Five stages of off-season skills development

Zach Weir, Head Boys’ Basketball Coach, Keller HS (TX); angleofapproachbasketball.com

When the season is over and the uniforms are put on the shelf, a new season begins. Fueled by the pain of an early exit for most, off-season is the time when players push themselves to become better athletes who are more skilled and efficient in an effort to develop and grow in their roles on their respective teams. Each player has  an ultimate goal of becoming a better player than they were in the previous season.

Coaches put countless hours into planning, prepping and pushing their kids to reach the next level physically, mentally and emotionally. The goal is to get bigger, stronger and faster but that’s not what this article is about. This is about the process of improving a player’s skill from the ground up. Designing a plan from the smallest detail of how a player catches the ball to where his last dribble is before he uses the skill in game action. 

There are many different avenues that a player can take in terms of skill development, player development, or training. With this training philosophy the skill will be broken down into 5 stages in order for players to better acquire a particular skill and be able to apply it in game. 

“FORM FIRST, PACE SECOND” is the most fundamental philosophy or building block of this 5 stage process to player development. With this philosophy every skill can be broken down to its  smallest details.  Once the movement has been learned other details are added such as angles, defenders, secondary defenders and game pace. The skill of shooting will be used for this article. 

The 5 stages are as follows: 

  • Stage 1: Stationary Learning
  • Stage 2: North and south movement
  • Stage 3: East and West (angles)
  • Stage 4: Scripted Defender
  • Stage 5: Live Play 

 Stage 1 Stationary  

  • In Stage 1 players will learn the skill in a stand still position at a slower speed with no movement involved. With some skills it will be simple to understand and a player can progress from stage 1 rather quickly but others will take more time. While pros still need stage 1, many use as a warm-up, this stage is primarily for players that are at a beginner level. Stage 1 can be great as a warm-up, such variations as form shooting before a training session or dribbling in place to get muscles firing.  Form Shooting in front of a basket is a great example of a Stage 1 drill. (See Attached figure)

Stage 1 Coaching Emphasis

  • Players need to ensure proper footwork and balance is being used at all times.
  • Correct body posture for the skill being learned as well as correct ball placement.
  • During Stage 1 Coaches should be checking for correct form from start to finish of each rep. 
  • When form is correct the emphasis will progress to having a game pace aspect while maintaining the correct form that was learned. 

Stage 2 North and South (straight line) movement 

  • Once a skill is mastered in a stationary manner the player will move on to a north and south direction, straight line down hill or towards the basket. This will allow the player to work on moving, catching, getting his or her feet set and begin applying the skill in a more game like applicable sense but still strict enough movement to keep the body straight and in line with the basket. Again Stage 2 is much like Stage 1 in that many players will advance to the next stage quickly. Box Shooting is an example of a Stage 2 shooting drill. (See Attached figure)

Stage 2 Coaching Emphasis

  • Players want to maintain the form that was learned in Stage 1. 
  • Players will concentrate on the correct footwork on the move and in this example when catching to shoot. 
  • Players want to maintain good balance and body posture. 
  • Coaches keep an eye on hand placement before the catch and stress the importance of catching the ball in a good shooting position. 
  • As the form is learned while moving in Stage 2 then progress to using game pace situations. For example, exploding down hill towards the basket in transition and stopping to shoot. 
  • It is very important to note that while still in stage 2 the player or coach passing the ball is also throwing passes in a straight line and not making the shooter twist or turn his body but staying squared to the basket. 

Stage 3 East and West (angled) movement 

  • Stage 3 is when the mechanics of a skill will begin to breakdown and the muscle memory will begin to be tested. When most skills are taught most players skip straight to stage 3 because it is where more game like situations are presented. For example, a player may not have the correct mechanics to shoot but is thrown into a shooting drill that where players are curling into a jump shot off of a down screen. Stage 3 requires not only disciplined form when shooting but a player is required to find that form after performing a basketball type action or move such as a curl. Cone curl shooting or spot to spot shooting are great examples of a stage 3 drill. (See Attached figure)

Stage 3 Coaching Emphasis

  • Coaches should check the players footwork. In Stage 3 players tend to not get their body posture correctly squared to the basket and that is due to a lack of proper footwork. 
  • Each player will need to have hands in the correct place as to limit any extra that may be caused by the movements in stage 3. 
  • It is very important that the passer is giving the shooter an accurate pass and not causing the shooter to contort or turn his body even more. 
  • Coaches need to emphasize the importance of correct body posture and ball placement. Ensuring that the players keep their shooting form tight and correct. 

Stage 4 Add Scripted defender  

  • In stage 4 we will add a coach or scripted defender to the game actions that we are trying to execute. The possibilities and progressions of this stage are endless and the drills can become quite a bit of fun to coach and learn.  In Stage 4 a coach or player will play defense in a predetermined or scripted manner as to force the player to use the skill being taught. An excellent, yet simple example of a stage 4 shooting drill is cone curl shooting with a defender. (See Attached figure) In Stage 4 the player learning the skill is going to be challenged yet again, and he will get real game pace practice reps working on the skills that he has learned. Getting reps this way will reinforce the skill that is being learned and also giving the player the game like feeling of having a defender. This will give the player confidence to practice the skill and not worry about the defender. 

Stage 4 Coaching Emphasis

  • Reinforce proper footwork, body posture, ball placement and in this case shooting form.
  • Players will need to make sure that their form is tight and their body is in a position to be explosive. 
  • Make sure your shooters keep their eyes on their target and do not get distracted by the defender.
  • Players will also need to work on game pace of the action they are performing while maintaining correct form.
  • Coaches will progress stage 4 with different actions, multiple reads for players, and more defenders. The possibilities in this stage are endless. 

Stage 5 Live Play 

  • Stage 5 is where the skill will be put to the test in live game like situations. Players are put into drills where they will have to determine the correct time to use the skills that they have learned or make an alternative read.  2 v 2 Cone curl shooting is a very simple yet effective Stage 5 drill. Players are put into position to make reads off of a down screen action. 

Stage 5 Coaching Emphasis

  • With more distractions and action going on players will tend to be more timid in fear of making a mistake when live defense is introduced so coaches will need to emphasize game pace, footwork, body posture and quick decisions. 
  • Players will initially tend to change their form during live play so coaches emphasize keeping their correct form. 
  • Players will need to be ready to make a play with correct body posture and hand placement . This will lead to quicker decisions. 

Progressions 

  • These will change depending on skill level, number of players, etc . add scripted defense, add cues, add extra movements, two balls, two consecutive actions.
  • Skill Level- younger players will benefit more from playing small sided games 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 than a ton of 5v5.
  • Scripted defense or defender- ex: working on a baseline drive and finish have the defense closeout to the top side influencing baseline drive
  • Cues- ex:When practicing ball screen defense coach can call different coverages such as switching, hedging, dropping, icing 
  • Ball handling with two balls or shooting with two shots consecutively while repping different actions. 
  • Consecutive actions such as use a ball screen shoot, then relocate and shoot another. 

Coaches put countless hours into planning, prepping and pushing their kids to reach the next level physically, mentally and emotionally. The goal is to get bigger, stronger and faster but that’s not what this article is about. This is about the process of improving a player’s skill from the ground up. Designing a plan from the smallest detail of how a player catches the ball to where his last dribble is before he uses the skill in game action. 

These are a few examples of progressions that can be put into effect when working on a player’s skills within the 5 stages.  Coaches should concentrate on getting a good base of form with each player’s fundamentals and building on each skill from the ground up. With each advancing progression using the philosophy of perfecting a player’s form and pace at each stage. The main focus being form of execution and not simply completing a new drill for a result. Coaches and players alike put countless hours into pushing themselves to reach the next level physically, mentally and emotionally and many times not seeing the fruits of their labor. The process of improving a player’s skill from the ground up, designing a plan within these 5 stages will help players be more successful on the court. 

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