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Player Development is Not a Circus

The game of basketball is something I absolutely love, cherish, and see heading down a scary path. Basketball is at an all-time high in terms of popularity and growth around the world. Unfortunately, the number of ‘skilled’ basketball players is exponentially decreasing. Fans and young players today marvel at the athleticism of today’s players, heck I even do.  But it is actually hurting the game more than it is helping.

Today’s players are using their athleticism and size, especially at the high school level, as a crutch to hide their lack of skill. I have actually experienced a Division-1 recruit at a high major school, not be able to shoot a left-handed lay-up. Players wasting time before or after practice ‘trying’ to dunk is contagious and is growing as a sport in itself. Rather than spend 10-15 minutes on ball-handling or fine tuning their shooting form, players would rather miss dunk, after dunk, after dunk. Meanwhile increasing the odds of a lower body injury on each attempt.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying athletic players are destroying the game. Russell+Westbrook+LeBron+James+Olympics+Day+JAeFzFerglrlLook at LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, two of the most athletic players this planet has ever seen, yet each year they come back with some facet of their game raised to another level. The San Antonio Spurs have proved that you don’t have to be a team of high-flyers in order to win a championship. Sure they have some athletes, but they are winning games with their skill-abilities and high basketball IQ’s; they understand how to play the game

What I am saying is that we as coaches have a duty and responsibility to hold our youth accountable and take them to levels they are unable to take themselves. That is where Player Development coaches come in. Player development is something that I am absolutely infatuated with and love doing. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a player grow over a course of time and achieve their goals within the game of basketball.

As the level of popularity of basketball has increased, so has the number of player development coaches; and unfortunately so has the number of unqualified player development coaches. Today it is easier than ever to set up a Twitter handle or website and call yourself a Player or Skill Development Coach; some even go as far to put the word ‘Pro’ before their title when they haven’t even been in the same room as a professional basketball player.

So why am I so passionate about this topic? I feel like today player development has become a race of self-promotion to show people, “Look what I can do!”, and it is sickening sometimes when I see how some coaches are teaching the game. The last several months the number of videos I come across showcasing “circus” drills is on a faster climb than the yodeler game on the ‘Price is Right’.


The focus of player development needs to be on skills that players will use in a game. Game repetitions, game shots and moves at game speed. Recently I saw a video of a coach teaching players to spin (like a top) through cones while dribbling. This same video featured more orange cones than a drivers-ed course. I am not saying you shouldn’t use cones. What I am saying is that if you do, use them effectively. I know several very talented player development coaches who don’t believe in chairs or cones. I am actually pulling back on using them as much and here is why:

drew3Cones and chairs are meant to mimic a defensive player, but this doesn’t create a realistic game environment. Depending on the goal or focus of the particular drill, players should guard each other while working on moves; at the very least, as the coach you can play token defense where necessary. If you are unable to play defense and you are conducting a 1-on-1 session or large group workout, use chairs in place of cones. Chairs are at least body width and you must go around them; if you try to dribble over them it won’t feel very good. I typically only use cones when I want to create a tight alley to make moves in or as landmarks on the court.

As the coach, do you do all of the passing? If it’s a 1-on-1 session, you have to. But if you have multiple players in the workout, you should not be the passer, you need to focus on teaching through positive communication. Players need practice making passes on-time and on-target.

Nike Basketball Skills Coach Kevin Eastman always says, “Don’t shoot 500 perfect shots. Shoot 1 perfect shot, 500 times.”  There’s a powerful distinction in saying you took 500 shots versus MAKING 500 shots. Do not let your players slide through a drill without setting a goal.

The same should hold true on every aspect of the workout. If players are working on ball-handling, make sure they’re doing it right. Players’ handle in a game should be low and tight, so this should be the emphasis every-single-time a player is making moves on the move.


Keep It Small and Simple. If you are a full-time player development coach andScreen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.52.38 AM run daily or multiple workout sessions a week, your groups should be capped at 5-6 players. I have found it extremely difficult, and nearly impossible, to effectively teach a group larger than this. Maximizing your time in the gym is the only thing that matters and it takes time to get a group of 20 players to perform a drill correctly. Every player (and their parents) are trusting that you are there to give them your absolute attention, that cannot be accomplished in a gym full of kids.

Now, the fact that I see so many kids in a gym ‘working on their game’ is encouraging, but if you are going to conduct larger group workouts, hire more coaches.

Let me differentiate between player development clinics and player development workouts. Workouts are meant to be personal and intimate and occur multiple times a week, if not daily. Clinics provide an opportunity to bring together a larger group of players (and coaches) and introduce them to new skills and techniques that they can then take and use to improve on their own. Alan Stein and Drew Hanlen are two of the best clinicians in the country at this.

Unless you are teaching Steph Curry how to get his shot off quicker or over a 7’0″ defender, your workouts should be simple; especially at the youth level. Players have NO BUSINESS learning how to ‘euro’ until they get to high school. Players need to learn how to read the defenses and use screens to get open. It is amazing how many players at the high school do not know the proper technique to getting open on the wing being over-played.

Read : 5 Tips to Coaching Youth Basketball


Kobe Bryant is known for saying, “I don’t workout, I blackout.”

Blackout is an attitude. It’s a way of life. No matter what it is that you do. I don’t care if you’re a carpenter, a basketball player, a doctor, doesn’t matter. You focus 100% on what you’re doing on that moment, nothing else matters. That’s what blackin’ out means to me. 

-Kobe Bryant

This same mentality should be shared by the coach as well. Be an interactive coach during workouts. Players are more likely to go harder if they see you sweating with them. I recently saw a quote from Mark Cuban saying, “Sweat Equity is the BEST equity there is.”

No matter your age, become a student of the game, become the best by learning from the best, I certainly have and continue to do so. If you are serious about player development, you need to get out to one of Drew Hanlen’s clinics this year, he is one of the best teachers of the game I have ever witnessed.


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about rick torbett

Rick Torbett has taught thousands of coaches to win more games through his innovative approach to the game. He has created powerful training for coaches at any level so they can coach their best and win more games.

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Read & React 5-Player Coordination Drills

Enter your email address to get an inside look at teaching the Read & React Offense with the drills in this free video.