October 4, 2018 • preparationWinning Hoops

Developing a winning practice strategy

by Aaron Blatch, contributing writer

Practice is the setting in which coaches have the most control over the success of their teams. While the public may notice a game-winning inbound play or a switch to a zone defense, the true value of a coach lies in their ability to develop fundamentals and prepare the team during practices for game situations.

In our program, we believe we have found a practice planning template that allows us to maximize time, emphasize fundamentals, build conditioning and prepare for our opponents.

To develop a practice plan that works for you, start by creating a philosophy on what constitutes an effective practice.

Practice philosophy

1. Practice should be fast-paced. We are a running team, but even if we weren’t, practicing fast allows us to maximize time and develop conditioning. We try to avoid spending too much time simply running sprints, so conditioning is built through constant movement and quick transitions. Another thing we don’t do is stop practice for water breaks. Of course, players are encouraged to drink plenty of water. However, water bottles are kept in the bleachers and players get their drinks while at the end of a line or after finishing a rep.

2. What is practiced should translate to games. We never do a drill just for the sake of doing it. We utilize small-sided games as much as possible to develop skills in game-like situations.

3. Habits can be built through violations and rewards. We play a great deal of 4-on-4, but we’re always trying to develop specific habits. This can be done by using violations or rewards. For example, if we’re emphasizing attacking the rim off the dribble, any time a player takes a needless dribble that stagnates the offense, it’s a violation and the other team gains possession. As a reward, the offense might gain a point every time the ball is driven into the paint.

4. Practice should at times be chaotic. We’re always trying to fight the urge of having “pretty” practices. While perfect organization might make us feel better as coaches, they don’t transfer to game situations. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so we strive to challenge our players to make mistakes in practice.

Cultural aspects of practice

Practices should build a specific culture. These are some specific things we do to accomplish that goal.

1. If you aren’t in a drill or in a game, you’re coaching it. This rule ensures communication is maintained throughout practice. We discuss this at the beginning of the season and hold players accountable to a standard of constant communication. They can provide encouragement and give teammates reminders while they’re sidelined during practices.

2. HEART jersey. We developed the acronym HEART (hustle, energy, attitude, response, toughness) to define what we’re looking for in players. Each practice, we award a special HEART jersey to a player based on the previous practice. The coaching staff meets after practices to discuss which player best displayed these qualities. That player gets to practice the next day wearing the jersey instead of a regular practice jersey.

3. HEART board. Along the same lines, we use a HEART board in practice. This is a reminder of the HEART concepts. At times during a practice, we may ask players to gauge where we are in each concept. For example, if the practice is lacking energy, we may ask a player how she would assess our energy. In all likelihood, she will know and maybe grade it a “D” or “F.” This allows the team to take ownership of its own energy level.

4. “Daily Dozen.” We begin practices with the number “12” on a whiteboard. This signifies the number of sprints we have after practice. However, we tell our team that we hope they never have to run a sprint. If we believe our HEART is at championship levels, we periodically lower the number throughout practice.

5. “Champion’s Corner.” If a player fails to execute one of our desired habits, we may send her to the “Champion’s Corner” with an assistant coach. This is not a punishment, but a way to reinforce necessary fundamentals. If a player fails to take a charge, the assistant might take her to a corner and give her a few reps of taking charges. This reinforces that we believe taking charges is important and necessary to be a great team.

6. Basket leaders. At times, we may put a player in charge of a group’s energy during practice. If we’re using several baskets during shooting drills, each basket could have one player assigned to make sure that all players are hustling and communicating. This is an effective way to build leadership and get players out of their comfort zones.

7. Celebrations. When we huddle after each practice, players have the opportunity to celebrate other teammates. This helps us end practice on a good note, and it recognizes players who stood out.

Practice organization

The following is the basic practice setup that we like to use.

1. Before practice. We post shooting groups for the day and prepare all equipment — clock, blocking pads, cones, water bottles, balls.

2. Shooting segment (11 minutes). We start by spending three minutes on form shooting, beginning with shots under the basket. When players swish two in a row, they can take a step back.

We then spend eight minutes on three-person shooting drills. Players get in their shooting groups and use all six baskets. Our three-person drills work on actions right out of our offense. We set a lot of backscreens in our man offense, so we work on offensive execution and shooting after setting a backscreen (DIAGRAMS 1-3). In eight minutes, we rotate through several variations each day.

3. Dynamic stretch. After stretching, we huddle and award the HEART jersey based on yesterday’s practice.

4. Pre-practice (eight to 10 minutes). We vary our pre-practice drills. Some days we focus on ball handling, others on passing, catching or finishing. We have groups of drills/small-sided games for each concept that we can utilize.

Here are two ball handling pre-practice drills we use:

  • Beat-the-trap drill: Dribble the ball 1-on-2 until the coach calls the player’s name. On the call, make a successful pass to the coach and rotate out. This drill isn’t fully game-realistic but develops confidence and toughness with the ball.
  • Full-court, 1-on-3: A ball handler starts on each baseline. Three defenders play in “zones” on each side of the floor. The first defender guards the player in the first third of the floor, the second in the middle third of the floor, and the third guards the basket. The offensive player tries to beat all three defenders to score (DIAGRAM 4).

Here are two sample passing/catching pre-practice drills we use:

  • Monkey in the Middle: In a small group, work on quick ball fakes and passing through an open “window.” Follow your pass to be the next “monkey in the middle.”
  • 2-on-2, 10 passes: Break into groups. The goal of a group is to make ten consecutive passes with no deflections/steals. Rotate every time this fails to happen. Emphasize V-cutting to get open, passing away from the defense, and pivoting through pressure. We do not let players dribble.

Here are two samples of finishing pre-practice drills we use:

  • Elbow finish: Get with a partner on the elbow. The defender starts on the offensive player’s hip. In one dribble, drive to the basket while the defender applies resistance. Jump off of two feet to score. Emphasize a big first dribble, cutting off the defender’s recovery line, and jumping off of two feet.
  • Cone 1-on-1: In small groups, set up a cone on each side of the basket. We do a long variation and a shorter variation. On a “go” call, the offense dribbles around its cone while the defender sprints around theirs. Finish off of two feet at the rim.

5. 3, 2, 1 free throws. Using all six baskets, players shoot three, then two, then one. Record your makes with a manager.

6. “Achievement” phase (six to eight minutes). This is an opportunity for players to achieve something before starting the team portion of practice. This is timed, and players have to meet a goal.

We prefer to make this a transition drill to get players moving and increase our energy. We could use a transition shooting drill or some type of transition cycle working on our fast-break system. If players meet the goal, we might let them choose a three- to four-minute drill they enjoy. If they don’t meet the goal, we run a sprint and the coach chooses something else each player can achieve. For example, every player may need to dive on one loose ball before we begin practice. This starts the team portion of our practice with players knowing they have accomplished something.

7. Transition segment (20 minutes). The game is played in constant transition, and we felt like our practices haven’t always reflected that. We have a variety of transition games and drills, but here are two transition sequences we use:

  • Continuous 2-on-1: We start with a black and gold team, each on a sideline. Black team attacks 2-on-1. When the ball crosses half court, a second gold defender sprints to touch half court, then sprints back to defend. On the shot, the two defenders attack 2-on-1 the other way. We play for four minutes, and the losing team runs a sprint.
  • War drill: Start like a 5-on-5 shell drill with the defenders circling in the paint. When coach shoots, all offensive players crash to rebound. Play live on either an offensive or defensive rebound until the coach blows the whistle. We play for eight minutes, and the losing team runs a sprint.

8. 3, 2, 1 free throws. We do this a second time to emphasize free-throw shooting.

9. Defensive segment (14 to 20 minutes). This includes a variety of defensive drills or games. We prefer to go live as much as possible, particularly later in the season when our rules are already established.

The following is an example of two defensive segments we might use:

  • Series of stops: Divide the team in four groups, giving each a corner of half court. Play 1-on-1 from half court, staying on your half of the floor. The defensive player must get a stop on every offensive player in the group to get out.
  • Lane 1-on-1: Break players into groups. Align cones creating a lane from the offensive player on the wing to the basket. The defender starts under the rim. A player on the weak side throws a skip pass. The defender closes out on the skip, and the offensive player must score without going out of the lane (DIAGRAM 5). Each group has a winner; losers run a sprint.

10. 3, 2, 1 free throws. Another series emphasizing free throws.

11. Offensive segment (14 to 20 minutes). We often incorporate guard/post breakdown drills here, where we try to get each group game-specific shooting. We could also do some 5-on-0 work, although we try to limit this after the beginning of the season.

Here are two offensive drills we might use:

  • 2-on-2 plus a coach: Because our offense is backscreen-oriented, we practice 2-on-2 with cutters backscreening for other players. We move players around to work on different angled screens (DIAGRAMS 6-7).
  • 4-on-4 backscreen to score: Players play live 4-on-4, but they must score off of a backscreen action. This shows players what we’re emphasizing and also helps our defense, as it must defend constant screening. We sometimes vary the action we want to focus on.

12. Scrimmage/situational work (10 to 20 minutes). We vary the ways that we scrimmage. We sometimes divide into equal teams and sometimes play varsity versus junior varsity. Also, we often scrimmage man-to-man then scrimmage again playing zone. This is also the time where we work on late-game situations.

13. 3, 2, 1 free throws. Our final free-throw circuit of the day.

14. “Daily Dozen” running (if necessary).

15. Talk and touch/huddle. 

Aaron Blatch is the head girls basketball coach at Crestview High School in Columbiana, Ohio.