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Part 1: How to get more out of your basketball skill development - A strength coach's perspective

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

The fact of the matter is a lot of what goes on in basketball practices and skill sessions fails to appreciate fundamental principles of human physiology and skill acquisition. It’s rarely a result of ill-intent, but rather a misunderstanding of the outcomes of certain training modalities.

The limitations of human physiology state that duration limits intensity. This means you have a choice between the two; you can either train game-like skills and intensities or you can induce fatigue for the sake of conditioning. Try to combine the two and you lose the effectiveness of at least one. Unless, I suppose, your goal is to start up a league of basketball playing robots... Or find aliens that have different biological energy systems… No judgement here.

The primary examples I will use further down this article are basketball drills with added resistance (like weighted balls, band-resisted ball handling, any form of ankle/hand/wrist weight, etc.) and practicing under conditioning of high fatigue (be it in team practice or a skill session). These are things that I think coaches and athletes should be actively trying to minimize wherever possible.

I feel as though these points only come across as controversial if we are not on the same page about how the relevant systems in the body work, or what the fundamental goal of any given workout is. I will first do my best to give context, or simply provide a helpful reminder, so that you can get the most out of this read.


1) Background - What systems are we working with in any given instance?

2) Types of training - What are the fundamental goals for each type of session?

a) Skill training

b) Game play

c) Strength/speed/power training

d) Conditioning

3) What happens when we add resistance to skill work

4) What happens when we add conditioning/fatigue to skill work

5) Final thoughts

Background - What systems are we working with in any given instance?

While in reality things are not so black and white, it is helpful to think of sport performance as three separate segments:

  1. Subconscious motor programs alongside conscious decision-making determines the signals sent to the muscles (creating movement) and the accuracy of your execution of those moves,

  2. The unconscious muscular system which responds to the neurological signals sent by the brain,

  3. The unconscious cardiovascular system which fuels the muscular system and determines the ability to repeat actions (delay fatigue)

~A motor program is like a pre-programed set of instructions to complete a movement. Even though nearly every muscle in your body has to do something very specific to perform a jump shot (even the muscles not involved better stay relaxed so as not to alter the pattern), you don’t have to think about much other than aiming at your target. You could think of this like an app on your phone; opening Instagram looks very simple as the user, but behind the scenes there’s a vastly complex string of code that ensures you have a smooth experience. The more practice you get with a skill the less you have to think in order to be successful.~

Telling the whole story as one unit:

You’re on the wing looking to make a drive to the basket. You notice your defender is pushing you left but you see an open lane on the right. You take one hard attack dribble, let the defender jump to cut you off, then perform a spin move to the right. You get past the defender and lay the ball in at the basket.

Your conscious decision making read the situation and responded to the defender, but subconscious motor programs probably took over to complete the dribble moves and the lay-up. These motor programs tell the muscular system precisely when and how hard to contract to create movements you’ve practiced 1000’s of times before, allowing you to do the spin move and the lay-up without having to think about every tiny piece of those complex movements. Your cardiovascular system allows you to make those moves despite having been on the court without a stop in game play for almost two minutes.

Therefore, the limitations of your performance are determined by:

  1. Your ability to make quick and effective decisionsdeveloped by practice and live play situations

  2. The quality of your motor programs developed by practicing specific skills

  3. The ability to produce enough force for the movement to be effective – developed mainly by lifting weights and plyometrics

  4. The ability to fuel the muscular system sufficiently to repeat sport movements over prolonged periods – developed by a range of conditioning methods and game play

My main focus in my line of work in enhancing #3 and #4. I’ve posted plenty about these here on the blog and on my Instagram and will continue to put out resources on these topics. But today we are focused more on #2, and how coaches and players sometimes hurt their development by trying to combine #2 with #3 or #4. But more on that in a bit.