This article was written by Russ Willemsen
We all expect our teams to play at game speed and compete every possession in practice. We want our intensity in practice to be up where we know it needs to be to get better and to win games. One of the biggest questions I am asked by other basketball coaches is, “What do you do to make practice more intense?”
In my opinion, intensity and work ethic are skills that can be improved, just like shooting or ball handling. Yes, there are those occasional student-athletes who do not respond, but I have learned a few things that can help make a practice more intense.
Some of these strategies we use at Tennessee Tech, and some I have seen used at other schools. In both situations, a coach is the catalyst to making practice more intense.
The number one way to help make practice more intense is improved communication. Teams that communicate trust each other, and teammates that trust each other will play hard for each other.
Kevin Eastman with the Boston Celtics said that communication does these six things for their team:
- Intimidates the other team's offense
- Gives you a head start at whatever your next movement is (i.e. fighting a screen; early communication allows you to start fighting through a screen before the screener makes contact)
- Man guarding the ball has much more confidence
- Wakes up a disengaged defense
- Catches mistakes before they are made
- Energizes the team (our best practice are our loudest practice)
This includes demanding that your players become coaches from the sideline. For instance, if your team is working on a standard shell drill, have the players waiting in line communicate to the player on defense.
One of the biggest questions I get from our guys on communication is, “What do you want me to say?” Assign them specific roles and a vocabulary to use, and hold them accountable to that. The players in the lines will grasp the concept sooner, if they are coaching those in front of them.
Using a variety of basketball drills can also help make practice more intense. Players get bored doing the same drills; sometimes making one little adjustment to a drill can help ignite that segment of practice. For instance, say your team does three-man weave every day for three minutes. The next time you do that drill, give them a goal of made lay ups without a miss. This will help to keep them focused and also promote accountability within your team.
Competition instinctively promotes an intense practice. Like Herm Edwards said, “we play to win the game.” Every drill should have a winner and a loser including a consequence for the losing team. We started this at Tennessee Tech and it’s amazing how much harder kids will play when something is at stake.
However, the consequence must mean something. For instance, losing a drill and running a down and back will not really affect players. On the other hand, losing and running a timed suicide is much more difficult. The suicide is harder and only takes roughly 30 seconds, so it does not cut into practice time.
When practice does seem to lag or become dull, have a “go-to” drill to run. Most teams have a play that they run when they know they need a bucket. Practice should be the same way. Implement a drill that you know can help your team get back on track when practice seems monotonous.
When I coached at Lee University, we had two clocks set up for practice. One had the total time left in practice and one had the total time left in that drill. One positive our team gained from this was knowing exactly how long they had to practice. They were intense for that specific amount of time. There are pros and cons to this idea, but it is an alternative method to help keep practice intense.
The final way to facilitate a more intense practice falls on the shoulders of the coaches. Basketball coaches themselves play a role in keeping practice intense. Not only is it a coach’s responsibility to strategically plan out a practice that promotes all of the stated techniques but also to be intense themselves. Players love when coaches sweat with them. How can a player not give their all when their coach is?
I firmly believe that teams take on the personality of their head coach. If you want more intense practice, learn to become more intense during practice. These ideas are a collaboration of many people’s beliefs. Again, some of these we implement at Tennessee Tech and others we do not.
A coach must still teach and coach to his personality, but I hope that these ideas are helpful.