If you look up the dictionary definition of skill, it would state something along the lines of the ability to perform an activity. When talking about skill in the game of basketball the basic skills most people talk about are dribbling, passing, shooting, finishing, and defense (we could dive into more but it is beyond the scope of this article). I frequently hear people talk about how players need more skill development, or in other words they need to learn how to dribble, pass, shoot, finish, or play defense better.

In a few short paragraphs I will attempt to break down a complex subject with numerous variables into elements that will help parents, coaches, and people involved in the game of basketball reevaluate skills training. I believe there are numerous misconceptions of how to best develop skill to maximize in-game performance.

Most people believe that skill is best developed in non-competitive, low-pressure, private settings. There is a common belief that kids should play less games and do more drills that just break down the skills of the game. This is a paradigm that has and continues to shift dramatically since I played; because of this, there is an influx of trainers, camps, private skill coaches, and programs preaching skills through non-compeitive play and drill work.

Through time, I have found there is an intricate balance to maximizing a player’s development. Before engaging in a program it is important to understand the components of skill and how they are developed. Understanding will lead an individual to better assessing the quality of a workout, practice, or program based on the needs or goals of a player.

There are two parts to a skill: perception and action. Therefore, to possess a skill at it’s highest level, players must have both components. In its simplest terms, the action is the physical component. Examples could include the technique used to make a jump shot or perform a crossover dribble. The perception is the mental component. It is the understanding of how to apply the physical action into a game context. Things that play a role in the perceptual part of skill are interactions with defense, teammates, and the situations of a game such as time, score, and strategy. So many players in this day and age are extremely advanced with the action, but lack the perceptual component of skill.

Why is that?

Most camps, workouts, and private sessions place an extreme focus on developing the action in isolation, which neglects the perception. Players perform multiple drills where coaches tell them exactly what to do and never force them to think, react, or make decisions based on the context that resemble a game. This is why you will see players who can perform any dribble combination through a series of cones, hit ten threes in a row, and finish with both hands in a non-game setting, but when a live game starts they turn the ball over and struggle to score. They are what I call “skill robots”. This is not saying that the action component of a skill is not important, what this is saying is that for many individuals there is way too much isolation and emphasis placed only on the action of a skill to the detriment of their ability to transfer their skill to game situations.

There are certain instances in which devoting time to isolating the action of a skill is beneficial and could be needed. Here are a few reasons:

1.) A player is learning a new technique (ex: shooting form)
2.) A player needs to refine or correct a current technique or movement

While 5 v 5 is the setting that the game of basketball is played in, each player is limited in the amount of repetitions they receive. This is a big reason for thinking that players need more isolated action skill work. Most believe it will help “balance out” the lack of repetitions they get in live game play, but as stated previously, often times what becomes neglected in this way of thinking is the perceptual side of skill. Players build the action of a skill, but aren’t able to apply them to a competitive game leading to no increase in performance. This is where small-sided games come into play. Small-sided games consist of 1 v 1, 2 v 2, and 3 v 3. They allow players more touches and repetitions than a 5 v 5 setting while still forcing players to make decisions and perform their physical skills in a context similar to live 5 v 5 play.

In conclusion, a skill has two components: the action and the perception. Both are important in performance. Isolated, non-competitive skill work that focuses on just the action can be beneficial in certain instances, but is not the answer to every problem. Too many people think that more drills without defense and a “focus on fundamentals” will transfer to the competitive game environment. Players develop skill by being able to couple the action with the perception, ultimately allowing them to maximize in-game performance.