Practice Idea Series: Address Individual Player Needs within Team Practices

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future”

A quick search online for “equality” will present you with a dozen contradictory statements or definitions surrounding what it is or what it should be. For the purpose of this post, we are going to define what we think equal and equality is so that we are all on the same page as we read it.

Equal is defined as being the same in quantity, value, size or any other measure that one may want to consider. Equality, therefore, means that each person or group of people is provided with the same measurement. That may mean resources, opportunities, repetitions or any other measurement.

The issue with this is that there are no two people in the world that are the same. This is especially true for youth players who are in the formative years of their lives. They come from different backgrounds, with varying social and environmental factors. They have different levels of experience, maturity, size, skills and strength. They have different ages (relative, chronological, biological, training etc.)

By providing each player with the same resources, repetitions and opportunities, we are missing a key component of their individual development needs.

One size does not fit all. There is no single method that can positively work for all groups of people. Each person is different. In order to help them realise their full potential, we need to first understand what makes them unique.

In traditional practice environments, the same resources may mean that everyone gets the same serving of food; same opportunities may mean that everyone gets the same amount of attention from the coaches or playing time; same repetitions may mean that everyone gets the same amount of attempts at shooting the basketball or performing any other drill.

Here’s the issue with this:

  • a player bulking needs more food than his teammates
  • a player who doesn’t have food at home needs the extra support that the club can provide;
  • a player from a broken home may need more attention from his coaches;
  • a player struggling with anxiety may need extra attention and coping strategies compared to another player;
  • a player who learns quicker will need less time and repetitions than one who learns slower;
  • a player who doesn’t have access to a basketball or a hoop outside of the club may only be able to get extra, individual reps and so may need some extra time in the gym

This is not an exhaustive list. Yet, it begins to show the differences between various players. This is why I am not a fan of equality, per se.

I think equity is a better word, though I am not so sure it applies here either.

Equity is the notion that everyone is different and has unique circumstances. Therefore resources and opportunities are provided in a way to help the individual get to the same outcome.

That’s where equity loses me. I don’t think it’s possible to get to an equal outcome. I believe, as a coach, that I need to do whatever it takes to help my athletes grow, develop and improve to the best of their individual abilities. That means dealing with inequality and unfairness and still persevering.

That’s a rabbit hole for another day. Instead, let’s come back and look at athlete development.

Traditional team practices focus on the team concepts, plays and actions, therefore it puts less emphasis on the individuals. In elite level sports, teams often have skill sessions or individual development sessions where the coaches can work with players in a way that targets the individual needs of that player. This means that the player or players can improve in those areas that are most necessary for their development.

Youth sports organisations may not have those resources or capabilities. Instead, they have two or three team practices during the week to help the team get better. How can we then emphasise individual player development within team practices?

Side-note: It will take more time and effort from you as a leader and coach!!

The first thing would be to assess and evaluate your players. Identify their strengths and weaknesses. What are their goals, and aspirations? What would they like to achieve or develop this season? Using this information, we can put together an individual development plan (IDP) for each player.

Individual Development Plan Snapshot for Basket Swans U14 Player

We started this process last season, and the feedback from the players was positive. We’ve been a step behind this season, but intend to do it again for all our players.

Once you have identified each players strengths and areas of improvement, it is then easier to structure your team practices in a way that caters to their individual needs.

The change that we’re making in our team practices now is that not all players get to go through the same repetitions on the drills. In our U16 team, we have fifteen players who all need attention in different areas — some guys need more work on their shooting, others on their ball-handling and others still on their boxing out and rebounding.

Let’s look at an example to provide some context.

Fred is a combo guard who is technically proficient. He is able to attack the basket and beat most defenders off the dribble and create his own shot. However, he needs more work at scanning the floor, seeing open teammates, pitching the ball ahead in transition and getting the ball to them when help arrives on his drives to the rim.

John, on the other hand, recognises when help is there on the drive. He is able to pivot out of trouble and get the ball to open teammates. He scans early and is able to pitch ahead in transition. John needs some more improvement off the ball, especially reacting to dribble penetration. He also needs to improve his closeouts and help the helper rotations.

Then we have James, who is able to handle the ball and get to the rim on double gap drives. He is not confident shooting the ball and needs some more work in building his confidence. He is always late in rotating to help on the ball but is okay at closing out after the ball is kicked out to the perimeter.

Finally, let’s look at Liam. Liam can handle the ball under pressure but is not aggressive at attacking the rim. He passes the ball out quickly, even if he is open when going to the rim. He has a decent shot but is not that confident. His hesitations on shooting often result in the window that he had closing. This ends up with forced shots and turnovers.

All four players are combo guards who are the same relative height and age. They’ve been playing basketball for the same number of years too. Since we don’t have a lot of individual time with each of them, the adjustments that we’re beginning to make are to provide unequal repetitions.

Using the Chaser Lay Up Build Up as an example, we would put Fred in the position of the initial attacker and he would not rotate out to any other spot in this segment (even when we go into the competitive segment and keep scores)

  • This way, he gets multiple reps on passing the ball out when the drive is stopped.

John would be on the perimeter position in the 3vs2 stages of the game. Once we go 4vs3, John would rotate between the perimeter and the third line of help defensively.

  • He gets multiple reps on moving off the ball and reacting to drives to the rim.
  • He also gets reps at helping the player who helped initially and closing out after this help.

James would initially be the second line of defense in the drill. When we move onto the 3v2 stages of the game, he will also rotate out to the perimeter offense position.

  • His biggest area of improvement is getting into a position to stop the initial drive. This gives him multiple reps at it.
  • In addition, putting him on the perimeter offense allows him to get reads of when he is open for a shot vs when he needs to make an extra or drive. We now begin to work on his shooting

Lastly, Liam would play a lot as the initial attacker. After that, we would rotate him out to the perimeter on offense.

  • Liam would get multiple reps attacking the basket and finishing at the rim. Putting him in this position the most is what is beneficial for him.
  • As the perimeter player, he gets multiple reps at shooting the ball, which allows us to work on his catch and shoot mechanics and recognising visual cues.

Fred | reps at the initial drive to the basket

John |gets reps at reacting to dribble penetration and helping the helper

James | gets reps at helping initial drive and shooting the ball on offense

Liam | reps at the initial drive and catch and shoot situations

We’ve just looked at one drill and how four players fit in. Take a moment to consider that we have fifteen players and every practice may have between six and nine segments (for us).

Without a doubt, this type of practice format will add a considerable amount of planning and effort on the coaches part. This is a tough component of coaching. The amount of planning that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that each player has the appropriate opportunity to develop is hardly seen or appreciated.

In a recent discussion with some colleagues about a different topic, the question that came up was . . .

  • Is the added effort worth it?
  • What gives you the most bang for your buck?
  • What is your ROTI? (return of training investment)

These are excellent questions and I intend to reflect on them a little more over the coming weeks. Until then, my response is, “is the effort we put in today not worth it for our future?”

Before you take a stance on this, search “Chinese bamboo tree” on google.

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