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Why do we practice and why does practice fail?
by Brian McCormick, CSCS, PES: Performance Director, TrainforHoops.com

Judging by internet forums, the great basketball debate is practice vs. games. As evidenced by our development system, most favor games as the principle means of development. Otherwise, why do high school players play six games over a weekend during the recruiting dead period?

Games are important. After all, we play basketball to play basketball, not to train to play basketball. Initially, games serve as the best method for introducing numerous skills and concepts at the same time. If one tried to teach a novice player everything about the game before allowing him to play, nobody would ever play the game, because most people would quit before they learned half of basketball’s rules, concepts, strategies, techniques and tactics. However, by playing the game, players learn the rules, skills and strategies through a trial and error process which is refined through coaching and experience.

If playing is the best way to learn, why is it not the best way to improve one’s skills? K. Anders Ericsson proposes that it takes approximately 40 hours to play a game at an acceptable level. That is more or less one youth season. After this time period, playing the game has minimal effect on improving skill development. As players play, they gain experience which improves other aspects, from decision-making to anticipation, but improving fundamentals requires deliberate practice.

A game does not offer enough repetitions to improve fundamentals. More importantly, a player cannot perform skills at a conscious level during a game. A player who thinks about skill execution is not going to perform at a high level. However, deliberate practice, a necessary requirement to elevate one’s skill level, requires concentration. During games, players perform skills automatically; however, to improve, one cannot perform skills automatically, as improvement requires altering the performance, whether going faster or changing the execution.

If the player must improve his ball handling ability, playing against a quick defender in a game is good. However, because of the game’s performance pressure, the player sticks with his best skills. If he is not an adept ball handler, he finds the easiest way to handle the defensive pressure. For some, this means passing the ball and allowing another player to handle it; while this may be the smart play, it avoids the problem. The player does not improve his ball handling by passing to someone else. Some players handle the ball defensively: they turn their back or their shoulder and back the ball down the court. Again, while preventing a steal, it does not improve the player’s handle.

Instead, a player needs to improve his ball control and the quickness of the moves. He needs to work against a defender in a learning-oriented environment devoid of performance pressure so he can use new skills, not the path of least resistance, and make mistakes without consequence. Many coaches preach perfect practice; they do not want mistakes. However, without mistakes, nobody improves. If players only do what they can do, where is the improvement? They get better at doing the same exact thing the same exact way: if I only work on basic arithmetic, I improve my ability to add and subtract, but what happens when I need to multiply or divide? Sure, I am more confident of my addition skills, but is that enough?

Improvement occurs during practice because players attack a specific skill with concentration and immediate feedback. However, why does practice so often fail?

Practices fail to improve player’s skills because there is the absence of a specific goal, immediate feedback and/or player concentration. With enough repetitions, there is marginal improvement. A poor free throw shooter will improve from 60% to 63% if he practices enough. However, 63% is still terrible and when one operates with 40% error, a 3% increase is insignificant.

In practice, most coaches rely on drills. If players need to improve shooting, they do more shooting drills, which works to a small degree, as something is better than nothing. However, drills are tools, much like the exercises a teacher uses. Good teachers do not rely on exercises to do the teaching; they instruct and offer feedback.

When I was a college assistant, we did shooting drills every practice. We had some good shooters and some bad shooters and everyone stayed pretty much the same, except one player. The one player who improved worked out every day for an hour. He videotaped himself shooting and studied the tapes on his off-days. He had a specific goal (improve his shooting mechanics); he had immediate feedback (me); and he concentrated on the objective (studied video and tracked every shot and kept a journal).

The drills during practice lacked these elements. Group shooting drills were not designed to help any specific player and there was not enough time to give each player specific feedback. Often, the coaches huddled while the players finished a shooting drill, eliminating all feedback. Players lacked sufficient concentration to make daily improvements on their shooting techniques.

For a drill to have its intended effect, the goal must be clear and specific. In my workouts, I alert players to the goal for a specific drill. Some players need improved footwork, while others need to hold their follow-through. Without a goal, shooting drills maintain, they do not train for improvement. The players must concentrate on the task. If players’ minds wander, they lack the attention necessary to concentrate on the specific objective; without the concentration, the player works on auto-pilot, maintaining the same flaw the drill attempts to correct. The coach must provide feedback so players feel the difference between a correct repetition and an incorrect repetition; players need to learn the difference so they can self-correct and provide their own immediate feedback based on the shot’s feel.

Practice makes permanent. Shooting drills done without a specific task, immediate feedback or player concentration engrain the current shooting habits. Getting better at shooting poorly is not the goal, but it is often the manner in which we practice. To alter or change performance and habits, players must train at a conscious level to override the automatic skills. They need to re-train new habits and correct shooting mechanics, which takes a great deal of effort and concentration.

Players and coaches often cite practice duration as an example of their work ethic or dedication. However, duration is unimportant; most basketball players spend approximately the same amount of time engaged in basketball activities. Why do some improve more than others? Ericsson suggests the difference between expert performers and others with similar opportunities and talents is deliberate practice: expert performers engage in more deliberate practice, though overall time is relatively equal. While most players spend the off-season playing six games per weekend, the expert performer works on his skills with a dedicated effort and mental focus on his specific task. Improving basketball skills is like the old adage: ‘Work smarter, not harder.” Work ethic is part of the equation; however, the difference is how the work is directed.

McCormick is the author of Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development (www.lulu.com/brianmccormick). This article first appeared in the Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter. To subscribe to the free weekly newsletter, email hard2guardinc@yahoo.com with Subscribe in the Subject line.

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