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Q & A: When your team "can't" throw Penetration Passes is it a psychological matter or a matter of skill?

Hey coach,

This year I found it difficult to coach players, more particularly guards, to make a pass into the post player. After scouring the internet and YouTube looking for drills I couldn't find many resources to apply to my practice sessions to equip my players with the confidence to make the pass. I have started to think that, is this an skill issue or is it an anxiety issue -  players fear of forcing a turnover? How would you coach through this?

Local representative coach


It is difficult to know whether it is a psychology issue or a skill issue or perhaps a combination of both, especially without seeing your team or teams play.

In terms of confidence, aggressiveness and daring I think it is quite an involved process in creating a nurturing environment in which players are willing to risk mistakes in order to expand their skills. I'm sure you have this in place. I have included a link to a Growth Mindset summary which may be of assistance in this area, although it is more involved than one summary diagram can show.

Young players often have a perception that a team mate being "open" means standing wide open, all alone and that if a defender is close to them then their team mate is not "open." More advanced players realise people being wide open (especially for a penetrating pass towards the basket) rarely occurs and that if they're ever to penetrate the defence with the pass they will need to become comfortable passing to players who are more closely covered (perhaps their target hand away from the defence is open so so long as the pass is directed to that side of the body the pass can be made and now hopefully leads their team mate into a finish on the rim).

In terms of skill I have included below a pass penetration (plus close-out footwork) drill I learned from Tab Baldwin many many years ago that I still find to be effective as it is simple to understand, focuses on skill execution not the drill itself and involves a high ALT (Active Learning Time).

Close-out passing drill

N.B: I like to include a close-out drill as a part of my warm up for almost every training session and this is one of the small handful of close-out drills I will utilise on a regular basis.

I also like the accountability element to this drill as players do 5 push ups (or whatever consequence you choose) for each bad pass (immediately at the back of the receiving line). Bad passes are if the ball is tipped, bounces more than once, doesn't hit the target hand of the receiver etc. Players judge for themselves whether a pass is good enough. This gives you great insight into how high of a standard they hold themselves too and whether or not they are a great teammate (hit the pocket or any rubbish pass will do).

I think practice (live scrimmage situations in particular) is when you find out what passes you can throw and what passes you can’t and as a coach if you want an aggressive passing team you must accept (even praise) aggressive turnovers. Coach K talks about “Mistakes of Commission” being praised (offer player encouragement and support) versus being held accountable for “Mistakes of Omission” where a player forgets or can’t be bothered to do their job.

Increasing Time on Task (ToT) at practice

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