Year-Round Player Development for Basketball

Recently, a basketball coach asked other coaches about their pre-season conditioning programs and he received various answers. The debate raged about the need for sport conditioning, as one coach suggested any time spent off the court is time away from practicing basketball skills. Some coaches believe playing games is the best conditioning and spend all weekend at fall leagues playing multiple games, while some favor basketball-skill specific workouts.

Basketball is a game of movement; it also requires a high proficiency of technical skill. However, technical skill and athleticism fail if the player does not understand game concepts, play with intensity, embrace competition and react quickly to constantly changing situations. Therefore, basketball requires tactical skill and a fourth skill, a set of intangibles that combines leadership, coachability, competitiveness, intelligence, awareness, and more. When these four skills blend together in one player, the player has all the elements of a successful player.

Since basketball combines four different sets of skills, sports preparation and training must be varied to build sufficient levels of skill in all areas. A player who constantly shoots by himself may be the best shooter in the country, but if he lacks a certain level of the other three skills, he may never get the opportunity to use his shooting skills in a game.

Last season, I watched a 6’6 girls’ high school basketball player. She was a frequent target for coaches, players and parents who were jealous she signed a Division I scholarship. However, the criticism missed her biggest weakness. While most criticized her skills or lack of strength, and those close to her made excuses because of her size which contributed to a lack of coordination, her biggest problem was a lack of dynamic balance and core strength. Where others saw poor conditioning when she looked out of breath, I saw terrible running mechanics which contributed to poor efficiency of motion. Where others saw lack of strength when she was unable to hold her position, I saw poor dynamic balance. In each instance, core strength was central to her problem.

Core strength is a catchy buzz word used by fitness professionals to justify higher fees and expensive equipment and is often used as a synonym for abdominals. The core is more than just the abs and includes the muscles of the hips and pelvis. The core is central to sports performance because power generated in the legs is transferred through the core to the upper body; the core is also essential for proper posture.

In this player’s case, her lack of core strength manifested itself in poor running mechanics. Rather than running tall, with good running posture and a front to back arm swing from the shoulders, her arms swung wildly across her body and her shoulders slumped forward. In this position, she used more energy because of the poor efficiency and reduced the volume of air in her lungs because her chest cavity could not expand due to the slumped shoulders. She may have been in poor condition or she may have been in great condition; but, her poor core strength inhibited her.

When in the post, the same problems affected her dynamic balance and strength. As she established position, and smaller girls pushed against her to move her away from he basket, she struggled to hold her position. She was pushed away from the basket not necessarily because she lacked strength, but because she was not able to use her strength. She could not sit her butt down and push into her opponent because she lacked the core strength and the dynamic balance; balance in the context of an activity, not in a static position.

This player is but one example of people criticizing a player and consequently training a player in one area that misses the true cause of her struggles. No amount of basketball practice or games was going to fix her problem; her issues needed to be addressed off the court first, with a solid resistance training program using medicine ball throws, balance exercises, front squats, single-leg squats, overhead squats, etc. to build the requisite strength to allow her to use whatever basketball ability she possessed in a game context.

Playing games is fun. The game is the reason we train. And, in the right environment, games can help players develop tactical skills and some intangibles. However, games fail to train athletic or technical skills because players do not get sufficient repetitions to train technical skills. If a coach runs set plays every time down court and dictates the action for his team, games fail to develop tactical skills, leaving games as an arena to develop intangibles, which may or may not happen depending upon the team dynamics.

To develop a player’s full range of skills, games are not enough; practice is not enough. Players need to be involved in off the floor training, on the floor training, games and other activities which build the intangibles. If player development is the goal, coaches need to build a year-round program of development which combines each of these elements.

In a basic periodized schedule, the year is broken into four seasons: off-season, pre-season, competitive season and post-season. Also, there should be periods of rest, recovery and regeneration for the athlete between seasons. When building one’s training schedule, these four seasons should start as a basis. Also, coaches must factor players’ schedules, especially those of multi-sport athletes. In each season, different areas may be emphasized, but players should train all four areas in each season.

An example outline may look something like this:
Off-Season (June-August)
Pre-Season (August-October)
Competitive Season (November-February)
Post-Season (March-May)

The Off-Season emphasizes technical and athletic skill development with few games.

The Pre-Season emphasizes athletic skill development and intangibles through team building exercises with less emphasis on technical skills and tactical skills. Technical and tactical skills may be developed through open gym and unstructured activities, rather than organized leagues and games.

The Competitive Season emphasizes tactical skill development and intangibles with less of an emphasis on athletic and technical skill development. Again, these skills must be trained constantly. However, in-season, many of the tactical skill drills will incorporate technical and athletic skills; the emphasis is not on these areas, as hopefully the technical and athletic skills have been taught and mastered to some extent before the competitive season, but they are practiced every day. Players who see less playing time may spend more time emphasizing technical and athletic skills as they prepare for the future; similarly, programs may choose for junior varsity and freshmen teams to focus more on future development through athletic and technical skills, rather than on winning immediately through more tactical and intangible development.

The Post-Season is the best time for players to play on their own and develop tactical skills outside of their coaches system. It is also the best time for players to play other sports and work on multi-lateral skill development and a broader base of athleticism. For other players, the post-season may be the best time to work to change ones shooting mechanics. Or, for a player who plays a fall sport and basketball, the post-season may be a time for active rest; active rest is not a sedentary activity, but an opportunity for less competitive, less structured recreational activities. Players may pursue a hobby (like playing another sport recreationally) or simply train in a less intense atmosphere, like playing pick-up games in the park or playing beach volleyball or surfing rather than doing intense plyometrics or spring training. The goal is to maintain a base level of conditioning while also allowing the body and mind to unwind and relax.

This model creates sufficient time for players to play plenty of structured and unstructured games, lift weights, to train basketball-specific skills like shooting and recover through some less strenuous conditioning, without getting completely out of shape.

A planned system promotes the four cornerstones of player development, while keeping players fresh and focused on the activity. All four skills are trained throughout the year, but the varying emphasis and the different stimuli keep the training fresh, not boring and motivate players throughout the year.

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