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I love basketball ❤️🏀. To me love means two things - sacrifice and being fascinated by the intricate details.

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Increasing Time on Task (ToT) at practice

An up and coming young coach in New Zealand recently asked for ideas on increasing ToT, especially when the number of players is large, while the resources (courts, hoops, possibly even balls) are limited.

If you've coached in New Zealand you know the numbers of players are exploding (🙌🏼) but the resources to accomodate the increased numbers are staying roughly the same, therefore this is an issue we face often. However, we still want our players to get maximum bang for their buck in terms of actually working on their basketball for as much of practice as possible. 

Below are a collection of ideas (by no means comprehensive) that may be of use in increasing ToT at your practices:

  1. Utilise multiple balls - ideally at least one per player - which may mean utilising other balls such as soccer balls or handballs if necessary - Having a ball per player allows for supplementary activities and anchor activities (which I will discuss below). It also tends to increase players' enjoyment of the practice. In Physical Education it is inevitable that some students will arrive early to PE and get changed as fast as possible so as to maximise their PE lesson time whereas others will arrive at the latest permissible time and get changed more slowly. A reward for the eager students can often be a period of free time before the lesson commences proper. Given free time, students rarely organise a game. They absolutely love having their own ball to play with. I've incorporated this into my basketball coaching and I believe it is great for individual skill development and player engagement. If you do not have enough basketballs possibly use the basketballs for the primary activity and utilise the alternative balls for the supplementary activity that is often a ball handling drill. Utilising different type balls may even add an element of challenge to the supplementary ball handling drills.
  2. Anchor Activities - this is another idea I have stolen from the education sector and incorporated into my coaching. When given a task students or players tend to take varying amounts of time to complete the set task. For example, you may be doing a one on one defensive drill, with the first to five stops being the winner. "Draymond's" Group may quickly reach five stops while "James'" Group may take longer. This often can lead to time off task for "Draymond's" Group as they wait for "James'" Group to finish. Perhaps the coach asks "Draymond's" Group to "shoot free throws" while they wait. It takes considerable scaffolding on the part of the coaching staff to ensure this free throw shooting is not done half-heartedly. Whereas an Anchor Activity can convert this waiting time in to very valuable and productive time. An Anchor Activity involves each player being assigned an individualised, specific task to complete within a given time frame (usually one practice session, but it could be for a shorter or longer time period). For example, a post player that solely relies on his right hand jump hook may be assigned making 25 left handed jump hooks as his Anchor for the practice session. He may use the time prior to practice, waiting time during practice, drink breaks or time post-practice to complete his Anchor task. In my experience players embrace having an individualised task the coach has specially selected for them or co-constructed with them that is directly focused on their skill development. Instead of loitering at practice they hurriedly scamper to the ball rack at every opportunity when they have wait time at practice to knock off some of their anchor activity. This also gives each player a purposeful drill they can use in the pre-practice time period or if he is practicing independently. 
  3. Supplementary Activities - Often lines are inevitable, especially if you have a lot of players sharing a hoop or court. One way to you can transform the time spent waiting in line to ToT is to have a Supplementary Activity for each primary activity. For example, if you have 16 players and 4 hoops but you want to work on your interior finishing you may use supplementary activities to ensure 12 players are not standing around watching four players be on task. Therefore, you may break your team down into four groups of four. Player A performs 20 Mikans, Player B performs as many Figure 8s as he can while giving Player A support, encouragement and feedback, Player C performs as many push ups as they can, and Player D performs a 4-point bridge core exercise. Once Player A completes their 20 Mikans all four players rotate immediately. Another use of a Supplementary Activity can be if you are performing a transition drill (for example five-on-zero sprint throughs up and back) which involves five players on task in the primary drill. In a team of 12 rather than having the other seven players waiting you may choose to have a ball rack stationed at the baseline so that the players not directly involved can perform a set number of repetitions of a prescribed ball handling drill between reps of the primary drill. In order to give the Supplementary drill gravitas the coach must focus on this drill as well as the primary drill, for example praising a player going especially hard in their ball handling drills or performing them with their 'eyes up.' If you have an assistant coach you may want to assign a coach to specifically focus on the supplementary activity - if you deploy the head coach here it will further emphasise the importance of the supplementary activity in the eyes of the players. 
  4. Sectors - As a young coach at Hamilton Boys' High School, well before the outstanding gym the school now possesses existed, we'd often have our Year 9 A, Junior A and Senior A players attend skills sessions, despite having only one court and four hoops (two of which were very shoddy and hanged hard up against the gym wall). In order to accomodate upwards of 45 players at once while maintaining a high percentage of ToT it was necessary to divide the court into sectors. For example we could have four groups working on one-on-one close-outs on the main hoops (one group each wing), a group working on interior finishing (as outlined above) on each side hoop, a group working on ball handling in a sector between the top of the arc and half on one side of the mid-line, and another group working on post entry passing under pressure (say a 'Piggy in the Middle' style drill) on the other side of the mid-line between the top of the arc and halfway. Therefore we effectively had five stations at one end of the court and five at the other. This allowed us to divide the 40 or so players into ten groups of about four. By combining this concept with supplementary activities or consequences (for example, if you concede middle penetration, give up an offensive rebound, or throw an inaccurate post entry pass you perform a set number of push ups, tuck jumps or the like) we were able to maintain a high ToT for a large number of athletes in a combined space. Additional benefits were that in 15-20 minutes or so we could hit each of the key individual fundamentals, and when combined with our insistence on ELO (Early, Loud, Often) communication the atmosphere in the gym was awesomely motivating.  
  5. Routines - The problem all the activity described above may cause is that more is going on than one coach can possibly directly supervise alone. So you may wonder how do you prevent such a training drifting off-task through athlete confusion? The following few concepts should help to mitigate any off-task behaviour for whatever reason (culture and selection plays a large part here but is beyond the realms of this particular post). Routines ensure all players know exactly what drill a coach is instructing them to perform (tip: name your drills with distinct, descriptive and defined names), how to perform it (verbal coaching cues are invaluable here), why it is a useful skill, and when to utilise it in a game. Early in a season (or over the course of years in an on-going programme) it may take time to teach and set up your routines but it will allow you to minimise teaching time later and you will be able to quickly transition from drill to drill. I believe a smaller number of well understood drills is better than a large variety of poorly understood drills. Some consideration must be given to boredom through repetitive drill use - finding the right balance for your team at the time is important. 
  6. Quick transitions - Routines and urgency should allow a large number of players to transition from one drill to the next. Planning practice so that equipment is available, one drill flows into the next, the physical lay out of the court is sensical and incorporating competition that rewards hustle and haste aids here. A drill like Cutthroat is an example of a drill that uses competition combined with drill lay out (players line-up close to where they'll be required on court) to speed transitions and reduce wait time. 
  7. Simple, execution focused drills - I think some coaches get 'seduced' into using fancy drills that involve intricately choreographed rotations that resemble the Ohio State Marching Band! This seems to especially be the case when it comes to passing drills. What tends to happen is that the players and coaches focus devolves onto the rotations ("A to B," "Who's mucked up the rotation!?") and focus on executing the skill in question goes out the window. The point of the drill is lost. The drill has to stop to rectify the mistakes made in 'getting the rotations' right and ToT reduces. When you've got a lot of players, perhaps minimal space, and not enough coaches, having complicated drills making the players very dependent on the coach is not ideal. Simple drills, like 'playing catch' for example, allow the focus to be 100% on skill execution and the players do not need the coach to be directly present at all times to understand and stay on task.
  8. Rather than have players waiting in line utilise players as passers instead of coaches - In the USA often teams are blessed with scores of assistant coaches, Directors of Basketball Operations, managers, student managers, you name it. There is often more support staff than there are players. What this allows for is every player being 100% ToT focusing on a primary task (for example, spot shooting or deep seals to power finishes) while the support staff performs the secondary elements of the drills (often the passing). These great drills get shared around the world via books, online articles, diagrams, YouTube videos or through international coaches returning home from the USA and the like. But when the coaches utilise these drills in their home environments where perhaps they are the only coach for their squad of 15 they continue to have the coach act as the passer, despite the fact that the other fourteen players are not also working with their own individual coaches as they would be in the USA but are now standing in line watching one of their team mates train and their coach pass. This makes absolutely no sense to me! For one, it deemphasises an extremely important skill which is the ability to throw on-time, on-target passes in a variety of ways. And, it also decreases ToT! If you're faced with a 1:15 coach:player ratio have the players increase their ToT by acting as passers (or crash pad wielders etc.) and liberate yourself to oversee all the activity happening around the gym and act as a teacher and motivator as you see fit. 
  9. Peer coaching - If you have a 1:40 coach:player ratio it is impossible for you to focus on every repetition performed by every player. You need to enlist more eyes 👀! One way to do this is to promote peer coaching. In a team environment I believe all members have a vested interest in the individual improvement of everyone involved. After all, when you drive and kick, you want someone with a good shooting technique on the end of your pass! Therefore players should be aware of what their team mates are working on improving. They should provide support, encouragement, feedback (praise and/or correction), and feed forward when appropriate. Are all players expected to remember what each player is working on like a coach does? Not necessarily. Here's how I've found this idea can be facilitated - consider the Mikan Drill we discussed above. Player A is performing the Mikans, while Player B is performing Figure 8s. Player B needs to perform the Figure 8s with his eyes up, and this is best encouraged by giving him something slightly a far a field to evaluate. Therefore Player B is required to watch Player A perform his Mikans and provide encouragement ("jump higher" etc) and feedback (e.g. "one foot take off") as he performs the drill. In this way more players are being coached and held accountable constantly than if only the coach performed this function. Additionally having your team mate help you in this way is often a lot more meaningful than if it is coming from a coach. Another drill I like to use this approach for is Tab Baldwin's old '70 Shooting' drill from his high performance programme. In '70s' there is one shooter, a passer and a rebounder. The shooter is responsible for purely shooting. The passer is responsible for throwing on time, on target passes, ensuring the drill is performed as fast as possible, and counting the number of passes thrown on each spot (and therefore shots taken). But in addition he is responsible for support, encouragement and feedback. So that he knows what the shooter is working on I tell the passer in a loud voice what he is to focus on. This means that the shooter has heard my instruction, but rather than just telling him and enlisting no one else's support, I have now enlisted the help of the passer in the coaching effort. If 40 players are working at the same time the coach will need to divide their attention and unless they make a concerted effort to do so they will not see 100% of the reps performed by any one player. But in this drill the passer will. Although this doesn't necessarily increase ToT it does ensure Active Learning Time (ALT) does increase as the work is purposeful. 
  10. Coach on the run - finally the coach must resist the temptation to stop the group for each and every mistake and identify when they can coach on the run using verbal cues or perhaps talking to the specific player in question at the conclusion of their rep. I do believe there are non negotiables that mandate a stoppage if not performed (such as not chasing down a break away). 

Hopefully the above list are of use and allow you to increase your ToT even when you have large numbers and limited resources.

The Art of the Scout (written report)

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