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.


Contents:

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.


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


Skill Training:


The goal of a skill training session is to improve the ability to perform sport-specific movements in a generalized set of positions and situations. You should be training movements you make in the game, but with enough variability to allow transfer to a wide range of game situations. For example, there’s a near-infinite number of variations of the jump shot - different set ups, spots on the floor, and levels of contest.


Game Play:


Comprised of competitive games, scrimmages, and all variations of minimally controlled game-like competition. This is where athletes are forced to make decisions live while getting immediate feedback. Either their decision resulted in a positive or a negative outcome for the team. This is also where athletes are able to spend time playing fatigued.


Strength/Speed/Power Training:


Recognize that nothing mentioned so far will significantly enhance the maximal output of the athlete. Skill training enhances the coordination and size of neurological signals to the muscle, but not the strength of the muscle itself.


Strength is developed by producing large amounts of force. This means heavy weights and relatively slower movements are required. This causes the size and the force production capabilities of the muscle to increase, allowing for larger maximal outputs.


Typically combined with strength training, speed and power training are all about increasing the speed of force production which has more to do with the nervous system's ability to quickly contract a muscle. A vital aspect of any sport.


Conditioning:


Conditioning is absolutely necessary for peak performance in basketball, it's just often utilized at inappropriate times.


Unlike your brain and nervous system, your heart, lungs and circulatory system don’t know the difference between movement patterns. Cardiovascular conditioning can be developing without doing things that looks like sport skills. Although leading up to the season you should be doing more "sport-specific" conditioning (or just playing more full-court ball) to ensure your soft tissues are prepared for the demands of the season.


Okay, now on to the good stuff...

What happens when we add resistance to skill work:


I’m talking about modalities like weighted basketballs, weighted gloves, weighted vests, band-resisted ball-handling, and whatever other similar creations coaches are coming up with these days.


If (emphasis on the “if”) skill development is the goal of the exercise or the session, none of these should make an appearance. Skills are improved under specific situations in order to train the specific motor pattern that drives the movement. When the context changes in the form of altering the body’s levers (ankle/hand weights), altering the situation (band resisted ball handling – drastically changing the speed and efforts involved), or altering the implement (weighted ball) the motor pattern is likely to change. You’re now training a new, separate motor program that will be “learned” by your brain as a different skill. Hopefully you see why this is a waste of time.

"When movement time is altered, for example, almost every other aspect of the movement changes too: The forces and durations of contractions, the speed of the limbs, and the distances the limbs travel all can change markedly as movement speeds up." - Richard Schmidt & Tim Lee, Motor Learning and Performance

Going back to that previous “if”: If instead your goal for the session was enhancing athleticism then both the tools listed above, and the addition of a basketball make it an awfully inefficient way to build athleticism. A lot of those tools induce a large amount of fatigue without any significant strain to the tissues.


A lot of online resources reference increased strength and a "lighter" feel to a regular basketball as benefits of using a weighted ball. You know what else accomplishes both of those results much more effectively? A well thought out long-term strength training program!


This leads me to reason… The best possible skill session doesn’t involve any weights or resistance and the best possible strength session doesn’t involve any small weights or basketballs.


If one of the biggest factors to long-term progress is finding the optimal combination of quality of work and quantity of work, why would we choose something that reduces quality and leaves us fatigued (limiting the quantity of work we can do in the short-term)?


What happens when we add conditioning/fatigue to skill work:


When doing this skill training, intensities should match or slightly exceed what is required in a game while fatigue should be below what is experienced in a game. This means your best quality reps will come from workouts with plenty of rest.


We need intensities to match the game so that you’re practicing skills at the same speeds and patterns that are utilized. The notion of “practice harder than the game demands” is fantastic, it’s just almost always perceived the wrong way. “Harder” doesn’t mean more exhausted, it means doing things quicker and sharper.


We need fatigue to stay low to limit negative side-effects that decrease athletic performance and induce irregular motor patterns (acidosis, hypoxia and extreme body temperatures). If performance is down, you’ll be practicing movements at slower speeds and further from the rim (decreased jump height). If motor patterns become irregular, each rep is performed unpredictably different; this then harms your ability to develop the skill in the first place.


So, since we don’t seem to be able to improve a skill under fatigue the goal shouldn’t be to do a lot of skill work under fatigue, it should be to get better conditioned to operate at lower levels of fatigue.


For a more in-depth explanation around the roles of fatigue and skill acquisition, Charlie Weingroff (head of strength & conditioning for the Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team) talks about this on The Strength Coach Podcast from 1:17:00 to 1:26:00.


Strength and conditioning has figured this out a long time ago – movements that demand high output and high quality (plyometrics and power training) are done early in the workout before fatigue sets in, done with low reps per set, and have plenty of rest between sets.


Final thoughts:


A quality basketball training program should include skill work, game-play, strength & power training, and conditioning. I've segmented these for the sake of clarity but traditionally it's much simpler. Game play would occur after skill work; conditioning would occur after strength training, which would occur after speed & power training. These combinations are perfectly reasonable, but what's unreasonable is trying to get a strength stimulus on the court or conditioning in your skill sessions.


Some helpful questions you can ask yourself when coaching or when working out:

  • When training a skill: Does the movement look/feel smooth and consistent? Is the movement performed at the speeds and intensities that would be required to be effective in a game? If not, how can I shorten the duration of the session or add more rest within the session?

  • When practicing: Is the team moving at (or above) the tempo you want to see in a game? If not, how can I shorten the duration of practice or add more rest to allow tempo to increase?

Of course, I realize I'm fighting against an endless sea of coaches with their own belief systems and athletes who like to "feel tired" during every session on or off the court. The bottom line is a lot of what gets done neglects fundamental principles in the name of "this is how it's always been done."


Whether you're a sport coach, skill trainer, strength coach, or athlete... For you to make changes towards smarter, more productive training will get you the results you're looking for and might just make a small dent on the basketball culture that demands an evolution.