Games Are Won in Practice
The perception that practicing the basics has to be monotonous is simply not true.
“Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard” - anonymous (Navy Seal). In an age of instant gratification and one in which seeking out any and all personal exposure opportunities it has become hard to convince young players of the importance of patience and deliberate practice. Throughout our extensive work with players as young as 5 years old it is clear that the overwhelming majority of players would rather “just play” than patiently acquire (or for more advanced players, perfect) the necessary fundamentals. The AAU basketball culture that emphasizes maximizing game play and elevating the individual pursuits of players has further infringed on a coaches ability to get players to buy into a practice-first mentality.
The Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) Model recommends a 4:1 practice to game ratio for athletes in the “Learn to Train” stage (8-12 years old). It is safe to say that players younger than 8 years old should almost exclusively be practicing. However, in our experience these ratios are simply not followed (oftentimes not necessarily due to the coaches negligence but other factors such as gym time, scheduling etc). We too often curtail to the cries of “more fun, more gameplay!”. The problem arises when players have not adequately learned the prerequisite skills and fundamentals which inevitably leads to bad habits, rule breaking and frustration. Relying too heavily on gameplay in the development stages may offer that instant gratification of players seemingly enjoying themselves, however, it will do them a grave disservice in the long run.
It may be helpful to give an actual example to illustrate the importance of sufficient and intentional practice. We have had the privilege of working with many teams from several different associations in Ottawa and beyond, and one thing is consistent - if a team is struggling in games then there is a high probability that their practices are ineffective. More specifically, they are not adequately teaching the fundamentals required for the players to improve and grow (this will vary by age and level of play). We have witnessed practices where 11-12 year old players cannot consistently stop their body without travelling or almost falling over. If this basic fundamental movement skill is not acquired, then having success in a game situation with MANY more variables and situations will simply not be possible. These players must improve body control before progressing to more complex skills. From a team culture perspective there is also a standard that must be set in practice. If your team spends more time chatting, standing in long lines and taking water breaks than they do actively working on their game, seeing tangible improvement in games will be very difficult. Disciplines such as: arriving to practice on time, running to the huddle when the coach blows the whistle, making eye contact when a coach or teammate is talking and simply trying your hardest all the time will go a long way in helping your team build habits that will directly translate to on-court success. These should never be overlooked!
Our suggestion for coaches and parents is to show your players/children the original Karate Kid movie. Essentially the main character, Daniel, wants to jump right into fighting before he’s learned the basics of Martial Arts. His trainer must teach him the nuances of Martial Arts among other things (patience, discipline etc.) before he is allowed to fight. The underlying theme of the movie parallels our approach to training young athletes - patience and practice! This idea of practicing and working on the fundamentals before progressing to a competition should be cultivated by more coaches and parents. Skill acquisition occurs at the earliest stages of development so it is crucially important that young players spend ample time working on the basics of the game BEFORE introducing more gameplay. There are many ways to engage young players and make learning the fundamentals “fun” without just allowing them to play 5on5 games. The movie even uses seemingly useless exercises (like the “wax on”,“wax off” of cars and painting fences to build discipline). It is the responsibility of the trainer in the movie or coach in a basketball context to be creative when teaching kids to keep them engaged and learning. The often elusive holy grail for a coach of young players is to have them learning and executing skills and fundamentals when they don’t even know they are doing it. This can be achieved through small-sided games, competitions, games with props, races etc. The perception that practicing the basics has to be monotonous is simply not true. Coaches just need to carefully plan their practices in order to maximize reps and fun at the same time - see our previous blog post for some insight on that topic.
If you have questions about proper training for your team or child then please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to point you in the right direction.