Published January 2012 • Revised July 2014


In order to perform at their best, gain confidence and develop themselves, student-athletes must be engaged in what they are doing, whether it is on the court or inside the classroom. Activities become interesting and enjoyable when they are a significant step towards a meaningful goal. Planning a practice or designing a season with the end in mind enables players to understand what they are doing and take an active role in their progress. Individual and team improvement is maximized when all stakeholders are motivated to succeed.

Big Ideas

Teachers and coaches who work with you should focus on the big idea, not the daily minutiae. The inherent premise of self-actualization is that the group is assembled to accomplish something that would not be possible otherwise. Do not take the big picture for granted. Explanations or drills alone are insufficient to communicate deeper understanding (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 92).

Build practices with the goal of helping students understand content, not simply communicating it. Although a single session is too brief to realize a big concept at once, coaches should always focus on the main ideas (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 8). For example, an offense based on ballhandlers who penetrate and kick must provide players the ball in a scoring position within a well-spaced system that permits driving to the basket.

Skills that fit into this framework include cutting to get open, catching the ball and squaring up to the basket, taking a first step past the defender and finishing at the rim or passing to a teammate. These components must be taught in order in order to retain their value (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, pp. 294-295); a player cannot execute a more advanced move like passing to a shooter with their inside hand if they cannot beat their defender and draw the help. A player cannot perform skills or abilities that they do not possess so elite basketball teams are built upon a foundation of fundamentals and physical conditioning (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 60)

Brain Research

Coaches must understand brain response. The amygdale triggers a fight, flight or freeze response under pressure. Conscious reflection slows down the reaction, allowing the student-athletes to utilize their prefrontal cortex and process information more thoughtfully (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 35). Rather than adding to the stress of the situation, coaches can encourage players to be aware of how others are performing, afterwards on the bench or during practice. Adolescents must reflect instead or merely reacting in order to learn effectively.

Motion offenses require mindfulness while moving quickly and making multiple decisions. Great basketball players must be great thinkers who understand what is happening around them. Even at-risk youth can be taught to better understand the game using patience and persistence (Sialtsis, 2011). Coaches enable adolescents to overcome adversity by pushing them to keep working, assuring that they will get the result that they desire.

Exercises which include mindful movement, like warm-up and cool-down work, physical performance training for balance and flexibility and other sports, such as yoga and tai chi force players to monitor their bodies for feedback, developing the attentiveness needed to execute difficult skills correctly (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 84). It is a powerful lesson to feel what a successful performance feels like, instead of merely hearing about it.

Daily Practices

When the environment is welcoming and safe, the brain devotes more energy to thinking. Stress curtails the development of dopamine and norepinephrine which drive attentiveness and learning (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 77). Seniors and returning team members can assume the coach’s personality and create a positive team culture (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 69).

Instructions pass through the brain between dendrites more clearly when the learner is focused on the content instead of their surroundings (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 61). Actions – resulting from electrical impulses sent along a chain of nerve fibres – determine how a student-athlete performs. When the actions are performed frequently in dedicated practice, myelin is formed to insulate the nerve fibres and make the process more efficient (Coyle, 2009, pp. 36-40).

Practices can be neither coverage-focused nor activity-focused (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 8). Coverage-focused practices based on too many explanations (and too much activity) or extensive preparation for a specific opponent will drain energy from the team and sap some of the intensity and quality from the repetitions. Activity-focused practices containing many drills and games can become transparent if they exist only for their own sake.

Positive interactions adults (such as adults encouraging athletic potential or expressing satisfaction with the outcome of a season) promote enjoyment. For most athletes, the goals of sport participation are physical fitness, socialization and fun (Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1986, p. 30). Build practices with the goal of helping players understand the content, instead of merely communicating it (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, pp. 294-295). Execution in transition is not some abstract idea because the coach ordered a DVD online but because it leads to easy baskets, tires the other team and wins games while enabling players to showcase their skills.

Allowing choice – within reason – about how that participation will occur creates positive experiences and continued involvement in sport and fitness. Adolescents differ in how they prefer to demonstrate their understanding (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005, p. 13) so full-speed ballhandling may suit some while others would prefer to distribute the ball to teammates to prove their point guard skills. Differentiated coaching and choice about how to perform in practice increase responsibility for improvement (Bovill, Cook-Sather, & Felten, 2011, p. 134). When the team picks a specific drill to begin practice, the onus falls on the players to demonstrate competence in the forum that have selected.

Long-Term Goal Setting

Every practice is a chance to interact with players and help team connect the dots and achieve important objectives. Before the season, coaches identify the priority learning objectives on their Yearly Planning Instrument (for example: Team Communication) and how they will be accomplished in each macro and microcycle. Individual lessons are too short for a big idea like this (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, pp. 17-18) but each time the team gets together they can make progress. In the pre-season, this may simply entail building trust and coming together but as the end of the season approaches, the standard may be all five players talking throughout each defensive possession.

A coach may rely on the same series of drills but as the team improves, the drills will be loaded more and the desired results will change. Expectations of safe and efficient ball movement in a transition drill may be replaced by an emphasis on speed, communication and decision-making. In fact, relying on a set of drills or as unchanging practice plan is less meaningful than making adjustments to hone the skills which will be required, for example selecting passing and cutting drills before playing a team likely to play zone defense.

Instruct the fundamentals in a logical order but never forget the main idea. For example, an offense based on ballhandlers who penetrate and kick must provide players the ball in a scoring position. Place value on individualized instruction, such as personal feedback and tailor-made drills in practice (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 114). Important ideas include cutting to get open, catching the ball and assuming a ready position, attacking with the first step and finishing at the rim or passing to a teammate. These concepts are meaningless if taught out of order because a player cannot execute a more advanced skill like passing to a shooter with their inside hand if they cannot beat their check and draw the help.

Assessment and Evaluation

A Yearly Planning Instrument can focus improvement in mental and physical training but may have trouble handling non-tangible attributes such as overcoming adversity and handling pressure. It is equally important for coaches to develop the team’s abilities in the affective domain as well (Gallo, 2003, p. 44).

In these areas, 360° Assessment can help students evaluate themselves in areas that are not directly displayed on the scorecard. A lack of self-discipline can lead to a disadvantage on the scoreboard due to too many fouls or defensive gambling (Crean & Pim, 2007, p. 127); controlled aggression allows ballhandlers to take the ball into the paint and pressure the defense. The Competitive Anger and Aggression Scale test helps players evaluate their emotional control. The Profile of Moods Strength – Adolescent rates the team according to Anger, Confusion, Depression, Fatigue, Tension and Vigour, focusing efforts during peak training periods.

Optimism is a key predictor of teams as they improve throughout the year and play in important competitions (Seligman, 2006, p. 166). The Attributional Style Questionnaire measure the outlook of a team and individual athletes. Talking with students about their self-evaluation explains why concepts such as “Handling Pressure” are important, promotes reflection of learning and shows progress over time (Gallo, 2003, p. 47).

Rather than raising the spectre of failure, lessons should be optimistic, focusing on what can be accomplished if the team works together. Reflection of a positive experience or a recent success releases dopamine into the brain (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 119). Allow athletes to relish the fun of playing sports and treasure what they have recently learned.


True learning comes from considering why the activity is important so content must be significant to the student-athletes and their goals (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 16). Practices that meet the needs of the players – tempered by the coach’s judgment – and advance the core values of the team are most effective. For example, many players see themselves playing for a travelling team in the summer; developing an explosive first step will permit them to achieve this objective while making the team’s motion offense more dangerous.

Any instructor is tasked with instilling aspirations, painting a picture that emotionally impacts with those who are listening. Once committed, players will work with the coach to rationally reach their shared vision. If elite athletes have a dream to play sports at the next level, a coach should acknowledge this and display how the lessons from practice will give the player the best chance to thrive. Re-evaluating players and changing their role within the team as they improve promotes a growth mindset and motivates learning (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005, p. 17).

Box Out Bears

Use Concrete Imagery to Communicate Concepts: Play “Elbow to Elbow” when boxing out an opposing player instead of using hands.

Teachers and coaches have clear ideas of terms such as Intensity and Quality but student-athletes with less experience likely lack such task clarity (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005, p. 13). Linking the expectations to a concrete image, such as a picture of a successful season or a tangible item like a lunch bucket to simulate work ethic can bring a team together and convince everyone to buy in (Crean & Pim, 2007, p. 77). A motto like “Finish” enabled the New York Giants to persevere during a month-long losing streak and make the playoffs (Youngmisuk, 2012).


Allow choices about how the learning will proceed. Keep core principles but realize that athletes change over time. Coaches must monitor their message and delivery and if the message is not getting through to a certain group, the delivery must be adjusted (Krzyzewski, 2011). The essential of good defense are basket protection, ball pressure, communication and concentration. A coach should be adamant about instructing these core principles but there is a great deal of flexibility to adapt to individual players (Crean & Pim, 2007, p. 153).

Relationships evolve out of getting something done that everyone agrees is important to accomplish. Relationships between players and coaches are not only means to inspire team members to achieve significant tasks but also the ends of a successful season (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 19). Do not become distracted by a focus on the means, keep the end in mind. Create opportunities for students-athletes to help each other learn (Hawn Foundation, 2011, p. 136), whether it is during skill development drills or study hall sessions. For some players, social motivations are as powerful as successful performance so this will suit more team members than a simply performance-oriented focus (Allen, 2003, p. 554).

The team influences each player’s experience and each player must have a chance to influence what the team accomplishes (Costa, 2008, p. 22). On a basketball team, there are a limited number of minutes, possessions and points to go around so players must emphasize with each other so that they see each others as partners, not rivals. Adolescents naturally see themselves as performers so co-operative activities in which different combinations of athletes collaborate foster team spirit while counteracting the basketball tendency towards one-on-one play.

Skill Development

Physical Conditioning, Skill and Team Spirit were at the centre of the Pyramid of Success. Wooden’s U.C.L.A. teams would not have been able to press the length of the court and run in transition without those characteristics (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 30). Linking a skill to winning basketball games can prove a powerful motivator.

According to Phil Jackson, the challenges of instructing Triangle Offense are that it requires patience and fundamentals such as footwork, court positioning and movement. Teams must run ninety-four feet down the court and keep moving once they get there while players must subvert their instinct to attack one-on-one. But once convinced of the benefits of the system, even all-time great players known for their statistics like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant will buy in and succeed (Klosterman, 2011).

Since the Triangle Offense is a read and react system, players must understand the goals of the offense – post play, mismatches for star players, open shots for role players and shared ballhandling responsibilities – in order to operate properly within it. The Triangle includes some “automatics” (passes which must be made in certain situations); these requirements cannot be taught as rules but as effective plays that result in baskets.

Statistical factors strongly correlated with winning collegiate basketball games are Field Goal Percentage, Most Free Throws Made, Fewest Personal Fouls Committed and Total Rebounds (Crean & Pim, 2007, p. 127). Teams with solid shooting fundamentals are more likely to win, as our teams with more aerobic endurance who can maintain their form throughout the game. Balance, quickness and self-discipline allow tenacious defenders to pressure the ball without reaching and committing ill-timed fouls. Rebounds stem from individual skill and determination and adherence to a team system. Also the most-skilled teams are likely to maintain possession while passing and dribbling the basketball.

A coach cannot blindly apply the same philosophy to every team that they coach. A failing in the youth sport system is how adults introduce a competitive attitude at a young age. Some elite teams will emphasize performance-oriented goals, such as championships or making the playoffs, but for most youth coaches, they should stress mastery-oriented skill development goals that are designed for each athlete. Coaches should continually evaluate themselves, using feedback, video and peer observation, to ensure that their systems and drills are meeting the needs of the athletes.


To facilitate learning, feedback should be timely, specific, and understandable. It should be formed to allow the players to make adjustments in their performance (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005, p. 15), for example: “After cutting along the baseline towards the inbounder, plant the outside foot and execute a reverse pivot to square up to the basket in order to catch and shoot.”

Objective comments like “use your shoulders to keep the defender away from the ball” and “drop your hips as your cross-over” are far more valuable than “good job” or “well done.” Questioning also stimulates learning (MacPhail & Halbert, 2010, p. 33); not asking vague questions like “why did you do that?” as a player leaves the court but inquiring into decision-making after the emotion of the situation has died down.

Often nothing can simulate the feedback provided by tough competition and adversity. Talking about the high rub and showing possible defensive tactics is not as clear and immediate as being forced to the weak hand and trapped by a hedging defender. Early season games are an opportunity to learn by trial and error and discover what needs to be done to improve. Scheduling easy match-ups during the pre-season does the team no favours because student-athletes learn best from challenging assignments (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 309).

Physical activity provides feedback every time the action is performed and the athlete sees the results of their actions. Coaches cannot assume that a player is getting the message so they must interact and encourage players, mediating the experience (MacPhail & Halbert, 2010, p. 37). Contextualize results so players know how to better apply their skills in a meaningful way. Rejecting the screen and attacking with the left hand is far more meaningful than dribbling around cones. Showing how the opponents are hedging the screen and how they can be drawn out before practicing the two-man game in a 2-on-2 creates a realistic situation that players can later reflect upon themselves.


All people – young and old – have the capacity to thinking critically and improve themselves although they must first learn how to do so (Costa, 2008, p. 20). A basketball team will not immediately function effectively as soon as a team list is posted by the locker room. Players need to know what is expected of them, on the court and in the classroom, and how they can get there. The entire season is focused on showing the team how to connect the dots and convincing them that they can reach great heights.


  • Allen, J. B. (2003). Social Motivation in Youth Sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology , 25 (4), 551-556.
  • Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felten, F. (2011). Students as co‐creators of teaching approaches, course design, and curricula: implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development , 16 (2), 133-145.
  • Costa, A. L. (2008). The Thought-Filled Curriculum. Educational Leadership , 65 (5), 20-24.
  • Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code. New York City: Random House.
  • Crean, T., & Pim, R. (2007). Coaching Team Basketball. New York City: McGraw Hill.
  • Gallo, A. M. (2003). Assessing the Affective Domain. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance , 74 (4), 44-48.
  • Hawn Foundation. (2011). The Mind Up Curriculum. New York City: Scholastic.
  • Klosterman, C. (2011, December 14). What Ever Happened to the Triangle Offense? Retrieved December 20, 2011, from Grantland:
  • Krzyzewski, M. (2011, November 16). Duke All Access. (J. Bilas, Interviewer)
  • MacPhail, A., & Halbert, J. (2010). “We Had to Do Intelligent Thinking during Recent P.E.”. Assessment in Education , 17 (1), 23-39.
  • McTighe, J., & O’Connor, K. (2005). Seven Practices for Effective Learning. Educational Leardership , 63 (3), 10-17.
  • Nater, S., & Gallimore, R. (2010). You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices. Morgantown: Fitness Information Technology.
  • Scanlan, T. K., & Lewthwaite, R. (1986). Social Psychological Aspects of Competition for Male Youth Sport Participants. Journal of Sport Participation , 8 (4), 25-25.
  • Seligman, M. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York City: Vintage Books.
  • Sialtsis, L. (2011, December 16). Eastern Commerce Basketball. (B. Bourgase, Interviewer)
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.
  • Youngmisuk, O. (2012, January 1). Giants 31, Cowboys 14. Retrieved January 1, 2012, from ESPN Rapid Reaction:

Leave a Comment