarly, shooting within a drill is an appropriate tool to work on a player's shooting mechanics, but the drill inadequately prepares a player to shoot in a game situation, where reading the defense and making split-second decisions are as much a part of successful shooting as the mechanics.

However, simply playing games is insufficient, as one cannot shoot enough in an hour or two of pick-up games to groove one's shot and work through any difficulties in the mechanics. Drills and games are necessary to develop the mechanics and the game instincts.

Another tool, however, aids a player in his transfer from drills/practice to game shooting: visualization. In my experience, creative players are more successful and utilize practice time more efficiently. The creative players use their imagination and actually see a defensive player or envision a game situation; they do not mindlessly work through a drill because a coach organizes it.

Some players do not follow directions exactly because they do not understand; these players need further instruction and teaching. Some follow directions exactly because they do not understand; these players understand the instructions, but lack the cognitive awareness to transfer the drill instructions to a game scenario and need a more colorful description and explanation of how the drill relates to the game. Successful players do the assigned drill, but the repetitions are not carbon copies. Each individual repetition is slightly different, within the confines of the drill, because the player uses his imagination to visualize a game situation and make the appropriate move; others simply do a drill with very little thought, no imagery and no creativity.

In a simple lay-up drill, like the ones most teams use in warm-ups, the better players often stand out because of their approach. While the average player mindlessly runs at the basket and finishes lay-up after lay-up as instructed, the successful player makes better use of his time; on one repetition, he hesitates before attacking the basket; then, maybe he makes a move and finishes at the basket; maybe on the third repetition, he finishes with a reverse lay-up. The actual details are unimportant; however, the thinking process gives this player the advantage over his teammates and opposition, as he is prepared mentality for different situations and shots because he used the same amount of practice in a much more efficient manner due to his use of visualization.

Visualization is not a tool everyone has at their exposure; the current television and video game culture has stripped some of their own imaginations, while others have heightened imaginations. Regardless, visualization is a tool a coach can train at practice. Often, teams arrive early for a game or practice and have nothing to do; use this time to focus the players on the day's game or practice through a short meditation exercise and visualization.

At first, guide the players through the exercise, challenging the players to use all their senses. So, a good exercise is to imagine making a free throw to win the game. Tell the players to imagine stepping to the line. What do they hear? Feel? Smell? The more vivid the experience, the more rewarding. Tell the players to go through their routine and make the shot. What happens? How do they feel? What do they hear? See?

After players learn to relax and create their own visualization experience, encourage them to find time to practice on their own, without the coach guiding the experience. And, finally, when they are confident in their visualization skills, encourage players to use the visualization during practice, especially in offensive drills without a defender or defensive drills without an offensive player. When players learn to imagine game situations and visualize the defender, he will prepare himself more successfully for game competition and ultimately be a more successful player with the same practice time and effort as other players.

Brian McCormick is a player development coach and author who is currently the Head Coach of a professional club in Ireland. For more information, visit: TheCrossovermovement.com or to purchase Coach McCormick's newest book: Cross Over; the New Model of Youth Basketball Development.

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