I recently saw a tweet from a coach stating that they loved coaching individual workouts. The tweet then hit on the commonly accepted notion that playing AAU games over a weekend won’t get you better but getting in the gym and working on fundamentals will. Embedded in the tweet was a video of a player doing stationary two-ball dribbling. The player was dribbling below their knees while looking at the ground. The tweet was “liked” and “re-tweeted” by many. As I have mentioned before, I don’t disagree with the overall sentiment here. There are plenty of kids traveling all over the country paying thousands of dollars right now that would benefit from other options, one of them being working on the fundamentals of the game at a local gym. Where my disagreement comes into play is what’s considered fundamental practice. This argument has numerous layers to it, but take two high school players with average ability, in an actual game would you rather have a player who has faced a zone press multiple times in the summer, played in a game where there is a relentless defender guarding them full court, or instead want the player who’s been “grinding” in the gym doing 2-ball drills? I know my answer. We are doing a disservice to players and parents by giving them this belief that the best way to improve a skill-set is performing frequent isolated drill work.
Have we done 2-ball drills with players in workouts? Yes. Do we use them often? No. Occasionally we’ll use them as a quick 2-3 minute warm-up, or we’ll give players a drill they can do on their own at the very end of a workout that is challenging with the hope that maybe we spark some intrinsic motivation to practice on their own. However, 95% of our ball handling practice includes dribbling and passing games, live disadvantage scenarios to attack traps, and then some technical refinement or concept introduction based on what we observed in the live situations. When players get in an actual game they can’t fall back on stationary dribbling drills- they have to be able to create space, read a defense and make decisions based on interactions with their own teammates and the opponents.
Many view being a point guard or a great ball handler as the ability to dribble so they think the prescription of more dribbling drills is the answer. I have parents frequently tell me that their kids need more dribbling drills because they turn the ball over in games. Many of those same kids could put on a half-time show and are wizards with the ball. The problem isn’t that they can’t dribble- the problem is that they don’t know how to handle the ball. They are adept at a technical skill (dribbling in place, in straight lines, or through cones), but they lack the perceptual ability of a skill, i.e., handle pressure, see the floor to pass, beat a trap, or get to spots efficiently (in other cases, they just need to get physically stronger or quicker- it has nothing to do with skill). There is a HUGE difference between being a good dribbler and being a ball-handler. The two are not mutually exclusive, you can be a great dribbler and not be any good when it comes to handling the basketball in a game. As a basketball community, we have to differentiate these items!!
While dribbling is the most commonly posted individual workout item, the same thing can be said for many items. Players and coaches often talk about “getting shots up”, which overall, I don’t have an issue with. Shooting is the most technical skill in the game of basketball and outside of technique, a large part of shooting is confidence. By getting consistent repetitions and honing in technique, a player can certainly improve his or her shooting- but it has to be intentional, focused practice- it can’t be about just getting a certain number of shots up. If I only had 10 minutes to work on shooting with a group of players, 90 out of 100 times I’m incorporating decisions. So many players can knock down shots with no defense and a coach giving them the decision to shoot (one rebounder, one shooter). Throw another player out there and some defense where players don’t have an automated decision and you’ll quickly see that what we accept as “game-like” in our shooting drills is really just technical practice that may have very little carryover to a live game.
Another item of note is getting shots out of game-like situations. One thing I see often is players going through pick and roll “reads” without defense. They follow a pattern that was demonstrated by a coach. Where is the learning or the read when players have nothing to react to? Maybe it’s a difference in philosophy, but if I want to help a player get better at using ball screens, at minimum, I’m showing them a bunch of film before working on isolated reads so they can see context, but even better, I’m putting them in actual ball screen situations and giving the defense different coverages to perform. Many times the best play out of a ball screen is making the right pass, which doesn’t occur when there is no defense on the floor and a predetermined decision to shoot. Lastly, in many individual workouts players are taking and working on complicated shots that they may take one time every five games at best. While I certainly prefer workouts with decision-making present, if a player is going to be doing an individual workout, 95% of high school players or below need to be emphasizing knocking down open catch and shoot shots, understanding how they can create space with the ball (dribble and non-dribble), moving without the ball, finishing with both hands on two feet, and simple, basic moves to beat a defender.
Different situations can certainly call for different things. Isolated drill practice has its place in certain instances. However, I think we are off-based in the common thinking that frequent isolated work is where improvement lies. In too many cases we are simply copying what we’ve seen in other places or doing “feel-good, look-good” workouts that impress parents and allow for repeat business. As a whole, we need to keep challenging common thought to give players the tools to most effectively use their time and maximize their development.