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Ways to shape players' skills

By American Sport Education Program (ASEP)

One of your principal teaching duties is to reward positive effort or behavior—in terms of successful skill execution—when you see it. A player makes a good pass in practice, and you immediately say, “That’s the way to extend! Good follow-through!” This, plus a smile and a “thumbs-up” gesture, go a long way toward reinforcing that technique in that player. However, sometimes you may have a long dry spell before you see correct techniques to reinforce. It’s difficult to reward players when they don’t execute skills correctly. How can you shape their skills if this is the case?

Shaping skills takes practice on your players’ part and patience on yours. Expect your players to make errors. Telling the player who made the great pass that she did a good job doesn’t ensure that she’ll have the same success next time. Seeing inconsistency in your players’ technique can be frustrating. It’s even more challenging to stay positive when your players repeatedly perform a skill incorrectly or have a lack of enthusiasm for learning. It can certainly be frustrating to see players who seemingly don’t heed your advice and continue to make the same mistakes.

Although it is normal to get frustrated sometimes when teaching skills, part of successful coaching is controlling this frustration. Instead of getting upset, use these six guidelines for shaping skills:

  1. Think small initially.
    Reward the first signs of behavior that approximate what you want. Then reward closer and closer approximations of the desired behavior. In short, use your reward power to shape the behavior you seek.
  2. Break skills into small steps.
    For instance, in learning to dribble, one of your players does well in keeping the ball close to his body, but he’s bouncing the ball too high and doesn’t effectively shield it from defenders. Reinforce the correct technique of keeping the ball close, and teach him how to dribble at knee level. Once he masters this, you can focus on getting him to shield the ball from defenders.
  3. Develop one component of a skill at a time.
    Don’t try to shape two components of a skill at once. For example, in rebounding, players must first block their opponents out, then go for the ball. Players should focus first on one aspect (blocking out by putting their back against their opponent’s chest and creating a wide base), then on the other (putting their hands up and going for the ball). Players who have problems mastering a skill often do so because they’re trying to improve two or more components at once. You should help these players to isolate a single component.
  4. Use reinforcement only occasionally, for the best examples.
    By focusing only on the best examples, you will help players continue to improve once they’ve mastered the basics. Using occasional reinforcement during practice allows players to have more contact time with the ball rather than having to constantly stop and listen to the coach. Basketball skills are best learned through a lot of repetition, such as drills, and the coach needs to make the best use of team practice time by allowing the players as much time with the ball as possible.
  5. Relax your reward standards.
    As players focus on mastering a new skill or attempt to integrate it with other skills, their old, well-learned skills may temporarily degenerate, and you may need to relax your expectations. For example, a player has learned how to shoot the ball and is now learning how to combine that skill with the dribble. While learning to combine the two skills and getting the timing down, the player’s shooting may be poor. A similar degeneration of ball skills may occur during growth spurts while the coordination of muscles, tendons, and ligaments catches up to the growth of bones.
  6. Go back to the basics.
    If, however, a well-learned skill degenerates for long, you may need to restore it by going back to the basics. For example, you may need to go back to the “BEEF” method of shooting technique to help restore the player’s skill.

This is an excerpt from Coaching Youth Basketball, Fourth Edition.

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