Breakdowns...the good kind
Having written a blog that relates to the role of the coach/trainer, the role of the athlete and the role of the parent, we can now start to explore what you are doing when you work with athletes. The best place to start is with how you deliver drills and present the work you want your athletes to do. When I am brought in by coaches or teams to run sessions with their players the first thing that they comment on when I ask them how they thought the session went is the way we breakdown the skills and drills that we do. They say that they often do small group work but they had not thought about all the little pieces that go together to make the skill work. They comment that the first pieces of the breakdowns are elements that they assumed players at their levels would have a firm grasp on, but now that they see them practice it they see that it needs work and how solidifying a player's base can help them more rapidly progress through a drill or skill. The word breakdown often has a negative connotation. Your car breaks down, your relationship breaks down, you have a nervous breakdown, none of these things are where you want to be. In basketball the word breakdown has its time to shine. If you want to be a good coach you need to know how to breakdown skills and drills, offenses and defenses.
Let's say you want to teach a group of younger players to do lay-ups. Typically you would start with two lines and place the balls in one line the other line would be rebounders and then you would have the athletes dribble in and execute a lay-up. If you started on the right hand side after a while you would have them do the lay-up on the left hand side. This would constitute lay-up practice and often coaches get frustrated because athletes will only use their strong hands, or they jump off the wrong foot and these mistakes are persistent no matter how many times we do the drill. These mistakes persist because every repetition of this drill further engrains the habit the athlete already has and unless you stop and retrain the athlete using breakdowns all these problems will continue. When you are teaching a skill you have to think of every element of the skill and then either find or come up with ways to teach all those elements. For instance we have decided that we will teach lay-ups. We should always begin with footwork and hand placement so that athletes learn how to move into the skill as well as how to manipulate the implement, in this case the basketball. A right-handed lay-up is executed by stepping left-right-left and jumping off the left foot while raising the right arm and right leg into the air. As a warm-up when we are going to teach lay-ups we will do "drum majors" where an athlete moves up and down the court throwing their right arm in the air while simultaneously raising their right leg, then switching to do the same with their left. This active warm-up drill mimics a lay-ups movement and helps the player engrain this footwork into their body. After a few reps we may then get them to step left-right-left and up into the drum major, and then right-left-right and up into the drum major. Now they are practicing the precise footwork they will use. After a couple of minutes of drum majors we will now progress to what Ganon Baker calls "finishing school". We move the athletes under the rim and have them stand in a bent position, perpendicular to the backboard. They take one step so they are square to the backboard and then execute a lay-up off two feet, the next rep they take the foot they are stepping with and drive the knee into their stomach and execute the lay-up off one leg. The key is hand placement. The shooting hand is placed under the ball with the elbow directly below to allow the elbow to drive up through the ball, the off arm is placed in a "chicken wing" position, elbow out to ward off the defense, hand on the side of the ball. Now players repeat this drill on both the right and left side, making sure they hold the ball properly and execute the proper drive up to the net. Once the hand placement is solid we reintegrate the footwork having them step without a dribble through the left-right-left and elevate with the ball held properly. Once we are satisfied with their progression here we move them on to making lay-ups on the move. We want the athletes to use the correct hands and to grow confidence in them that they can execute these moves with either hand and control the ball. To this end we now have the athlete dribble around the whole key with their right hand while holding a second ball in their left hand, at the end they have to make sure they come out of the dribble into the correct footwork and make the lay-up with only the shooting hand. This is especially useful in getting athletes to use their non-dominant hands. It forces them to develop confidence in their ability to control the ball with their off-hand. The final step is to place a defender on the player and make them finish lay-ups over a defender. This is a complete breakdown of the skill of lay-ups and will greatly assist a player in becoming more proficient. .
I was once teaching a basketball course at the university level and in the class was a player who was quite skilled and played in the local senior league. We started the class with footwork, how to move around the court and once they had a grasp of the footwork how it applied to scoring moves around the basket. The players who were relatively new to the sport moved through the footwork and scoring moves with varying degrees of success. The accomplished senior player, who had never been taught how to properly move grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to execute the movements and properly put together the moves we were working on. He finally complained, "This is not basketball!" The next class he apologized for his outburst and said that he actually had been practicing the moves and felt that he was improving as a player with this new knowledge. Similarly, I recently ran a camp in a small town. The school's principal came out to take in some of the camp. As a player himself he was interested. We were working on shooting breakdowns. The next thing I know the principal has a ball and is on the floor doing the drill breakdowns with the athletes. He came up to me at a break in the camp and said that he had always considered himself a great shooter but that the breakdown drills I had demonstrated had taught him new things about his shot. This is the true value of breakdowns. They engage athletes in learning and learning is control and nothing motivates people like the feeling that they are in control. If they have the knowledge to get better on their own they are excited, no matter what their age. If they come to the knowledge later in life they can sometimes feel like they were cheated, or get frustrated. Arming your players not just with plays and repetitions but with the knowledge of what goes into the skills is the greatest gift you can give your players and often leads to a lifetime of gratitude and respect.
The final issue some coaches have with going in depth with breakdowns is that they do not have enough practice time. They have a limited number of practices per week or their time slots are short. They will protest that they simply do not have enough time to breakdown skills in this manner. My answer is that you do not have enough time to not breakdown skills in this manner. In fact the increase in proficiency obtained through proper breakdown drills decreases the number of repetitions and the amount of over-all time you need to spend on a skill or drill. Instead of having to do lay-ups every single practice we might be able to do the whole breakdown a couple times and then just spend minimal time on maintenance and contested lay-ups every now and then to keep people sharp. As discussed, you are also arming players with knowledge. They now know all the elements of a lay-up and can easily practice them on their own to improve.
This process is exactly the same for team concepts. If you are teaching an offense start with the different cuts and footwork the players will have to make. Then teach them the footwork in combination with the passes they will have to execute. Add defense so that the players must now use their footwork to get open and a solid pass to get the ball to their teammate. Now show the players where their scoring options are on each catch. Finally, begin to put these separate movements together in 2-on-2, then 3-on-3, then 4-on-4 and finally 5-on-5 to complete the system. Make players execute the movements with-out the dribble first so they learn all the movements and cannot "hi-jack" the offense. Finally add the dribble so they learn when to break system to make plays based on the reads they make against the defense. This will give your players a better understanding of what they are running and the best ways to attack the defense. Better players are happier players, happier players are better players, its a cycle that begins with solid coaching and solid coaching starts with proper breakdown drills.