How We Practice by Andrej Lemanis

Paper written by Australian Boomers and Brisbane Bullets Head Coach Andrej Lemanis, on the topic of skill acquisition and the practice environment. Here is the link to adaptive shooting drills:

I write this paper to initiate discussion on the most common practice techniques employed in the Australian development system and challenge the effectiveness of these techniques in making our players the best they can be. I have build these thoughts over a period of time after observation of different team’s practices within Australia, discussion with various coaches within Australia and overseas, discussion with Adam Gorman — skill acquisition expert at the AIS — and my recent experiences in Europe.

The issue for me revolves around the amount of time we spend execution “on zero” drills — in particular when we do 5 on 0 offence for extended periods of time. What I have learned over time and most recently confirmed by ADAM, is that in order to learn, people need to experience the environment — they need to understand the context and they will then figure out how to achieve within that context. They will adapt to the task in front of them.

If we run 5 on 0 offence, there is no context for the players to learn from. They get to learn a pattern of movement, but that is it. There is no understanding of timing of screens/cuts/ball delivery in order for the offence to be effective. In game play, they figure out that if they are later on this screen, it makes the offence work better, or if they are late on a particular screen the entire offence stalls — for example. People need context in order to be able to adapt.

This brings me to my next point — I think we are far too structure at junior level — we need to provide an environment for kids to learn the game — not how to run where the coaches tells them to. The game is dynamic — players need to be able to make reads and play what is in front of them — but how many times do allow them to practice these things? We usually look to structure our practices and yell at our kids if they don’t run a particular cut if they are supposed. We frown on creativity and exploration and often comment that a player doesn’t listen or is difficult to coach. May I be so bold as to suggest that as caoches, perhaps it is we who have the problem. We need to create environments for players to learn the skills of the game and encourage them to try new things — to explore — this is how they get better.

In order to achieve this, we have to change our thinking and the way we teach the game. We have to provide far more 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 opportunities at practice. We create environments for learning ( eg. 2v2 we might restrict players to only shooting lay ups, or only dribbling with their left hand — they will then explore ways to figure it out).

The true skill in coaching is understanding the competencies of your athletes and creating competitive learning environments which are appropriate and challenging enough to help the athlete improve. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that skill learning may be optimised when the coach is able to provide players with practice opportunities that appropriate challenge the players existing skill levels (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). A suitable challenge for some players may simply involve dribbling a ball while being defended. For others, the challenge may need to be far greater with an emphasis on executing a broader range of skills in quite complex environments against heavy defensive pressure. The important point is that the complexity and difficulty of any given practice activity is tailored to the players existing skill levels — players with more advanced skills are given more challenging drills in order to extend their skill.

To be a great coach you need to know when to step in and help an athlete attain a skill they are struggling with and when to let the athlete go and figure it out for him/herself — allowing him/her to adapt. Having a team run perfect 5 on 0 offence does not make us great coaches.

Ian Stacker and Adam Gorman have done a lot of work on shooting adaptability — how players have to change their shots under defensive pressure. Games from the 2012 Olympics were charted and discovered that around 15% of shots were uncontested. This means that around 85% of the time, players were having to shoot the ball with a defender coming at them and making them change their shot. Interestingly, of the 85% of contested shots, just over 50% of these were executed with very high levels of defensive pressure. But how often do we practice these shots? Shooting practice usually consists of players firing off a bunch of shots one after the other without any defence, and often with a perfect pass and no context. How often do we practice the adaptation on our shot?

The best way to practice adaptable shooting is by playing 1 on 1 — if we start to see 1v1 as a shooting drill, then this will lead us to incorporating more 1v1 in our practice sessions. The 1v1 “rules” can be modified to force players to shoot different types of adaptive shots. For example, it may be that you only allow shots from inside the key, or only jump shots, or only shots with the off hand. 2v2 is another good way to practice adaptability shooting as it incorporates the catch and shoot elements of a game also.

There are plenty of examples of players who test well in shooting drills on 0, however, in the pace of the game their shot technique either doesn’t allow them to get shots off against defence, or once adapted, doesn’t have the same accuracy.

Adam’s team has also done some work in establishing the real time between shots in games. They studied two games from the London Olympics — Australia vs China and Australia vs Brazil. Let’s take Joe Ingles as an example. Against China, there was an average of 4.5 minutes of real time between each one of Joe’s 15 shots — the longest time between shots was a bit over 12 minutes. The Brazil game saw Joe go up to an average of almost 6 minutes between shots for his 11 attempts. How do we simulate this at practice? I know Steve Kerr’s shooting coach used to have him sit on the bench for a length of time, he would then call “shot”, and Steve would need to run to the bench, check in and then to the 3 point to catch and shoot. He would then sit back down. This is an extreme example of how some teams replicate game conditions — but I think we need to take something from it.

I am not saying we should totally abandon rhythm shooting but we need to add to the environment. We need to help the players practice in environments that will force them to adapt- just as they have to do do in the game. There is no doubt that playing 1 on 1 and 2 on 2 is the best way to do this.

Before the London Olympics we were playing some lead up games against Spain. I went to the gym early to work with Peter Crawford on his shot. Marc Gasol was injured at that time and was also at the stadium working with his assistant coach at the other end. His workout caught my eye and I just stopped and watched for about 3 minutes. In that time, Marc didn’t take one on balance shot. Everything was step backs, fade aways, off the wrong leg, with his left hand — things that we would consider “messing around”. If an Australian player was working on his own executing those kinds of shots, I’m sure the Australian coach will tell him to stop wasting his time “fooling around” and take some game like shots — the truth is, they are game like shots!

I recently had the chance to watch the Bologna U16 team practice. In 2 hours of practice, they started with about 10 minutes of 1v0 drills — shooting off the dribble, rip throughs, pivots etc. They then went 2 on 0 for about 10 minutes — receiver principles — one player drives , the other moves to receiver spots — kick out for a shot and relocate.

They then spent the next 90 minutes of practice playing 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4. I didn’t see any structured offence. I saw learned movement — players would play off instinct and move according to what they thought was open — players reacted to each other and maintained spacing, game tempo etc. Coaches would limit the options in the early stages but then allowed more and more freedom as the practice went on. Only the last 5 minutes of practice was spent playing 5v5.

In summary, the purpose of this paper is to stimulate thought and discussion amongst Australian coaches. I don’t seek to criticise what we are doing, but want to challenge our current philosophies in an attempt to improve our teaching techniques. Like our athletes, we should all strive to get better each day — we all look to learn a new offence or figure out a better way to teach pick and roll defence — perhaps we need to ensure we are providing the best environment for acquisition of appropriate skills.

I look forward to having discussions with coaches who wish to talk this through further.

References/ Suggested Readings

Gorman, A.D, & Maloney,M. Representative task design: Does the addition of a defender change the execution of a basketball shot?

Guadagnoli, M.A., & Lee, T.D. (2004). Challenge point: A framework for conceptualizing the effects of various practice conditions in motor learning. Journal of Motor Behavior, 36, 212–224.

Renshaw, I., Davids,K., & Savelsbergh, G.J.P. (Eds). (2010). Motor learning in practice: A constraints led approach. London. Routledge.

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