Since it’s inception basketball has been an evolving amalgam of athletic ability and decision making within a context of pressure and fatigue. As coaches we aim not only to develop our players’ skills but to see that our players are able to apply those skills in the intensity, and often chaos, of a game. We select, design and implement training drills to teach skills and improve performance. We assume drills have positive training effects, perhaps with ‘better’ drills having a larger positive effect. But what if there were negative effects from these drills, ones that seemed to have a positive effect seen by improved drill performance, but for unknown reasons happened to hurt in game performance? To this end it may be helpful to reassess current drills and training methods with a view to firstly identifying and then eliminating, as far as possible, negative influences. Negative influences which may be insidious in so far as they only manifest in game situations and may be masked in the training scenario.

Net effect = positive effect (benefit) – negative effect (harm)

We are living in the age of technology and information. To be at the top of your field, whether that be coaching or anything else, it seems you must be constantly updating your knowledge bank with the latest ideas, research, blogs or video’s from others in the field. Using the above equation, we are trying to improve our coaching ability (overall effect) by adding and searching for new information to benefit us and our players (positive effect). In fact, that’s what you’re doing right now on this website. This is a very stressful means of development. The time and effort required to sift through and find relevant information to improve your professional ability is enormous, it’s almost a race amongst professionals to see who can come across the ‘next big thing’ first in their field. It’s even worse if you’re entering the coaching game as an inexperienced novice. In this case it can be extremely daunting to consider just how much you need to learn simply to catch up to where the others are now. This article will present a more efficient means of growing as a coach, or if you’re reading this as a player, more efficient means of developing your skills.

The current approach of endless searching and adding assumes that all information, in this case, skill based drills and team tactics (such as offensive or defensive sets), provide positive effects. Some might be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others in their ability to do this and thus their efficiency, but with regards to their impact on skill or team development they all range between having little or no benefit to having a much greater benefit. With this mindset, seeking and adding new information/drills/tactics only serves to grow you as a coach and only provides benefits your players, after all, at worst the new drill is of little benefit but at best it is of significant benefit. But, if you were to learn that some drills/tactics/teaching tools actually have negative learning effects, that is some may harm game performance, then you have to re-evaluate the whole approach.

Assuming the possibility of negative effects, endlessly adding drills to your toolbox or throwing these drills at a player to improve an intended game skill cannot innately guarantee improvement, this approach may in fact be hurting your players development. In this case we must take more care to review new information/drills/tactics for possible harm before we include it or use it with our athletes. Taking this a step further, we arguably stand to gain the most by stepping back and rather than searching for new information, we instead review our current ideas, drills and tactics, identifying potential harm or negative effects, and remove these drills or find ways to mitigate the risk.

Consider you see a doctor who says that you have high blood sugar levels and suggests you take a new medication to help balance them out. Adding a ‘positive’ medication might help the situation, in this case it has strong evidence in it’s ability to reduce blood sugar levels. But there could be side effects, either ones that are known and with accepted levels of risk, or side effects that as yet remain unknown and unforeseen.  These unknowable risks are unavoidable. Anytime you add a new element to a situation, you increase risk. Even the most rigorously tested medications, ‘proven’ to have no side effects when tested over many years on many people, might not agree with you personally for whatever reason, perhaps due to an unknown allergy you have to that medication. Understanding this innate risk and reviewing the situation, you instead decide to remove high sugar foods from your diet, replacing them with more natural alternatives. Rather than adding the medication, you are removing a known negative from the equation (your poor food choices/lifestyle) for a beneficial net effect (your health).

The  ‘safest’ or most assured way to see an improvement in performance is not necessarily to search for new, often novel means of development (new drills/training equipment etc) but to identify and remove any negative influences from your current training regimes. In this way you receive a net benefit, by reducing the negative. This benefit by reduction is called Via Negativa.

There are endless articles and books focusing on increasing the benefits of training, with new drills and coaching techniques (Via Positiva), but very few looking at reducing, or even acknowledging, the harm (Via Negativa). By first going through it myself as a player, then learning through my own and others mistakes as coaches (both strength and conditioning and skills/team coaching), and by identifying trends in research on skill development/how we learn, I believe there are underlying dangers in both teaching (how we coach drills) and training (how we execute drills) that often go unseen and therefor unconsidered. If we can identify what these harmful implications are, and how to avoid them, then we can improve the quality of our coaching by removing these drills, or finding ways to mitigate the risk when appropriate.

Problem 1: Too smart for our own good

Most basketball training sessions are reasonably generic and the drills players complete with coaches and on their own are often very much alike. We have done a very good job of breaking the complex game of basketball down into all of its individual skills and have filled libraries and web pages with books and articles full of drills targeting each one specifically. One only has to search for ball handling drills in YouTube or Google to get the idea, there’s far too many to ever view in a realistic time-frame. Drills are neat, ordered, easy to learn, teach, control and monitor. It’s much easier to see improvement in drills than in games as a whole, we know exactly how to guide our coaching to improve drill performance, yet there are so many factors influencing game performance that to directly improve this is more difficult. As an example, simply letting your team play 5 on 5 for the entire training and for you as the coach to call out verbal advice from the sidelines when you see skill deficiencies occur, would be an inefficient means of developing those skills. Consider the amount of time each player spends with the ball in their hands. With 10 players on the court each player only has the ball, on average, 1 /10th of the time. So 5 on 5 could be argued to be an inefficient means of developing ball handling skills. So our solution has been to target improvements within drills, which isolate specific area’s of the more complex game, and assume transfer to the more complex game as a whole. We rationalise that this improves training efficiency, but it all relies on the premise that improvement inside the drills will positively impact game performance.

It seems we have lost sight of the forest for the trees; we have become so good at isolating skills into drills, at achieving improvements inside these drills at training, that we assume without question that success here implies success in games. That isolated drills are the best way to improve game performance and develop athletes. Now we are in a situation where even if this isn’t the best approach, we persist because it’s the only way we know how. If we want to increase performance, we increase training volume, upping our coaching input and running even more drills. We persist with this despite the ever present frustration that training improvement doesn’t seem to transition to game performance as quickly or as often as we think it should.

However there is growing evidence showing that ineffective transfer of a skill from one situation to another (such as from training to a game) is often a result of isolating the skill inappropriately and teaching it exclusive of other important influential factors. The more a drill is separated from game moments (consider stationary dribbling without defense) the worse it transfers to game performance (needing to move with the ball and beat a defender off the dribble while seeing the floor). The player shows positive improvement in that drill (better ball control while stationary and when pre-determining the cross-over move), but often no improvement where it really matters – the game (getting past the defender with an evasive move, not pre-determined, but in reaction to the defenders action). There is potential risk in isolating any one facet for improvement. Consider someone practicing to walk across a suspended tightrope by training using a line drawn with chalk on concrete, the coach might be emphasising the importance of maintaining a straight path, which does seem to be of importance in tightrope walking. Now after a week of training this same person is standing at the end of a tightrope suspended high between two buildings about to attempt a walk. In this case you’ll see very quickly that no degree of mastery on the floor is going to transfer to the suspended walk. We’ve eliminated important, vital factors apparent in the intended situation – the suspended walk. Through the training drill used, we have reduced the importance of considering the slack and vibration of the rope, since they are irrelevant to success in a chalk walk. The more they struggle on the suspended rope, the more they concentrate and attempt to draw upon the incorrectly practiced skill since they are told this is the key to success. This would be compounded if, after an unsuccessful attempt at the suspended walk, they increased their volume of chalk walk training the following week in preparation – since they’re led to believe that perfect practice makes perfect. They have been fooled into thinking that success is dependent on training harder, not smarter. The problem is not with work ethic, but with our over-confidence in drills ability to improve required game performance.

When we remove anything from it’s intended situation, in basketball being competitive games, there is a risk of reducing the degree of relevant transfer. If you consider that drills teach skills which we want to use in games, and yet we frequently (often without intending, or perhaps not truly knowing the consequence) eliminate important influential parts of the game situation, then we risk teaching the dis-association of the two. This dis-association hurts game performance and makes it harder to re-learn or adapt the skill to the game moment – a negative learning effect. An example might be removing a defender from ball handling drills, which improves training performance and allows more precise coaching during that drill. Consider though, that players are most likely to fumble the ball not when dribbling alone on the court, but when reacting to a defender, yet we practice the majority of our ball handling learning to execute pre-determined moves without needing to react to a defensive player – a very different situation. Worse, often we actually set up bins or cones to represent defenders and we intentionally dribble towards them to perform a cross-over move in front of them. Imagine a point guard taking this approach literally when confronted with a full court press, singling out each defender in a zig-zag manner to then perform their evasive moves as practiced. Essentially we are teaching the player in this drill that you don’t need to adapt your body angle, or ball position in relation to the defender, they won’t steal it anyway, plan your move and complete it with perfect technique as practiced – that’s the most important thing! We are essentially refining the skill of the cross-over in isolation. It’s not relevant to the game of basketball. At best, this makes the skill less effective in games, at worst, there is a negative learning effect and performance in games suffers. Not only that, but attempts to alter the skill/habit to suit the game rather than the drill become harder to make.

Defensive footwork is a good example of this negative learning effect in action. Without getting into the details here, good defenders guard a change of direction move, or an attack from the wing with very different footwork to poor defenders. It’s not that good defenders can slide faster than bad ones. Poor defenders start their movement by stepping sideways in a sliding stance. Exactly as is taught in defensive drills. This step is slow and it’s a gamble as it doesn’t allow easy change of angle should the initial read be incorrect. Good defenders actually hop and then cross their feet over on the first step, exactly what players are taught not to do when playing defense. They naturally figured out the quickest way to react and get in front. Players who haven’t figured this out and appear to be deficient in an area, such as defense, tend to receive more coaching in an effort to ‘fix them’. Drills are most often used and these revolve around defensive slides. We are taking a poor defender, and emphasising to them that the key to them getting quicker, is by practicing the slowest move in basketball, the slide. Practicing ineffective defensive movements in isolated drills hurts their ability to learn from game play, and they tend to remain poor defenders.

Problem 2: Coaching with our words

One reason isolated drills are selected is that they are easy to coach. We can provide verbal feedback on what the player is doing right or wrong as they learn the skill (think teaching or adjusting shooting technique). There is a fallacy we are brought up believing as coaches, that the most effective way to coach is with our words. Evidence is stacking up that the more verbal cues you give a player learning an action, the better they will perform in that drill (and the better we feel as coaches, players, parents since we look like we’re doing our job well) but the worse they perform in games. Even worse, the greater the pressure, the worse the performance. Think free throws to win the game – how many verbal cues do we give players to their shot?! Elbow in, spread your fingers, feet facing forward, bend your hips… they are endless and often of incredible detail – which finger should the ball come off? It might make the coach sound incredibly smart and perceptive, but it creates a process where the player tries to subconsciously think of all these things at once, and it’s too much to control leading to errors. Researchers call this ‘reinvestment’. Players calling it ‘overthinking’ their shot. This is why often a free throw under pressure, or perhaps a wide open shot where a player takes their time, is more difficult than a catch and shoot quick release.

A solution

So what’s the solution? As often as possible, train situations, not isolated skills and within these, don’t rely on your words as your primary coaching tool. Develop a team culture which is discovery or learning based, with athletes eager to learn and to help each other improve. Not a dictatorship where players are turning up waiting to be told what to do and called out or punished when they do it incorrectly. Structure your drills in such a way as players are almost ‘tricked’ into learning. Provide a clear directive for the drill, specific to whatever aspect of the game you are looking to improve. Perhaps adjust the rules or the environment to emphasise certain outcomes you’re trying to teach. Reduce the complexity of the situation as little as you need for the players to ‘get it’ and then proceed to continually and as quickly as possible, increase the complexity back to the original game situation while retaining the players intent on the desired outcome. Our bodies have figured out how to walk, run, communicate and interact all without a coach. It learned this through action-consequence and with a clear goal/intent in mind. A child wants to be able to communicate what it wants, this benefits the child, and it realises that the most effective way to do so is by learning the language it’s parents speak. If the child saw no benefit in learning the language then the learning process would be much more difficult. If someone knows very clearly what the goal of a situation is, and how that benefits them, then they will develop an appropriate intention to achieve this. Whether they succeed or fail in their attempts to ‘win’ the situation, their brain will learn and fine tune the action to progress towards the intent.

My own intent in writing this piece was to get you thinking about the potential negative effects of drills, and to present the idea to you that rather than continually throwing new drills into your sessions, you might get more benefit by reviewing, finding and removing any of your current drills or tactics that present significant potential harm. If you’re interested in specific examples let me know and I might follow up with another article down the track. In the mean time, I must consider the potential risk of my writing this article. That being that I might have been successful in convincing you that drills can be harmful, but unsuccessful in giving you enough knowledge to identify which of your drills are worth keeping, and which are worth throwing out. To prevent this risk of coaching paralysis, I’ll present a solution in the form of coaches insurance. This will allow you to reduce any potential harm from your training while you go about improving your own ability over time to identify these risks.

Coaches insurance

The problem with being wrong is you don’t know you’re wrong, until you have been. You don’t know you’ve contributed to a negative learning effect until you see it. In fact, you may never see the link no matter how pure your intentions. That’s the problem with basketball, it’s very hard to see clear evidence of something working, something not, or something having a negative effect when it comes to game performance. The game is complex and athletes develop as a result of the total sum of their training. This includes their individual training, their training with you and their training with any number of other coaches. Not to mention completing avoiding isolation of game moments or skills isn’t always possible. There are times when you do need to reduce the complexity of drills, especially for very young athletes, which cant help but make them less specific to games. So what’s the solution if we can never be certain of accidentally creating a negative effect? It is to coach, less. Make sure you’re spending enough time just letting the kids play basketball, on top of any specific drills, offensive, or defensive set work you might also be doing. This acts as insurance. Even if you’re focusing on the wrong things in the drills you prescribe, the gameplay will help off-set any negative training you’re doing.

Consider the prevalence of African Americans coming from poorer socio-economic suburbs making it to the NBA. The amount of organised basketball, individual coaching and total hours spent in coached drills, compared to hours spent in pick-up basketball, would be in stark contrast to Australian basketballers. Aussie basketballers tend to spend the majority of their time being driven from coach to coach and training session to training session by their parents. Americans learn to play, then get taught structure. Aussies get taught structure then are expected to know how to play. Granted there are other factors explaining the success of African Americans, greatest of all probably exceptional genetics, but I still think it’s an interesting factor which ties in with the idea of random play acting as a form of coaches insurance.

Summary

Coaching should be about preparation for the hustle and bustle of game day. Success, therefore, is not ultimately measured by improved drill competency (although this is part of the development process) but by improved in-game performance. Some athletes respond to current approaches and improve – we see them as validating the process. However we don’t consider looking at ways to adjust the system to reduce the amount of kids who don’t improve at the same rate. Coaching, or a development programs success is not, or should not be measured exclusively by the development of star players, but by the development of the group as a whole. Very often stars succeed in spite of their training, not because of it. Yet coaches are quick to claim affiliation with the successors, and even faster to write off their role with the ‘failures’ – “he just didn’t have the same work ethic” (maybe because you never adjusted the training to suit his learning style?). This isn’t necessarily conscious, but is an unconscious habit of human nature. We are attracted to success and tend to focus on it, celebrities or sports stars and the media they generate are an excellent example of this. We can’t change this influence, but we need to be aware of the tendency and factor this into our objective assessment of the ‘success’ of a development program.

Instead of trying to individually teach every aspect of basketball, broken down into drill after drill, provide athletes with opportunity to learn themselves, inside a supportive environment, prompting them in which direction to go in their learning at appropriate times. Instil in them the desire to learn and improve, not as passive participants where they’re told what to do and how to do it, but to take responsibility for their development, use you as a recourse and to be an active participant in the learning process. The coaches role is like that of a gardener. It is not the gardeners role to tell the plant when to grow or how fast to, certainly not by providing detailed step by step verbal instructions, but to hoe and provide the healthy soil which allows growth to occur. Add or maintain benefits (via positiva) and remove negatives (via negativa) to increase the total benefit to the player. To protect from any unforeseeable negative training effects, include enough free-play within your training sessions to ensure players are learning skills truly relevant to competitive games.

Strength & conditioning coaches are not off the hook either

While the emphasis in this article was on traditional skill development, movement is a skill the same as anything with a basketball is. Name one action you perform on the court with or without the ball that doesn’t involve movement? The same negative transfer effect can be seen from exercises performed in a gym setting. There is an arguably even greater risk since the gym setting itself is already removed from that of the basketball court. There is no argument from me here that improvements in movements such as the squat and deadlift can improve sports performance, in spite of their lack of true specificity, but that doesn’t mean that there is a negative effect which we shouldn’t try to mitigate. In the case of the squat, we are encouraging players to slowly drop down into knee and hip flexion, then come up out of it also relatively slowly. And the heavier the weight gets the slower the movement becomes, and the less force is actually generated (the force inside a heavy squat is nothing compared to that of a jump and landing inside a basketball game). So a heavier movement becomes less specific in speed of movement and force. In reality, we want players landing/catching themselves in a bent knee/hip position and instantly pushing off to go somewhere else – we certainly don’t want a slow dip then push. When you consider the differences in lumbo-pelvic stability during 2 feet actions such as the squat and single let running/jump on the court the differences becomes even more stark. Ensuring we are constantly blending in sport specific movements will help athletes see and experience the transfer of the more traditional gym based exercise we are promoting, and will retain the physical benefits while reducing the negative learning effects. Physical performance has for too long been seen as muscle based, then physics based, rather than coordination based. It is very important to not only know the benefits of exercises prescribed, but more importantly to know the negative coordination effects associated as well, so we can reduce them or drop the exercise all together depending on the athletes requirements.