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Ideas and concepts to help with your athlete's skill development

PICTURE: Working out with a combination of pros and upcoming junior guys.

All the content in this article is based on the recent High Performance Hoops Network Skill Development podcast series.

Like many ideas and initiatives at HPHN this one started off with a simple idea followed by action. From these actions results and outcomes are delivered to our stakeholders and supporters. It started with a brief conversation with Gab Saldavia who contacted me to get some insights on skill development. Gab is a student of the game and I am certain he is picking the brains of a range of people to get these kinds of insights.

During the conversation with Gab we decided to setup a podcast for our conversations in the hope that we could help parents and athletes run their own skill development sessions, build and grow this market segment and also help develop the quality and expertise of skill development coaches throughout our city and the world.

By helping the basketball community understand this growing product and service segment we can enrich the quality of service delivery in the market, ensure upcoming athletes invest more time into their own development. This will all lead to growing talent pools and levels within the sport, particularly out of South Australia.

We also found some great engagement and input from many listeners out there which added to our own development, and also understanding of what the audience wanted from our podcast. We hope we adapted and continued to improve our delivery and content through the 3 episodes.

With so much great content in the first 3 episodes with Gab we hope that this provides a quick summary of all 3 episodes that athletes, their parents, coaches and skill development coaches will be able to utilise for decision making, selecting skill development coaches, being able to improve their own skill development sessions and activities too.

Through this article, we give many examples. Please recognise most of the examples we give are concepts. It is up to you to figure out how to chain these concepts together and/or implement parts or bits of the concepts we discuss to meet your player(s) needs.

Podcast video adverts and thankyous

For each episode we released we put a video out with a soundbite from the episode. Aside from promoting the episode, this was a way to recognise and shoutout to many of the guys that entrust me to provide them with skill development sessions. It is great to work with, and also mutually learn from, some of South Australia's best young prospects. A crop of talent on the boy's side that is probably without historic precedent out of South Australia.

For those reading from out of town the athletes in the videos include some of our top young college prospects and also guys that went to Div 1 NCAA colleges in the Big 10, WAC, Ohio Valley, Big East, Mountain West, Pac 12, WCC, Big 12, D2 NCAA, Junior Colleges, NAIA

Checkout the videos here and see if you can recognise any of the guys:

In addition to the athletes that allow me to work with them, I also want to thank Joey Wright. The opportunity to work under Joey for the past two seasons, at the Adelaide 36ers, with pro athletes was a great learning process. There is no doubt Joey is one of the greatest player developers of professionals this country has seen. Really excited to now be continuing our with my involvement as a coach in Joey's Basketball Academy, Transition Sports - Adelaide.

VIDEO: Post workout with Joey and the fellas. I spot a King, a 36er, a Bullet and a Hawk here.

Gab Saldavia of Lab46 also has many great clients he works with. These clients are often the upcomers, the youngsters willing to do that extra work, with great support from their parents, in order to achieve as much as they can from their game.

VIDEO: Footage showcasing Gab's Lab46 clients at one of his sessions. Gab is one of those people that just energise you which is an important trait for skill development coaches to have.

Questions from listeners

For episode 2 we posed the opportunity for listeners and followers to submit questions for the episode via Instagram. We had a few questions come through but we chose 3 to answer that we felt would be really worthwhile.

What resource do you use to come up with new and different drills?

Youtube is always a great one with lots of great sources of information and videos of workouts. Instagram is also a gold mine in this space, Drew Hanlen and Gannon Baker being 2 examples of great information sources.

VIDEO: Great video example put out by Drew Hanlen

Youtube content such as Gannon Baker and Drew Hanlen, Instagram videos are great for new drills.

Our own coaches we had as players (EG: Curtis Scipio for Gab, Matt Dodson for Janx), watching NBA or pros making moves and taking moves you see them do. Often players coming back from college or the pros will come in with suggestions for new drills.

Seeking out opportunities to work with other coaches in holiday camps and academies are also great learning opportunities. By taking direction, working under others you are able to also fast track your own learning too in the process.

Having a set of base drills is very useful, but being able to tweak and adjust these drills to specific athlete needs and on the run as you like, or as is needed, is a great way to keep sessions dynamic and specific. As we tinker and tweak our base drills over the years we innovate through trial and error too.

What are the main things you should focus on to be a lights shooter?

Our philosophy is similar, but interestingly the things we believe are keys to being a light out shooter are not taught and actually discouraged by coaches.  Toes should not be pointing at the rim as is often taught. For right-handers toes should be pointing at 11 o'clock and for left-handers 1 o'clock. The other component to this is the sweep and sway. The sweep and sway entails sweeping your feet out and swaying your shoulders back. There is also a natural rotation in the hips when you shoot. Watch the best shooters in the world shoot, that is how they consistently do it. This action and style is constantly discouraged by coaches and in doing so they are simply holding back their players from being elite shooters. This action helps develop a better arc, a more relaxed shot and releases tension in the shoulders by aligning the perpendicular elbow-wrist arm segment to the ring.

VIDEO: Pro Shot has many, many videos that break down the world's best shooters shooting tecniques and key secrets on their shooting mechanics. These secrets are definately not taught regularly and not well understood.

Good shooter's shooting looks effortless because of these techniques. 

Also, the dip is fine in most situations. It is just that the dip should not be below the hip or so far down that elbow sticks out.

Too many coaches mislead shooters by teaching fake fundamentals without studying what the world-class shooters do and their technique.

VIDEO: A great drill for developing a good shooting action is 1 hand shooting. This will ensure you are working on a number of characteristics of an elite shooting technique.

VIDEO: Turnout shooting is one of our base drills. There are so many tweaks and improvisations to this to include BDT, contested shooting (see below) and passing. It is great for teaching spacing on penetration, rapid decision making and kickouts and shooting on the move. Whilst watching this video also not the sweep and sway and the dip these athletes use.

What do you look for in terms of an ideal player as a team coach or trainer?

As a skill trainer, the performance and development of your athletes can be your greatest advertisement. Work ethic is paramount in the guys you work with and invest in because if they have that, are willing to put in extra, they will get better and the skills will come.

For Featured Athletes at HPHN the number 1 quality we look for in an athlete or coach is trustworthiness. Can they be trusted in that they are going to constantly do everything they can to improve, also to be coachable and a great teammate? Can they be trusted by their coaches that when the game is on the line they will put team success above their own individual success? We speak for and on behalf of Featured Athletes providing these insights on them to college coaches. We must trust that when they get there they will continue to deliver for their new programs as they have done so in our teams.

Key themes and topics

The importance of skill development vs club training

Club practices should include the majority of random practice whereas skill development can include more blocked practice.  Game sense, gameplay, decision making development is typically the focus of club training.  Skill development sessions are an opportunity to practice a greater level of blocked practice and develop motor skills through repetition.  Levels of decision making should still be involved in skill development sessions, environmental context to stimulate learning using other players or apparatus can be included, but these sessions can lean more to block practice, rather than entirely random. Club practices have large numbers of participants compared to what skill development sessions have.  Typically you would have 15+ athletes at a club practice, whereas at skill development trainings you might have 3 to 5 guys per ring.  Skill development sessions should contain far more personalised training drills and development whilst team practice will be more focussed on team concepts and game development.  The opportunity to do individualised benchmark drills (see the section below) are far greater in skill development sessions.  These types of drills referred to a lot during the podcasts.  You cannot do individually scored benchmark drills in team practice because there are too many players and too few rims to get the number of repetitions needed to get intense, focussed skill development that develops motor skills.

Skill development sessions must lead to greater confidence

Previously I provided an article on skill development. This past article does not go into as much detail as this one here but I did put forward, in the previous article, that the conversations in the skill development sessions are more important than the drills, and in the podcast Gab discusses confidence building conversations with the athlete too. Skill development sessions should build a player's mental confidence, and the conversations you have with the athletes in these sessions are really important to achieve that. Here is the previous article:

Indy workouts.... AND a global shooting challenge; Can you out shoot these world class shooters

Through goal setting, and subsequent goal achievement athletes build confidence. The skill developer must provide conversations and insights that are uplifting and inspiring for the athlete. Be enthusiastic with the athlete. But you must also hold them accountable and measure their progress, because the best way for them to build confidence is by having goals, measures to reach those goals and achieving them. The notion of relationship overriding niche (see below) can also contribute to the athlete's confidence, they trust their skills coach which has been built over the years, they know they are being well-coached, and this leads to self-confidence too.

Youth development happens through practice much more than games

Parents that value their child's basketball growth and development need to consider the level and quality of team practice, and the number of hours and quality of their skill development sessions.  They should not be overly concerned with game time or division they play in.

It is important for parents to note; Players do not develop much through playing games for their teams.  Why? Average court time for games is around 20 minutes per week whereas team practice time is around 3.5 hours.  Plus school practices and in addition players can choose/elect to undertake skill development practices, say 3 hours per week.  The approximately 8 - 10 hours a week of practice time vs 20 minutes of playing time suggest that the athlete's training environment is MUCH more important than the games on a Friday night (in our city). 

I would go further to say Division 1 district games in South Australia are largely irrelevant to player development or elite talent identification. The competition is just not sufficient nor is the depth of talent. Take my teams for example; they typically win games by 30 - 50 points on Friday nights, consist of division 1 and 2 college and pro prospects, and I doubt my guys get much development in that context as opposed to all the high, intense practice gameplay they get against each other and our division 2s, where you have significant talent competing at each practice against each other.  Then you can add in the 2-3 hours of skill development most guys in my teams do in their own time, with me or with other skill development coaches.  And these skill development sessions are often done with pros and/or high-level college players in my networks involved too for my guys to participate with.

Parents and athletes concerned about court time are really probably arguing over, say, 10-15 mins of time in an environment that is quite a low-level competition.  It is the quality and level of their 3.5 hours of team practice per week they should be considering when choosing a club team and also all the additional skill development hours they can fit in.  That is where development happens.  The game is a test.  Players experience success or failure through court time, performance, and outcomes and then can use those outcomes to make assessments on their progress and continue to invest in their development outside of games. 

Outside the quality of club practices, the other most important thing is skill development sessions outside of the team environment.

Athlete needs analysis

Every player is unique, their size, their skillset, their bodytype, their mindset. Part of the benefit of skill development sessions is the opportunity to focus on each individual athlete's needs. In order to understand those needs, some analysis is needed.

An open dialogue should be encouraged between skill development coaches and the athlete's club coaches. This can be a formal athlete needs analysis process that we advocate for in the podcasts.

Skill development coaches must work with club coaches to identify player needs, the skill development coach can even attend their games and look at their strengths and weaknesses.  We worked through a goal-setting process that informs a player needs analysis. Player development needs should be based on their current level to relative to other peers across the country, as well as, their goals and aspirations.  This information will help establish the player's strengths and weaknesses.  These can be developed through a workshop with key coaches involved, as well as the player's parent(s).  Of high importance is to ensure the athlete drives and owns the goals that they develop.

The pic of the whiteboard below shows the needs analysis of the athlete. The process we use is:

  1. Ascertain the dream goal for the athlete.

  2. Breakdown the steps a typical Aussie athlete takes to achieve that dream goal.

  3. Identify the numbers of athletes at each level for their age group in Australia.

  4. Workout where the athlete feels they sit in the nation, compared to their peers. You can do this by position and/or age group if it helps. In the screenshot below the athlete believes they are in the top 20 players in the nation, in their age group. Most of the guys I work with are normally up there with the best in the nation. I typically ask them at that point if given where they are positioned now if they feel their dream goal is realistically achievable. Most of the time they feel it is. I then ask them how much work are they now willing to do to get there if they feel it is possible to do so.

  5. We then break down their goals

  6. Given their current situation, their goals we then break down their strengths and areas to improve.

  7. This can easily be provided to other stakeholders in the athlete's journey, such as skill development coaches, and can greatly assist in personalised skill development session plans for the athlete.

I am certain this process can be applied by club coaches at all levels and will help all the stakeholders in the athlete's journey get an understanding on the athlete, their goals and what the athlete feels their developmental needs are going forward.

PICTURE: Actual example of a whiteboard of information captured during an athlete's personal evaluation and needs analysis session.

Using benchmark drills scores as goals in goal setting is useful because it is something the athlete has more control over than making a team or winning an accolade.

For more information on these sessions please check out a past article we did called; Player Development Planning Workshops

I feel that benchmark drills (see below) can be a great component to goal setting. Often many of the goals an athlete sets are outcome goals, out of their own control largely and success is often based on the competency of those making selection decisions. Goals to make this team or program should NOT be the sole type of goal an athlete sets. Benchmark drill scores are more in the athlete's field of control and can be targeted at anytime to test where the athlete is at in respect to the attainment of the benchmark score goal.

Injury management

Warm-ups are critical for every session. They set standards for athletes and ensure that they are able to maximise daily workloads without their bodies breaking down. Balance drills aka proprioceptive feedback drills are great to incorporate into warm-ups. If you're a coach, skills coach, or parent and don't understand what proprioception means then you should do some research.

VIDEO: Examples of simple propioceptive feedback drills we will do during our sessions. In this instance this one is typically done at the end of our sessions as athletes are coming out of their cool down routine.

Out of the 100s and 100s of skill development sessions I've done with athletes I can't recall any athlete having an injury in the sessions that has caused them to then miss out on regular basketball team activities. Every effort must be taken to design drills to mitigate risk of injury, typically session. There are many creative ways to do do this. BDT and contested shooting drills (see below) can develop game-ready skills whilst minimising body contact and risk.

VIDEO: Warm-ups from our workouts with many of our city's best young players as basketball was returning from COVID. Warm-ups are super important. For older athletes, they can lead warmups in collaboration with coaching staff.

How can team coaches at club level stimulate skill development

Developing a team culture based around intense training and players wanting to additional work through team culture and goal setting is important.

Over the years I've noted teams in various clubs, under various coaches develop a great culture when it comes to player and skill development. This culture encourages players to become intrinsically motivated to do additional work and harder practices.  By developing this culture the extra sessions and harder practices is often player-driven as teammates drive each other to improve, invest more time into their own development for mutual success.

Coaches can help stimulate culture this in a number of ways including:

  • Leading workouts

  • Setting up competitions amongst team members to measure each other's scores in benchmarking drills

  • Encouraging individual goal setting

  • Formerly developing a team vision, values that include values and vision that will stimulate the athlete's desire to invest more time into their development

  • Rewarding players that do additional work outside of formal team practices

Here's an article I wrote a few years ago on establishing team's vision, values and mission (aka KPIs) etc:

Establishing your team vision, values and KPIs.

In addition to developing this culture, it is important to develop a playing style that does not put players into boxes.  Coaches must put in a style of play that encourages the player to risk-taking, stepping outside the confines of the boundaries of their positional role in order help them see the value in skill development.  Players that are allowed to take risks, not boxed into a role will see the benefit of doing additional skill development because they are able to apply their growing and emerging skills into game situations.  Risk-averse playing styles that put players into strict roles actually discourage skill development because it is a challenge to be motiviated to invest countless additional hours into skills growth if you are not going to be allowed to apply this in game situations.

Choosing a skill development trainer

The skill development trainer needs to understand how certain skills and drills can be applied into the game. Also understand how the skills specific athletes need to work on will apply at the highest levels. Trainers should be enthusiastic and passionate in making their clients better and seeing them improve.  Experience helps as they have continually learned and observed to add to their drills and key teaching points.  Experience at the level of athletes they are coaching will provide comparisons and benchmarks for other athletes at various levels.  Try to find the skill developer's niche.  This niche could include any of the following areas to consider:

  • Age group

  • Positional

  • Previous experience as a coach or player

  • Proven outcomes with athletes he/she has worked with

  • Feedback from previous clients

  • Price point per session

  • How will they boost confidence and be uplifting?

  • Athlete's needs

  • Athlete's goals

  • Skill focus

  • Positional focus

  • Geographic area

  • Equipment

When selecting a skill development coaches, parents and athletes can use the above points as a bit of a checklist to formulate their questions to the skill development coach.

Skill development is as much about the conversations the coach has with the athletes as it is about the drills. Confidence building conversations during the workouts are really important. The Skill Development Coach needs to relate well to kids they work with, stimulate their enjoyment in the sessions. In having a good relationship they are then able to hold the athletes very accountable for their performance and effort throughout the sessions.

The only other thing to consider is the relationship with the athlete. We feel that relationship overrides niche. This means that players will get more value out of long term relationships with their skills trainer no matter the level of the athlete.  If the athlete trusts what they are working on their confidence will grow as they believe what they are working invaluable for their development.  The skills trainer will know the athlete's likes and dislikes from over the years, have stories and benchmarks the athlete has reached for the drills in past years, and help set score goals using that information.

Where and when to workout

Getting access to court space for workouts is a constant challenge.  Also squeezing in workouts in player's busy school lives is a challenge.  How do you get access to court space and find time to workout?

COVID presents many challenges but we've also found opportunities.  One of the opportunities has been the use of outdoor courts.  I've had guys from the pros, top college players, leading local college/pro bound athletes used to playing in big venues in front of 1000s of specators working out outdoors during COVID.  I would have never thought we could provide quality sessions outdoors pre-COVID but sure enough we've found ways to get quality workouts in outdoors.  There are some great courts around and this is something I plan to keep doing, especially in summer as court availability is easier to get and cheaper.

PICTURED: Anyang Garang's current college's venue. Pretty impressive.

VIDEO: Anyang working out on an outdoor court at a primary school during COVID restrictions.

I strongly advocate athletes work closely with their schools for gym access.  Schools are starting to see the value in committing to developing high level, international basketball players.  High performing High School Basketball teams provide great recognition and branding benefits for the schools. State school championships, national school championships, inter-col success often leads to branding and recognition opportunities for schools that can lead to more enrollments.

We often see schools and organisations "jump on board" and claim their involvement when athletes "make an achievement" and that's fine but it is important these organisations provide value of substance to the athlete's journey in order to help them get there. To schools, clubs and organisations; Don't claim an athlete as being one of yours without making a meaningful investment into their journeys, that is just not fair on the athletes that need your facilities and support. If you've made a meaningful investment and contribution THEN it is fine. Supporting with access to your facilities for workouts is a great way to support your athlete's journey.

Player's high schools are sometimes mentioned on ESPN during games, their bios, and many young perspective enrollments in the school, and their parents, are often aware of which High School athletes attended and how that school might have contributed to the athlete's journey.  Helping the schools understand the value of supporting the athlete with critical access to training facilities for their development is important.  Letting a school know of the athlete's goals and helping the school understand how critical access to facilities are to enable that development is important.