Keys to Player Development

By Fred Castro, Head Women’s Coach at Eastern Michigan. At the time he wrote this article, Coach Castro was an Assistant Coach in the Washington Women’s basketball program.

One of the things that we really emphasize at the University of Washington and that I pride myself on is player development. At any level of basketball the ability to improve an individual’s skill set should always be a priority. The truth is the elite programs whether its men, women, high school, college, or pros are consistently improving their player’s skill set from year to year. Elite programs do not just recruit great players and leave them as is.

The first thing as a coach that is imperative to player development is being available. I know that sounds obvious but you would be amazed how often other things can get pushed ahead of getting in the gym with a player. Player development is done Monday through Sunday 365 days a year. The willingness to be available when a player wants to work out and not just when it’s convenient for you is the first step. Not only is it important that you be available to help a player but it helps build the relationship between player and coach. The fact that you make yourself available for a player shows them that you are truly invested in them. This pays huge dividends down the line as you demand players to push themselves and do things they have never done. Obviously you have to prioritize all your duties as a coach and every program is different. My first week at UW, Coach Neighbors instructed the staff anytime a player requests to workout drop what you are doing and get in the gym even if you are working on something for him. How important is player development to you…

Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of players, and developing good fundamentals is the next step. I know there are two different schools of thought on this subject. One, focus on the weaknesses and really bring those up to par, a player’s strengths will always be there. Two, don’t worry about the weaknesses, focus on the player’s strengths and make them elite. I believe work on all of it! Your strengths are why you are on the team and in the game. Unfortunately I have seen too many players exposed by good coaches and scouts because a player’s weakness was so evident. Either way all players need to learn good fundamentals. I don’t care how highly they are rated or how many points they score. Ask your players to throw a left-handed post feed and let me know if your post player ever receives that pass, good luck! They need to know how to forward pivot, reverse pivot, throw a good skip pass, and DRIBBLE WITH THEIR HEAD UP!! I know none of that sounds very exciting but what wins games is the ability to do the” mundane” at a high level. Once you have ingrained the fundamentals (it never really stops) you can really begin to advance your workouts.

The next debate is quantity vs quality. My stance on this is it all depends on where you are in your development. If you are a young player in middle school or high school quantity, quantity, quantity is the key. Young players can never do too much ball handling or get enough shots up. Repetition at this age is what is most important even at the cost of technique. They say it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill so you might as well put in the time while you are young. Once you have progressed past a certain point I am a big believer in quality. I would much rather be in the gym for 30 minutes and work with a high level or urgency versus be in the gym for 1 hour at a lower intensity and possibly get more shots. To me being in the gym is preparing for games; games are fast, intense, and demanding. So individuals should be the same. If you are taking water breaks all the time you are no longer maximizing your time in the gym and no longer training the mind of a basketball player. That being said there are times when you need to go half speed in order to teach proper foot work, mechanics, etc. but that does not mean you are no longer intense or with a lower state of focus.

This brings me to practice planning, if you want your players to be focused and you want to be able to push their limits you must have a detailed plan for your individual. You should be going from drill to drill with any accessories you may need such as cones, pads, etc. and never skip a beat. You never want a player to think you are making stuff up or just winging it because then it’s no longer an individual.

Individuals are great opportunities to not just develop a skill set but to build self-confidence and mental toughness. Give players drills that you know they will struggle with and allow them to fail initially. Creating opportunities for players to compete with themselves is great especially when season is months away. When they reach a goal that they first felt was unreachable it can be a very powerful thing psychologically. Make sure you plan it out well and that any challenges you do provide are reachable but not without a great deal of work.

One of the things you must do as a coach is always be looking for new ways to teach the same things. Find new ways to do a ball handling drill, passing drills, or shooting drills. The learning plateau is very real when it comes to skill development, especially when dealing with over achievers or kids with high skill sets. Do not let your individuals become boring, your players should always look forward to learning new drills or receiving a new challenge from a coach. Do not hesitate to make up drills; some of the best drills I use have been made up minutes after finishing an individual. That’s when my mind seems to want to create, the rest of the time it stays dormant.

Finally, watch film with players especially the really good ones. In my experience the really good ones need it because they don’t ever think it was their fault or that they have a deficiency until they see it on film. During the off season I like to show film of other players like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker for point guards. Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Roy Hibbert for post players. Showing them a move or technique before going in the gym can really help some players. It’s difficult for some players to visualize certain moves, especially in the post so this helps the learning process. During the season, I really focus on film of the actual player. Some of the best film and teaching can be done breaking down film of the 30 practices before games start. There is so much to learn from a player’s perspective that you can almost never watch enough. I am also a former video coordinator so please keep that in mind, I am a big believer in film and learning from it. Film is a great tool to reinforce certain things without ever saying a word. If you want your player to sprint back in transition just show them film of them jogging back with their man over and over and over again. No need for commentary just let them watch, when the film is over let them assess what they saw. The other side of that is even more powerful, show a player diving for loose balls and reinforce that and I promise that habit will continue. Once season is over make highlight videos of your players showing them all the great things they did. Who doesn’t like to see themselves doing great things on the court! If serves two purposes, one player’s genuinely appreciate the fact you took the time to make this for them. I promise they will go home and watch a million times and if they are guys they will show it to anyone that ever enters their room or apartment! Secondly, it’s a carrot to keep working during the off season and improve for the following year which is really what it’s all about. Get better every day so you can do things you have never done.

As an assistant at the University of Tulsa Britney Brown and I created this video for our guards to use during the summer while they were at home in order to keep their skills sharp. There are numerous drills in this video for every stage of player development.

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1 comment for “Keys to Player Development

  1. February 15, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Helpful article – thank you. Periodically I’m asked by players for a skill self-assessment list/tool: do you have any suggestions?

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