Among the many important factors in playing and coaching basketball, perhaps the most important for a coach is having a well-organised practice session. Unfortunately many coaches attend a practice session and make up drills as they go along with little thought to why drills are being used and their specific benefits and weaknesses. A coach who prepares a careful plan for his practice sessions with short-term and long-term aims considerably improves the chances of success.
The frequency of practice sessions and the duration of each session will have an effect on the players’ rate of learning and retention of taught skills. Learning is also affected by mental and physical fatigue so it is unwise to make practice sessions too long. Relatively short practices repeated at frequent intervals are best for efficient learning.
When planning the season’s program take into consideration the number of times the team will practice each week. If it is only once or twice a week it will not be possible to include too many learning tasks while players will need to work on their own conditioning program away from the team sessions. It is, of course, desirable the team practices four or five times a week if they expect to compete at a medium to high level. I once asked a coach about the system used in the former Yugoslavia. His response was: “There is no system, but if there is, it is they practice six hours a day.” I then asked at what age players started practising six hours a day. His response: “About age 16, two hours before school, two hours during school and two hours after school.” Compare that with what happens in Australia and there is a major difference.
Pre-season practices can be longer than those during the season as teams look to improve the fitness base of players. Spend time on fundamental individual drills early in the season and concentrate more on team drills as the season progresses. The foundations of the team offence and defence should be in place as early as possible, but pre-season training will be more on the individual skills.
Before each practice the coach should have a detailed plan and follow it as closely as possible. The players should know in advance what they will cover each session. If possible, each practice should end on a high note so the players will look forward to the next session.
The content of each session will depend on the level of competition. Normally every session will start with warm-up drills and end with team drills, although some sessions may go into overtime for some players who need extra attention to shooting, passing or dribbling skills. Drills should be planned carefully, keeping all players actively involved. At times the players may be divided into groups with each group working on different drills. Each group will rotate their stations ensuring everyone covers each exercise. The task becomes more challenging for the coach of a large group of young, inexperienced players in a gym with only two baskets, which is the case for a significant number of teams in Australia.
The demonstration of a skill is important for players to understand how the skill should be performed. Demonstrate a new skill three or four times before the players try it, then correct and reinforce with praise and encouragement.
If the drill is complex, break it down into parts. Demonstrate the whole drill then show how to execute each step. When the players understand the whole drill time can be saved in connecting the parts. An example could be a two-on-two screen-and-roll drill. After a complete demonstration explain the separate moves: creating a lead, pivoting and facing the basket, faking, setting an effective screen, driving and making a jump shot, or a roll-off pass after recognising what the defenders do to prevent the play. Each part should be practised and then the whole drill can be practised. Physically demanding drills should be alternated with less demanding drills.
There are generally three levels of competition, mini-basketball (under 12 years) juniors (up to 19 years) and seniors. Practice sessions will vary in emphasis for each level.
For mini-basketball concentrate on the fundamental skills and combine these elementary skills for team work. In practice sessions it is usually best to limit the five-on-five drills in favour of two-on-two or three-on-three drills. The very young players are all keen to get possession of the ball and the five-on-five practice can develop into a one-on-nine contest. All five defenders want to get possession and the four teammates of the player with the ball also want to get possession. Teaching how to maintain good spacing between the players, how to pass accurately, how to pivot and protect the ball when closely guarded and how to drive to the basket for close shots are important priorities at this level and best achieved with few players, hence the need to break down drills into two-on-two and three-on-three situations.
Some coaches are surprised when I say that teaching under-12 players the Shuffle offence is feasible as it is generally considered too complex and too rigid. However we have found that if the fundamental skills are taught first and a significant amount of five-man drills are used, young players adapt well to the challenge of team work and sharing the scoring opportunities. It is important to avoid including too many options. As at all levels, it is preferable to do a few things well rather than try to do too much at a mediocre standard. The emphasis should be on having fun.
For junior players, stress the fundamental skills, but time should be spent on developing the team offence and team defence. Players recently graduating from the under-12 level should be particular about developing good form with their shooting practice. It is often said that practice makes perfect but this is not necessarily the case. Unless good technique is established then all that will be taking place will be poor practice. We have found it to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to correct a senior player’s technique, hence emphasising the importance of establishing good technique at a young age and then good practice will make perfect.
Senior basketball is the most intensive and competitive level. Teams are trying to refine their offence and make their team defence more aggressive and demanding. Fundamentals should still be stressed with lots of repetition. I had the privilege of observing the Los Angeles Lakers training sessions during the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson era and was impressed with the way the veteran stars would spend considerable time during the training sessions working on their favourite shots. They knew that without constant repetition Kareem’s sky hook or Magic’s behind-the-back dribble for the fade away jump shot would not be successful. If it’s good enough for two NBA Hall of Famers to practice that hard, it’s good enough for everyone else.