Training a group of players with large differences in skill level is hard.
The difficulty is in finding the balance between challenging the strongest players on your team, while simultaneously improving the weakest players on your team.
But it can be done...
Every day I receive emails from coaches asking how they can find this balance. And this blog post is going to answer that.
Instead of simply sharing my own thoughts, I reached out to 10 basketball experts and asked them the following question:
"How do you meet the needs of all players in practice when you're coaching a team of players with large differences in skill level?"
Here are their answers...
Alex Bazzell - @alexbazzell24
When you work with a wide range of skill levels it’s important to know that the best players are sensitive to knowing when they aren’t being pushed.
If they feel like they are grouped with players that are less skilled in a drill or skill work, they will tend to not take the drill as important. They need competition to push them.
When attacking skills in a practice you want to split the players up into groups 3 or 4 different groups. The worst thing you can do is just split up guards and bigs on each end.
Here is the issue with that...
Will you have all your bigs catching with their back to the basket or in a pick and roll situation? My guess is probably not.
Same goes for the guards...
Will you want every guard coming off a ball screen and making decisions or catching and shooting 3’s?
The hardest thing as a coach is getting reps for your best players that put them in game situations because then your other, less skilled players, will be getting those same reps and when it comes to live games, they will think it’s okay to take those shots because they’ve been told by their coaches it’s acceptable because they have practiced them.
My solution is put your playmaking guards, catch and shoot guards, and slashers at different baskets during skill work. On the other end, your back to the basket bigs & more versatile bigs at different rims as well.
This will create 5 different baskets of players working on the unique skills you need them to have in order for the team to succeed.
It’s not a secret why the Spurs are constantly winning. Their players know their roles and they rep out their roles everyday.
Chris Oliver - Basketball Immersion
The challenge for a coach is that if you focus on the less skilled group, you disrupt learning for the higher skilled group as they will be bored. If you focus on the higher skilled group, you may lose the lower skilled group as the skills or concepts may be too difficult to grasp.
Ultimately, there is no balance for this dilemma so it is my mindset to coach to the highest level. As long as you are not exposing novices to dangerous training conditions, complex information about the sport that would be represented as hard first instruction will do more to raise the overall level of your players than the alternative.
I would teach a skill or tactic as a whole, judge the need for progressions or not, encourage learners that they can learn these skills even if they can’t do them yet, and continue to add layers of challenge as learning progresses.
Even though a player may not be able to perform a hard-first skill, a less skilled player will still be able to appreciate what is involved to learn a skill, and they will have a better representation of where they are going as early as possible in training. During hard-first training, players are taught how to see complex skills and formations right from the start.
Gary Maitland - @Coach_Maitland
As a coach, like a classroom teacher, having differentiated activities in your sessions are essential. These planned moments pitch your session’s objectives at the right level for your players.
For example, all players may be working on finishing at the basket however weaker players could be focusing on scoring consistently without a defender, the mid-level ability group could be going against some controlled resistance and the higher ability group could be going against live defenders. Each of these groups can then progress. The weaker players can move on to scoring at speed with controlled resistance, the mid-level group can now go against aggressive defence and the higher ability group could be given a more challenging scenario to face.
The ability groups will change depending on what skill the players are working on and that keeps your athletes at the centre of your practice.
Above all, it’s important that a coach knows his/her players and plans for differentiation to ensure progress is made by all in your sessions. Drills or activities pitched at the wrong level will lead to players becoming demotivated.
Jon Beck - Pure Sweat Basketball
I think you should have fewer real 5 on 5 games and more small sided games 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3 with certain rules that can get touches and decision making opportunities for the middle ground players.
Make their workouts more about skill development and not so much about competition. Make sure small sided games are just as much about learning with certain rules as it is about winning.
Don’t water down the practice/drills for the kids who haven’t developed the skills yet. That will bore the kids who already have the skills.
Incorporate drills that let the kids who have already developed the skills help teach the kids who need more practice. Sometimes kids learn better and faster from each other than from a teacher/coach/adult.
Pair a couple of better players with a couple of weaker players and let them learn from each other. Every kid has something to give. Every situation can be a learning experience for any player, weak or strong.
Competition is important but at that age it’s not nearly as important as learning how to perform certain skills and play. Keep the practices and skill work really FUN, but teach them how to work on their game in a progressive manner.
Most importantly, teach kids how to work and what to work on. Give each kid an individualized progressive skill program so they all can develop.
Let the kids practice in small groups. Kids with better skills work together on those skills and moving those skills to the next level. At the same time, kids with weaker skills work together (maybe with more attention from the coach) to improve their skills. With a smaller group, focus on specific errors that the weaker kids are making and teach them how to correct their errors.
John Carrier - @JohnCarrier42
I still believe in a games approach. I think the key is to modify rules to help players compete at their own level.
For example, you might play some dribble tag for those who are less skilled with the ball. And then later play some rodeo (2 defenders chasing 1) that will allow you to push your more skilled handlers. Both are still getting something out of each.
Also, we play so much 1 on 1 to 5 on 5 in practice that players are constantly working on skills at their level. And it's about teaching players in each situation how to reach just enough so they are not in the thrash zone (success less than 60%) but they aren't having success every time.
Lastly I would recommend balancing teams so that players can compete against similar players as much as possible.
Jordan Petersen - Positionless Basketball
Skill levels can vary drastically at the youth levels and it can be a real challenge to meet the needs of all the players so they continue to develop.
There are 4 things I keep in mind when working with teams and players with differences in skill.
1. Vary drills
Give players options in drills. Give them an advanced way and beginner way or an advanced, middle and beginner way to do a drill. This can be done in most drills with a little bit of forethought and planning.
In a layup drill an advanced layup might be with an inside hand finish and the beginner way might be off of two feet.
In ball handling drills an advanced move might be between the legs and the beginner way would be a crossover.
Allow the player to choose which way they would like to try the drill. This gives players the opportunity to be more successful in a drill and will likely enjoy the game more.
If it is a drill where there is a defender involved, have the defender play demonstration or guided defense with lower skilled players.
2. Keep it fun
Don’t bore players to death with drill after drill of skill development without making it some type of game or competition. Play small sided games that work on skills you are trying to improve. This can help speed development, but also keeps it fun for all players.
I think we need to allow players to fall in love with the game or at least enjoy it before we make them take it so serious.
3. Peer coaching
Allow and encourage players teach each other. There have been so many times when a player has been able to explain a skill or concept to another player better than I was able to because they were able to bring it to the player’s level.
I often steal the language players use to explain something to each other because it clicks with them better.
4. Live with growing pains
Don’t limit players. Encourage them to take chances and help them grow when mistakes are made.
I often watch youth practices or games and lower skilled players aren’t allowed to do or try something because they may turn the ball over or not make the correct play.
When coaching youth sports there are going to be a lot of mistakes, but coaches must help players overcome and learn from these mistakes.
Liam Flynn - CoachLiamFlynn.com
I’m always a believer in you train up to your best players, not down to your weakest.
I think if you have players who are determined to be their best, then they will want to always be challenged. If they are the ‘best’ kids, they wont accept having trainings modified so as to lower the team’s standards. If they are one of the players who is weakest at a certain skill, they will not want to have practice made 'easier' just so they feel more comfortable.
So how does this play out in practice? I’ll give you an example.
In my off season, I usually go back and coach at the junior club that I was at for over 10 years, Sturt Basketball Club (In Adelaide, South Australia).
Often times we will have training sessions comprising of two teams, one year in age apart, put together – the ‘firsts’ or Division 1 team and the ‘reserves’ or Division two team. The Division 1 players are the best kids in that two year age group (U12, U14 etc) and are mostly a year older than the kids in the Division 2 team. A lot of times there is a great variation in the best kid in the Division 1 team and the weakest player in the Division 2 team. But I never consider splitting the teams, for a variety of reasons.
Mainly because when the Division 1 kids graduate into the next age bracket, those Division 2 kids, who spent a year training against their older and more superior counterparts (and sometimes getting their butts kicked at times!), will be better for it and will take this experience with them to become the Division 1 team the following year.
Most of the times we mix the kids a lot when we are drilling - the #1 ranked player in the age group might compete against any of the kids in the session. But if there is a case where there is a big gap between the skill, physical or mental gap between players we try to put players against opponents of similar abilities.
For example, we always “mass instruct” any offensive or defensive concept with the entire group. If we were working on defensive positioning or rotations for instance, we would bring both teams together on one half court and teach the concept to all players, using the same teaching points and verbal cues for all players. We would then teach the players the drill, 4v4 Shell Drill in this case, using a collection of the kids in the group. But when we split the kids up to drill, we would put players ranked 1-8 in a 4v4 group, and players ranked 9-16 in a group. That way players learn the same concept, but drill against opponents of similar abilities.
I think it is also helpful to have a strong Assistant Coach work with your lowest ranked players. Don't put them out in 'Siberia' with an inexperienced coach. That way the gap will just widen between player Ranked 1 and player Ranked 16. Challenge one of your Assistant Coaches to close the gap.
Mark Adams - Mark Adams Basketball
All players can and should spend time working on the basics and fundamentals as a whole. Great players never get bored with the basics!
However, I often broke down players into groups based on position played or skill level. By breaking into groups you can teach to that groups skill level while keeping players engaged and challenged.
One of the keys is to get all players out of their comfort zone in order for true growth and development to occur.
Mason Waters - Mason Waters Basketball
Raw Skill, Refined Skill, Game Application. To me, these are the three levels of skill development in basketball. Looking at your athletes' developmental stages through these three lenses may serve as a help to coaching all players to their level.
The next level of skill development is refined skill. This includes increasing the speed and tempo at which a skill is performed. This is the stage coaches are pushing players into when they yell, "Dribble faster and harder!" Yet this stage is not only about increasing speed and energy, it is also about adding a distractor.
Lastly is the level of game application. This is the most advanced skill development level when players have mastered a skill but now have to learn when to use that skill. Most players can do a crossover or perform a certain pivot, but not all players know when to use a certain move in basketball. Once a player masters or performs a skill (like a crossover), they must then learn when to use that move.
Identify what your players need in view of these three levels of skill development. The best teachers and coaches realize that their pupils are all at different levels of development and require different needs.
Some of your players just need to begin by practicing the raw skills. Some have the raw skills but perform them at an average speed. While others have the skills that are ready to be performed in a game.
Ryan Razooky - Ryan Razooky Basketball
Teach one fundamental move and one finish. Introduce a second move and finish for the advanced players. They can choose which one they want to practice.
This allows both players to practice the fundamentals and advanced fundamentals both based on the same concept/footwork but also allowing a challenge for each.