Why do we train the way we do?

Why is it you or your team might shoot the lights out at training and then go ice cold in games? It’s one of the most frustating parts of the game, not getting reward for practice. There are some fundamental flaws in how we view shooting as a skill, and how we go about improving shooting performance. For the most part these problems are unrecognised and remain unchanged. This article series is going to look at how we approach, teach and practice shooting, and its effects on game performance. We’ve settled for inefficiency for too long, it’s time to wake up, and make a change.

Why is it that most people shoot significantly better in shoot-arounds than they do games? Why can someone shoot the lights out at practice yet see no improvement come game-time? What about long term changes in game shooting improvements, are we becoming better shooters if you compare season averages? You would assume so, since these days players have improved access to facilities, and coaches. Not to mention that players are now specialising in basketball at younger ages and spending more time being coached by coaches who now have significantly thicker drill books. Surely this means we should be improving? The stats at least in the NBA would say no.

If we dig a little deeper into how skills are learned, in this case focusing on the skill of shooting, and how we transfer them to different moments, such as from practice to a game, it can illuminate some of the problems burried within how we learn – which impacts our practice and teaching methods.  But in order to find practical solutions, we must first recognise the problems and why they’re occurring.

The way we tend to practice shooting, for teams and individuals, often isolates the shot itself and removes many of the game specific factors. The majority of shooting drills used tend to involve stationary shooting from the same spot until a target is reached at which point we swap shooters or positions. This is especially the case when two players catch up to get shots up outside of team training. To practice ‘game shots’ would involve more fatigue, more variation, probably a defender or two, less emphasis or control over technique and ultimately fewer shots taken and at a lower percentage compared to stationary shooting. Most people understand that this type of shooting practice does look different to game shots, yet the way we practice shooting tends to remain very isolated from these factors. This indicates that we don’t truly see the negative aspects of isolating the shot, or if we do consider there may be some harm in this, that we assume the upside of practicing in this way outweighs any downside making it a more efficient means of practice.

Why do we persist with this type of practice? I think the thought process that follows a bad shooting game looks pretty similar to this.

  • Need to shoot more shots in the practice session, since it’s presumed that more shooting practice makes a better shooter.

  • Need to ‘fine-tune’ technique since it’s assumed that shots miss because of small errors or inconsistency in technique.

  • Need to see signs of improvement in that shooting session – otherwise what was the point?

  • As a result of this final point (seeing signs of improvement measured by making more shots) our confidence goes up. This increase in confidence is based upon a better shooting performance in the practice session and is generally considered the mark of a ‘good shooting session’.

The result of this mindset tends to be the inclusion of more stationary catch and shoot, shooting (generally with a partner feeding the pass back). It’s easier, so we can get more shots up in the time we have without tiring. It’s isolated, so we can focus quite easily on our technique without distraction. It allows us to ‘find our groove’, so we feel good about seeing the ball go in and we see signs of improvement in the session. This gives us the expectation of success in the next game, after all, what more could be done? Shooting a high percentage in this session gives the impression that the ‘problem’ (poor shooting percentage in games, perhaps explained through a faulty technique) has been ‘fixed’ (good shooting percentage in today’s session, probably due to refinement of technique). Frustration grows when this method of high volume, perfect form, ‘successful’ practice doesn’t equate to game success. I’m going to refer to these types of shoot-arounds as ‘traditional shooting practice’.

“Practice game-shots”

Now that’s not to say that traditional shooting practice isn’t the only type being performed, or that all coaches are promoting it, or even that it doesn’t provide some performance benefits. But it certainly does seem to make up the bulk of players times spent practicing shooting. And traditional shooting practice tends to be used more frequently at times when players think they will benefit by increasing their emphasis on shooting practice, often after a bad shooting game. Many team or individual shooting sessions will usually consist of a blend of traditional shooting practice and more ‘game-like shots’. And there’s nothing new about a coach suggesting to a player to spend more time shooting ‘game-shots’, often though without any further direction as to what this actually looks like and why it helps – what the intent is. But without truly understanding the impact the two training styles might have on game performance, players lack clarity on what, or specifically how certain types of practice will improve their game shooting. As a result when practicing on their own they will tend to self select drills that allow them to get more shots up inside the time they have available, with less fatigue, and give them increased control over their technique and success rate. Shooting sessions that make them feel like they’ve seen progress and feel good going into the next game. This tends to look a lot more like traditional shooting practice and less like ‘game-shooting’ which would involve fewer shot attempts, more fatigue, less control over technique and involve a lower success rate (more missed shots). Many of these game-shooting outcomes (especially more missed shots) would not be typically associated with a ‘good shooting session’ and generally would not tend to improve confidence going into games. But as this series will explore, associating progress with more made shots at practice may in fact be producing false confidence and actually be hindering our game performance.

Perfect form

A poor game shooter tends to receive more coaching over the course of their developement. A poor shooter tends to get pulled aside for more coaching, given more input and spends more time thinking through and listening to feedback on their shooting technique. Rarely does this happen with players who are shooting well. They might practice more, since they enjoy shooting, but often it is by themselves. We as coaches can’t control whether a player makes a shot or not. But we can control technique. Even novice coaches can easily identify errors in technique and we are very good at giving feedback or isolating shooting components to ‘fix’ these deviations from ‘perfect form’. In stationary shooting in particular, technique improvement towards ‘perfect form’, especially that of the upper body, tends to result in more makes, at least after the body gets used to it. So it seems to validate the coaching process. This process assumes that by increasing the focus on technique, and investing more effort thinking about the shooting process, that particular player will improve quicker than if left to learn on their own, and that these improvements will transfer to games.

Moving on

Regardless of the difference in value that coaches or players might place on traditional shooting practice, or the level of influence the coach has in teaching shooting, there is very rarely ever considered to be a negative effect from this sort of training or coaching. For example a coach who doesn’t highly value traditional shooting practice might think it has a very small positive effect, or perhaps none at all and be neutral in it’s effect. Essentially thinking it is not good value for time training. But I’d be very surprised if even this sceptical coach would go so far to argue that it in fact negatively impacts game shooting performance. The idea that types of skills training could have a negative effect was introduced in the Via Negativa Series and will play a part in this series with regards to shooting. As coaches, drills and coaching cues are our tools. In order to know how and when a tool is most appropriate to the task, you must comprehensively understand the impact that tool has. If you do not know the impact, the benefits and the risk or harm, you cannot be sure you are using the most appropriate tool for the job.

So now that we’ve reviewed what most shooting sessions look like, how we tend to teach shooting, and why this seems to be the case, lets move on to Part 2. Here on out we’ll actually begin to identify some of the hidden problems with this system so we can work towards solutions.