Coaches are architects of the practice environment. In building the perfect practice session, every aspect of practice enhance game performance.
It is the coaches job to identify, select and design activities that help athletes improve their performance. In searching for ways that this can be done, research indicates that the more a practice environment looks and feels like a performance environment, the more likely the skills are to transfer over.
Therefore, it is not only important for coaches to select appropriate activities, but also to structure them in a way that best resembles the sequence and intensity that they will occur in on gameday.
The following is an approach that we’ve been using for a couple of weeks now. Our practice BMR* influences the design of the team practice, but we’ve more or less stayed consistent with this approach since introducing it.
We broke down the game into its basic phases.
- Warm Up
- First Quarter
- Second Quarter
- Half Time
- Third Quarter
- Fourth Quarter
Just like the game, our practice warm-up is used to get players physically, mentally and emotionally ready to compete. This means we need to:
- increase blood flow
- increase muscle temperature
- increase mobility and elasticity of muscles
- increase engagement and attentiveness on task
- regulate anxiety and arousal levels if needed
In order to best meet the above objectives, we include certain components into our warm-up. These are:
- player check-ins
- review of previously learned actions or concepts
- individual skill development
- team skill development
- introduction of new concepts or actions
- mobilisation and activation
It is worth noting that we are describing a typical ninety minute practice. We spend about 15 – 20 minutes to cover the above. On certain days, we will leave out aspects if they are not a priority. This phase is designed to get our player gradually increasing their intensity, concentration and energy (ICE). By the time we’ve finished this phase, our players should be ready to compete.
At the end of a game warm-up, coaches have about ninety seconds to talk to their players before the ball is tipped. We use this time in practice to realign our players with the practice objectives.
Players also check our whiteboard to see what groups they are in and where they need to be. (If we were introducing a new activity, it would have been in the warm-up phase, so our ninety second alignment time happens quickly).
We want our guys in a high intensity activity straight after the warm-up is over. In a game, both teams will be finding their rhythm and attempting to establish control of the game in the first quarter. We want to put our players in a situation where they can also play through some mistakes as they establish a practice rhythm.
The first quarter is reserved for 2/2 or 3/3 activities, which allows players to get multiple reps and touches of the ball in a high intensity activity.
The activities we use are:
- 2/2 Turkey
- 2/2 Rugby
- 2/2 Runners
- 3/3 Turkey
- 3/3 Runners
- 3/3 Houston
- 5/0 Laker
- 5/0 Oklahoma
There are occasions where we will go 5/0 in the first quarter, but this is a rarity within our practices. We want to put our players in an environment where they have to make decisions based on the context and find a rhythm. We’ve found that 5/0 activities don’t have the same effect for us.
Each quarter requires ten minutes of playing time. This means that if we stop constantly to correct, the clock stops too and we may end up never moving on from the first quarter. In a game situation, each team has a time-out, so we have two sixty second stoppages should we need to address something. Otherwise, we tend to coach this phase like a game. This means coaching on the fly. Doing it this way prevents us from talking too much and letting the players stand still.
At the end of the first quarter, there is a two minute recovery time, which we use to allow players to get a drink, shoot free throws, check the board and adjust teams so that they are ready for the next segment. The time is long enough to bring the intensity down, and short enough to keep the urgency as players transition quickly.
In the second quarter, we play 3/3 to 5/5. This includes any disadvantage scenarios such as 3/2 or 4/3 +1. We consider these 3/3 or 4/4 situations.
Depending on the practice objective, we script our basic activities to get the situations we want to practice the most. We’ve taken a lead out of Coach Mike Lynch’s book and cut down our drill library. This means we don’t have our players trying to learn a new drill everyday. Rather we have a core group of activities. We tweak thing a little if we need a new look or some more time on a situation.
An example is our 4/4 Motion Breakdown Activity.
The diagram on the left is the basic start in a neutral state. Neither offense nor defense has an advantage here. In the diagram on the right, we’ve started the ball on the opposite wing and allow the ball reversal so that we can get back to the same start as the one on the left.
We would probably do more of this if we wanted to correct defensive elements such as short closeouts, rotating to help side and denying cutters. However, the basic premise of our 4/4 Motion Breakdown activity is the same.
We can also manipulate this start further through our use of stationary or dynamic advantages.
Regardless of the start, we can work on specific actions that we need to improve on. Attacking or defending:
- Dribble Hand-Off Actions
- Pass and Cut Actions
- Slot or Wing Ball Screens
- Off Ball Screens
To keep things at a high intensity, we sometimes play the 4/4 Motion in a HTB sequence. This basically means we will start here, play there and back (HTB). Therefore our players are working on multiple skills in a game representative manner. In addition, we attempt to include as much of our players IDP in these moments.
The situation about coach stoppages is the same as before. There are two sixty minute stoppages allowed during the activity. On occasion, we may not run the same activity for a full ten minutes. Instead, we may split it to two different activities in a quarter. In this case, we have one time out less, because we have used the time out to switch activities. Either way, we want ten minutes of playing in a quarter.
Players are either at a basket getting shots up, or they are working with a coach in a separate basket on their Individual Development Plans (IDP), or they are receiving feedback from a coach about a certain component. Half-time looks quite different for us depending on the practice type and the overall objective of the team practice.
As players are doing this, the Head Coach is reflecting the first part of practice.
- What was the objective of the practice?
- Did the players demonstrate retention of previously learned skill in the first half?
- Do we need to spend more time reviewing or retraining certain aspects?
- Do the players understand the principles and concepts?
This reflection gives us an idea of how and if we need to adjust for the second half. This would be the same in a game situation. If what we’re doing isn’t working in the first half, we need to adjust for the second half.
If the practice is a building practice (coach Lynch refers to this as Red practices), we may want to use more of our half-time teaching a new concept or breaking down a certain aspect. In this case, the other activities (extra shooting or coach feedback) take a back seat.
Another aspect of our half-time is for the last five minutes, we want to bring the team back together again and go through an on-air activity to get the players moving again at appropriate speeds before starting the third quarter. Our String Line Shooting Series is one such activity that we use to do this.
The third and fourth quarter of practice are similar in the sense that we try and keep things 4/4 or 5/5 here.
The differences are that instead of having two sixty seconds stoppages like we did in the first two quarters, we have six one minute stoppages in the second half. This is similar to FIBA games where each team has three timeouts in the second half.
We include a lot of transition activities in the second half to keep our guys moving. We want our guys to be mentally and physically exhausted. This is important for us as we want them performing at the edge of their comfort zones.
In addition, keeping the intensity relatively high the entire time, we don’t need to do extra conditioning. Also, since we are an aggressive full court team, we need to spend more time in transition so that we can develop our concepts, such as Tagging Up.
Because the guys are mentally exhausted, it is really important that we are attentive to snipe instead of blasting a shotgun. If we give the guys too much information, and they end up not doing any of it, it’s our fault. Instead, we are deliberate to give them the one thing that we want to get out of an activity and emphasise that.
After all, any one can spot and find errors, but great coaches are able to identify the most important thing to address at that moment. We’re not great yet, but that’s what we’re aspiring to be.
The cool-down is an integral part of our practice sessions. Players shoot free-throws to bring their body temperatures down, players connect with coaches and review or provide feedback, we de-brief as a team about the practice and evaluate our performance as team.
The warm-up and cool down moments are really important to build the type of performance environment we want to have. Unfortunately, as is the case, sometimes we tend to overlook it because there is another team waiting to get on or because players need to rush to catch their bus/train home.
Either way, it’s a work in progress for our coaching staff and we’re adapting each day.
*BMR indicates the type of team practice. We are either Buiding, Maintaining or in a Recovery type of practice. This is different from other types of practices which may be Strength Workouts, Shooting Sessions, Individual Skill Development, Group Skill Work etc. The BMR is applicable to team practices only.