What is “skilled”?

We accept “skilled” as having perfect form on a jump-shot, dribbling through cones like a wizard, and flawlessly being able to execute a wide array of finishes after a perfectly executed sweep below the knees.

Believe me, this is exactly how I looked at skill as a player, and for a couple years when I first started working with other players. I was always advocating “go game speed”, “practice with more intensity”, and “do more repetitions”. Through time and anecdotal experience, I began to realize that there is a lot more to developing a skill than thousands of game speed reps everyday. While I believe it’s important for players to practice hard and practice on their own, being “skilled” has to be re-defined and thought about differently.

Skill is the application of technique. It’s the coupling of action and perception. So many young players are proficient in an action in an isolated environment, but struggle tremendously in a game. Coaches often connect that struggle to toughness and aggressiveness. Trainers blame the coaches’ system, in which the parents immediately jump on board with, they often think, “My son makes all his layups in layup lines and made 5 shots in a row in the driveway, there has to be something wrong with the coach!” While I absolutely acknowledge that in some instances these things may have a factor, I can also assure you there’s more to it. Expecting to automatically translate practice from 1 v 0 to a live 5 v 5 game is crazy. It’s like a kid driving a car for the first time in an empty corn field and then assuming they’ll be able to safely drive in Los Angeles rush hour traffic. There are too many variables and too many decisions for a seamless transition between the two environments.

Often discussed in basketball communities is that kids play too many games, which is the reason they need more skill work. It’s believed that skill work will allow players more repetitions with the ball, which allows them more opportunity to improve during an actual game. The problem for me isn’t the fact that I disagree with how much structured 5 v 5 our youth plays, the problem for me is that many view isolated skill work as the answer. Everyone would likely agree that that more games isn’t the right solution, but I also don’t believe more drills in isolation is either. Does isolated skill work serve a purpose? Yes (introducing technique, building confidence in an action). Do kids need to play 5 v 5 games? Absolutely.

In my opinion, the “most bang for our buck” as it relates to player development is in the middle of isolated practice and 5 v 5 games. Players need to receive opportunities and repetitions to build the action of a skill, but in an environment that is conducive to the interactions and decisions that they are faced with in a game. This is not done through isolated practice. We need to keep challenging conventional wisdom and thinking. Creating more drills without defense and decision-making isn’t the answer. As I mentioned, there is a time and a place for nearly everything, but as a basketball community, I think we need to better analyze how we are designing practices and what we hope to obtain from the drills we are creating and repeating.