Like most coaches, including myself, I am sure you've had the following scenario happen to you. Your team needs to work on some aspect of the game. You spend a good chunk of time in practice drilling that aspect. Your players look great in the drill. Then comes the game, and the wheels come completely off the wagon. It's like they never practiced the aspect of the game you devoted so much time to. You can't believe it and are left wondering "What happened?!".
Well, what happened was that your players spent a lot of time that practice mastering a drill and not really learning how to execute the skill you wanted them to. It happened to me more times that I care to admit, but recently I've found the solution - using a games based approach to teaching basketball.
For the last number of years I've been using the idea of teaching games. For a while now I've been reading Brian McCormick's work and loved it. I started to incorporate a lot more games into my practices with good results. Then I read Trevor Ragan who runs the Championship Basketball School camp and website - the tool box and blog are must reads. And he pushed it farther. Last season though, I took it to the next level. I was lucky enough to spend last season working with Art Errickson. Coach Errickson pushed me to use a more games based approach and it has really changed how I teach the game. Teaching the game using games may be the single most important thing I've learned in my career in terms of the actually on court coaching.
Why Drills Alone Don't Work
Drills alone don't work because they lack specificity. They are not specific to the real game that is being played. Players learn a skill or action out of the context of the game. What they are really learning is the pattern of the drill and not the skill within a game. So what happens is when a real game occurs players are not used to doing that skill within the specific context of the game - thus not performing the skill correctly, or many times forgetting to do the skill at all. Players who are trained using drills are not learning when and how to use the skill, which is as important as the movement. The end result is that you don't get the transfer that you desire.
Drills are also block practice, and not random. Block practice is doing the same movement, the same way, in the same environment. You are memorizing a drill pattern, not a game skill. Random practice is practicing a skill in an ever changing environment so the player needs to adjust how they perform the skill. Anyone can do something in isolation, but those skills learned in isolation quickly disappear when you add defenders, other teammates, etc. It's important that your practices consist of activities that are both specific to the game and random in how the skill is practiced.
If you are going to have successful carry over from practice to games, how you practice needs to change. You need to start "Training Ugly" which is my new favorite term from Trevor Ragan. You need to train your players on the skills you want within the context of an actual game. It's about creating came like environments and using the game to teach the game. That's where the games based approach comes in.
What is a Games Based Approach?
A games based approach is using different games to teach players the skills/aspects of the game you want. The games should always be random, and specific when possible. There should also be a competitive component where the team or player is playing against themselves (personal records), time, score, or other teams. The key is to modify the number of players, advantages, rules, surface, etc to create an environment that stresses the habits you want taught within the game setting. Below I'm going to give some examples of how you can modify games - and you can use multiple modifications within the same game:
Number of Players
Play 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, and 4 on 4 are great ways to teach skills. They are better than 5 on 5 because you get more reps and touches than a traditional five on five game. Some skills such as ball handling are best done in small (1 on 1 and 2 on 2) numbers to maximize reps. Passing can be done in any number 2 or above, and I think team related drills are best done 3 on 3 or 4 on 4.
You can also play Cutthroat where you have 3-4 teams of 2, 3, or 4 playing. Two teams play one possession. At end whoever lost the possession is out and a new team comes on. You can play until one of the teams achieves a mile stone of your choosing.
Size of the Court
Everyone plays half court, which is a good way to do it, but have you ever played 2/3 court where they can only work half court and from a step off the opposite block to the ball side sideline? That makes players LEARN how to be creative in space. Have players play 1 on 1 from the free throw line where they can't go outside the lane lines - then you will see players learn how to straight line drive well. Why were NYC guards so good back in the day? Because they played primarily on narrow street courts and had to really get good at navigating tight spaces, you can create that same environment with your games.
You can have all kinds of rules. The rules should shape the game to teach the habits that you want. And as in any game, there are penalties for breaking the rules, usually turnovers or loss of turn on defense. Below is a great list to start with that you can add or subtract from games of 1 on 1 to 5 on 5.
- Dribble Rules
- No dribble
- Only "attacking the basket" dribbles (my favorite)
- Limit number of dribbles - don't like this as much
- Movement Rules
- Being in the right spots on defense
- Being in the right spots on offense
- Moving on offense - pass and watch
- Screening a DEFENDER
- Cutting hard
- Ball Clock
- This is one Coach Errickson put me onto and I love it.
- Player has X amount of seconds to make a decision with the ball or it's a TO.
- I like 2 seconds but might want more to start and with younger ages.
- Player has X amount of seconds with the ball or it's a TO.
- Dribble Hand Rules
- Doing dribble tag or rodeo? Have them use their weak hand only.
- Time Rules
- Play with a shot clock
- Play with a ball clock - mentioned above
- Foul Rules
- What do you call a foul?
- Want offense to be tough, don't call anything.
- Want defense to stop fouling, call everything!
- Really any other rules you want to make up as you go.
I like using disadvantages more than advantages. You can do several different things to create disadvantages that help players learn a skill or concept. You can take away the dribble. You can add extra players on offense or defense. You can officiate differently to create situations you want. And so on.
Some Sample Games
Below are some sample games I use and have used in the past.
Teaching Ball Handling and 1 on 1 Skills
- Dribble Tag
- I know it sounds juvenile but it's fun, competitive, and it's random practice. Kids have to apply the skill in a random setting that's always changing.
- Groups of 3. One player has the ball and 2 other players chase them and try to force a turnover or the dribbler to pick the ball up. You can play in the half our quarter court.
- You can play for X number of seconds each player (and track if they turn it over or not +1 for not and play to 2-3 points). Or you can just have them play whoever gets it goes and try to keep it the longest.
One of the best ways to work on ball handling and 1 on 1 skills is to play 1 on 1. In all these 1 on 1 games I would play to 3 scores and have something for the losers (2 pushups, clap for the winners, don't care really).
- Post 1 on 1
- Play 1 on 1 from the post. Have another player feed and work on post feeds too.
- Work on the 1 on 1 post play live - move and a counter move.
- Iowa 1 on 1
- Groups of 2-5. Offense starts on the FT line. Defender starts under the rim with the ball. Defense throws to the offense and sprints to close out. As he closes out, reads the closeout and attacks. The lane lines are out of bounds which teaches straight line drives. They can shoot it or drive depending on the defense.
- Teach players to drive in a straight line, attack with shoulder to hip, and read the defender's close out. Teach players to use different ways to finish around the rim.
- St. Joe's 1 on 1
- Groups of 2-5. Offense starts on the baseline in a line about 2 steps off the lane line toward the side line. The defense starts on the baseline about 2-3 steps farther toward the sideline from the offensive group. Each line has a chair across from it at half court. On coaches or defender's "Go" call, the offense dribbles as fast as they can out to the chair, dribbles around it (outside to inside) and attacks the basket as quickly as possible. As that is happening the defender is racing around his chair (outside to inside). They play 1 on 1 form there.
- Work on attacking the rim and making dribble moves (cross over) based on the position of the defense. If the defender is straight up, attack hard if cut off change hands and attack again. If the defender is shading you ball side, attack and change. If the defender is shading you not ball side blow by or fake crossover and blow by. Work on finishing off of two different ways at the rim. You can add double moves as well.
- Attack 1 on 1
- Defender starts under the basket. Offense starts at half court. On defense's go, offense takes off dribbling at the rim as hard as they can. Defense sprints out and guards them. Offense reads the defense and attacks.
- Work on attacking the rim and making dribble moves (cross over) based on the position of the defense. If the defender is straight up, attack hard if cut off change hands and attack again. If the defender is shading you ball side, attack and change. If the defender is shading you not ball side blow by or fake crossover and blow by. Work on scoring off of 2 at the rim. You can add double moves as well.
- Johnson 1 on 1
- Got this when we were preparing a few years ago to play our section opponent St. Paul Johnsonm who is very good defensively and amazing on the ball.
- Start with an offensive player with the ball at half court. One defender starts on him. The other defender starts under the basket. Offense must rip and attack the first defender (who can push and hack him). Once he reaches the top of the key extended the first defender must leave him and the second one runs out, the dribbler then attacks the second one to score.
- Work on handling the pressure and physical play, attacking defense, protecting the ball, scoring at the rim.
- Catch and Go 1 on 1
- Passer starts at the top of the key. Offense and defense start in the corner. Offense cuts up and defense follows. Passer hits the cutting offense. On/before the catch the offense reads the defender (who is tight on him) and attacks. If the defender is trailing the offense just turns and goes. If the defender is ahead of him (getting into denial) the offense rips and goes the opposite way.
- Work on peaking to read defender, attacking off the catch, finishing at the rim.
- 1 on 1 From Different Spots
- Play 1 on 1 from corner, elbow, short corner, top of key, wing, etc.
- 10 Pass Drill
- Can be played 2 on 2, 3 on 3, or 4 on 4
- Players get 1/2 or 1/4 court to work with. Offense can move anywhere they want.
- No scores, offense must make 10 passes in a row without a turnover. If they do they win, if they don't the defense wins. Switch off ever time.
- Work on how to get open, moving without the ball, leading cutters, cutting through passes, back cutting denial, cutting hard.
- Screening is optional, can have a 5 second count or not, if it gets too easy add defenders or raise the number of passes.
- 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4, or Cutthroat No Dribble
- Play to 3-4 scores without the dribble.
- Teach players to be creative in how they get open and get their teammates open.
- Work on how to get open, moving without the ball, leading cutters, cutting through passes, back cutting denial, cutting hard.
- Can play full and half court.
- Ping Pong
- Play 3 on 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 on 4 full court. One team starts on offense and the other on defense. The third team is waiting on the opposite end. If the offense scores they take it out and go to the other end with the original defense pressing them to HC. If they defense gets the stop they take it the other way with the original offense pressing to HC.
- Defensive Cutthroat
- This is the best THING I've seen to teach defense.
- You have three to four teams. Two are playing and one is sitting at half court waiting to come in. Play normal basketball, offense looking to score. If the offense scores or the defense makes an "out", the defense sprints off right away, the new team comes in on offense, and the old offense is now on defense. If the defense gets the stop, the offense sprints out, defense stays, and the new team comes in on offense.
- You score 1 point for every stop and play to 2-3 stops.
- You can do it 3,4, or 5 on a team, but 3 or 4 is my favorite.
- You can add "outs" that are as good as a score. The "outs" should help create habits you want your players to do. I would also start with one out and then slowly add as the year goes on until they are having to play perfect defense.
- Possible Outs
- No ball pressure, note closing out, not moving on air time, incorrect position, offensive rebound, allowing a straight line drive, allowing a post entry, allowing a paint touch of any kind, etc.
- 1 Down Transition Defensive Cutthroat
- You can play cutthroat with the traditional drill where the offense starts on the baseline, defense starts on the free throw line extended facing the offense. Coach throws the ball to an offensive player, and everyone transitions to the other end. Whoever is across from the ball has to touch the baseline before transitioning down.
- Cutthroat from Different Looks
- BLOB, SLOB, sets,
- Have both teams in the lane. Throw the ball up at the rim, whoever rebounds is on offense and transition to the opposite end.
- Play vs. different offensive actions.
- All ball screens, all screen aways, etc
- Works on specific actions you want.
- Run a Drill into 3 on 3 to 5 on 5
- For example, take shell drill. Players shell for 3 reversals, on the third reversal it's live. Each stop is 1 point, play to 2-3 stops.
- We run a drill called DeLaSalle Help the Helper. There is an open coach on the wing, player at the top of the key, a backside wing, and a backside block. Coach passes to the top of the key reverses to the opposite wing, and back to the coach. Once the coach has it he drives. The post player comes out to help and the backside wing helps the helper. In our version, we run the drill and the coach passes out into 3 on 3 live. If the defense doesn't help and help the helper correctly the drill is blown dead and the D is out.
- Disadvantage Games
- Bring in extra offense, call more fouls on defense, etc.
- If you don't have enough for cutthroat play 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 the same ways outlined above.
- Offensive Cutthroat (3-5 per team)
- Play offensive cutthroat in all the ways described for the defense. But now the other team is waiting on the baseline to come in and everyone comes in on defense.
- Standing, passing and standing, banana cuts, not screening someone, dribbles that are not north/south, ball clock, taking bad shots (you define bad), passing up on good shots, whatever you want the team to do or not do.
- Can play no dribble
- ______ to Score
- Play cutthroat or 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4 or 5 on 5.
- Offense has to score on a specific thing
- Paint touch, cut, off a screening action, etc.
- Forces your offense to hunt for specific actions you want to work on.
- Ping Pong
- Great way to work on press breaking and transition offense.
- Disadvantage Games
- Bring in more defense than offense.
Obviously there are hundreds more games I could list. There are tons of varieties of 2 on 2 more, 1 on 1, etc, but for the sake of time I am going to stop here. You get the idea. And I honestly believe it's best if you make up your own games as you need them.
Block and Games Cycle
Now going to a games based approach doesn't mean you have to abandon all the drills. It just means cut way down on the drills and spend most of the time playing games. It also means that the drills you do should be dictated by what you see in the games and in free play (scrimmages and games).
So for example, you played last night and you weren't very good on being in the correct defensive position. You may combined block teaching (drills) and games in a way such as below.
- Present the goal - show players a quick clip or 2 of them not being in the right position. If you don't have film quickly explain that we were not in great position at the last game. 2-3 minutes tops.
- Block Practice - have them shell drill and practice moving to the ball and being in position. 10-15 reps, 5 minutes tops.
- Teaching Games - Have them play cutthroat where the "out" is them being out of position. Then have them play transition cutthroat. 10-20 minutes.
- Free Play - Have them play one or two 2 minute 5 on 5 games. As they play, watch and see if what you worked on is better, if not, repeat.
Some Games Based Coaching Tips
- Let go and don't be afraid to "Coach Ugly". Practices are going to be ugly and look out of control, but those are the best learning environments. We all learn better by DOING.
- Play short, fast games. If playing by time play 2-3 minutes tops. If playing by score play to 2-3 scores tops. Short games increase urgency and effot.
- Be creative - create games that fit what you NEED.
- Coach in bullet points not paragraphs - invent little sayings and reminders for each concept you teach. For example, when teaching close outs I like "sprint, drop, chop, high hands" if they don't do that I'm talking that at them as they play.
- Coach in the moment - use each game to teach the game.
- You can't judge carry over until you actually PLAY IN GAMES, so keep that in mind.
Kids sign up for basketball to have fun and play basketball, not run drills. That might be the best reason to use a games based approach to basketball. Your practices will be instantly more fun and engaging. The players will also work hard because of the environment you create. The hardest part for you as the coach is going to be giving up control and letting guys just learn from playing. It's not going to be pretty, but boy it is effective. It's the most fun I've had coaching and I believe it will greatly help you. Lastly, the links below are to two games based practice plans. One is from our high school sophomore team I coach and the other was from a 7th grade AAU team I had. The sophomore plan is one from early in the year when we were installing concepts. The AAU plan is more geared toward individual development and was done on an "offensive" day.