Are they doing more harm than good?

Do stationary ball handling drills have a downside? I think they do and the science seems to support it, here’s why.

In a Nutshell

When do most ball handling turn-overs occur? Either under pressure, on a change of direction/acceleration move and/or in reaction to a defenders movement. Now let’s contrast this with the context in which stationary ball handling drills are generally trained in, here’s a chart.

So there’s obviously a disconnect between the two moments. But is this just inefficient training, or is there actually a harmful effect from this training on the athlete?

The body is constantly learning and refining skills to make them more suitable to it’s environment, whether that’s the training environment or the game environment. That’s why it’s so important to match the two. It’s useless adapting to and performing well in a training environment if that doesn’t transfer to the game.

Premeditated Moves

In most stationary ball handling drills the body is learning to premeditate it’s ball handling moves, irrespective of the immediate on ball defender, off ball defenders, and offensive team mates spacing or timing. Any time an offensive player crosses over into the hands of a defender, or takes lazy dribbles which get poked away by a defenders hand, you have to wonder if those moments are a reflection of practiced ‘safe’ individual ball handling drills in which the body never had to worry about a defender, and hence learnt to execute skills without regard for an external influence.

Movement

Offensive players beat or blow by defenders with movement, it’s obviously impossible to do so otherwise. If we teach ball handling stationary we are learning to handle the ball in a stable position in which acceleration, change of direction and deceleration aren’t required or considered. This is what we are telling the body the entire time we’re completing that drill – to disassociate between the upper body and lower body. Now if the body were to try use this exact same ball handling skill developed in the stationary drills during a blow by in a game, you’d see a turnover straight away. There are vital differences between the skill taught and the skill required. Sure there are similarities, but it’s the differences which would be the difference between a lay-up and a turnover. One involves moving the ball only, and the other involves moving the ball with the body, factoring in a changing position and forces, requiring a different action at the hand and wrist. If you’ve read the article series on shooting in basketball then you’d notice the similar issues between this and stationary shooting drills.

Timing

Timing of the move is another issue. You see this all the time when teaching athletes to run and move better. It’s relatively easy to teach them to move well. It’s much harder to get them to the point where they move well out of messy situations. When handling the ball, you don’t always know when the gap will appear, or when the defender will reach in and over-balance. In this moment you need to be able use an attacking dribble, regardless of where the ball is in relation to your body at that time. This means you might be crossing the ball over from a height that is rarely practiced, not your ‘ideal’ cross-over height, and yet in this moment that is what’s required. This is a situation which never occurs during individual ball handling drills.

Inefficient Training at Best

Of course all developing players are also playing games and completing other drills in which they move with the ball in their hands as well, so it’s not as if completing stationary ball handling drills will make you unable to blow by someone. But if it contributes to just one fumble out of 10 that might not have occurred otherwise, then that’s a negative training effect which I think is unnecessary. If you’re tight for time in your training sessions this perspective also says that stationary ball handling drills might be an easy exclusion if you want to increase the quality of your session, perhaps replacing it with 1v1 inside the key-way (box drill).

For anyone who has read the Via Negativa article you would be familiar with the importance of identifying any negative learning that might occur from training a certain way, or prescribing a certain exercise or drill. Negative learning is when the body learns something which actually harms performance in a game situation. This might be learning an inappropriate skill or it might be learning the correct skill, in a fragile or error-prone way. For example, research shows that learning skills by breaking them down into smaller parts and using lots of coaching cues will lead to improved practice performance in that session, but unfortunately will result in poor performance in different or high pressure environments, such as a game. In contrast if skills can be taught more as a whole with limited breaking down or technical coaching, then despite poorer practice performance, the skills tend to ‘stick’ and transfer to games very well.

While some stationary ball handling drills would have a place in training programs, I don’t think they deserve anywhere near as much time as they get. Many of the benefits (improved ‘touch’??) can be picked up through other drills, such as 1v1,  without any of the same negative learning risks. Ultimately, is it important to be able to complete body wraps and figure 8 dribbles or is it important to be able to handle the ball at speed, see a weakness in the defense and then blow by them to exploit it?

Finally, there are those that will argue that since implementing ball handling in their sessions or individual routines that their in game performance has improved. Two responses to that to finish.

  • What about the people or teams that have done this without improvement or perhaps even saw a decrease in performance? Of course these cases wouldn’t be noticed or discussed anywhere near as much as anyone who thinks they found a magic solution to ball handling, leading to an inaccurate assumption of what works.

  • Was it the specific drills used that led to an improved performance, or was it simply that there was obviously a focus on ball handling and turnovers, and as such this emphasis permeated all drills, scrimmage and games leading to a natural learning improvement through focused intent – something I strongly believe is the key to efficient learning.

Instead?

If you’re at a loss to replace some of your stationary ball handling drills, i’d suggest starting by increasing scrimmage variations, 1v1, 3v3, 2v3 etc. If you want a ball handling emphasis you will want to reduce the amount of players involved, since there’s only one ball in scrimmage settings spread between them. Yes this doesnt work on ball handling exclusive of other skills, but that’s the point. Of course there are other competitive drills which don’t involve scoring, such as trying to beat the defender to certain spots on the court (box drill).

If you don’t have a partner to play competitively with, then your next best option is probably to get really good at mental visualisation and perform blow by/ball handling moves imagining a defenders position. Mental imagery seems to be very good at transferring back to real world situations.