There is an ongoing discussion about the efficacy of audio cues in the coaching community—and for good reason. We don’t react to a coach saying “left” or “right” in a game, so there isn’t much direct transfer.
At the end of the day, what separates elite athletes in invasion sports like basketball is the ability to pick up on patterns in the defense, spacing, and more, and pair that with a sport-specific action (Mann et al., 2007). In simpler language, they read the defense with expertise—accurately and swiftly. Do we get that from audio cues? Nope. We get it from playing against real humans, playing game-like defense. So, the ideal means of training is against real defense. But as coaches, we know that training is not always ideal…
If you’re a coach playing defense in an individual workout setting, it turns into a workout very quickly. And frankly, by that fourth or fifth workout of the day, it absolutely sucks. This style isn’t scalable at all. Plus, let’s say you’re a high school player working out with your teammate. At times, we need repetitions without it being fully competitive, so 1-on-1 isn’t the best option.
One thing I’ve noticed is that players, almost without exception, suck at playing fake defense or providing their workout partner with these accurate visual/perceptual cues. It’s either full-out defense, or lazy defense that probably doesn’t mimic a real defender much more than an audio cue. High school kids are not masters in the art of coaching, so we have to arm them with more simple techniques to use if there isn’t a coach present.
At the end of the day, we’re aiming to breed adaptable athletes. So, there is something to be said about incorporating ways that force players to react, adapt, and effectively complete a task in a split second — even if it’s not necessarily the gold standard of relevant information (defense). I will do anything to avoid monotonous, pre-planned repetitions, and implementing a simple audio cue is certain to demand your players’ attention more than them premeditating the next rep. I am not aware of any studies on the matter, but I’d venture to say that cognitive activity is notably higher when athletes are required to respond and adjust in response to a cue, opposed to them going through the motions of the next premeditated rep. And the more attention we can grab from our players, the better results we will get.
Think of it this way: as coaches, we should constantly be scouting for methods to provide players with problems to solve. The better players get at solving these problems precisely and within slim time constraints, the more their training will apply. This is the quality we’re targeting here
Another option is using these audio cues as a means to teach deception. In The Best, Dr. Mark Williams shares a story about tennis player Pete Sampras’ junior coach applying just this. Most tennis players will give up the direction of their serve based on how they toss the ball in the air. In Sampras’ practice, his coach would shout the direction of the serve after the ball was in the air, so that each direction of serve would look identical until just before striking the ball with the racket. This can undoubtedly be applied to basketball, and some players I have worked have really had things click through this method. For instance, I’ve spent plenty of time attempting to get players’ pull-ups look more like their drives to the bucket, up until the last second. “Drop that shoulder!” “Forward lean, then pop up into the air!” To many, these explicit just instructions don’t work. Instead, what I’ll do is tell a player to drive to the bucket as hard as they possibly can. If I don’t say anything, simply finish in as little time as possible. If I say “shot,” you raise up as quickly as possible into the pull-up. On literally the first rep with the audio cue, most players are selling the drive on their pull-up perfectly.
The other key here is that there is no grey area. If we did the same drill with visual context (“If I play up on you, drive. If I retreat, shoot”), a player could get away with saying, “well, I couldn’t tell if you wanted me to shoot or drive.” I couldn’t argue with that, because every read is different. But they can’t get away with saying “I didn’t hear you say anything” because I’d tell them they are deaf. Of course we can progress to the perceptual or visual cues, but this is a fantastic starting point. Which leads me into my last point:
This can be used as a means of progression. If a player has just recently picked up on a technique that simply does not come naturally to them, throwing them into live defense could put them into the “trash zone,” where they’re failing too much to gain anything from it because they’re failing over 50% of their reps. Here, using audio cues may serve as a way to foster some adaptability without throwing them in the fire just yet. We definitely want to progress from this as quickly as possible, and “fake” or low intensity defense may serve this purpose too — but the use of audio cues is undoubtedly a viable option here.
Now, despite all this, audio cues are by no means the primary means a coach should use. Especially if real defense is available, I’d opt for that much more often than the audio cue, simply because there is more direct transfer. Or maybe, adding in an audio cue as an extra constraint, for example calling out “paint” or “mid range” as players are playing 1-on-1 to dictate where they can shoot the ball. Continuing to add on layers of complexity.
If you’re still not convinced, use a few audio cues with your players and watch the difficulty level spike. Notice more mistakes being made. A bit more frustration. Of course, blindly pursuing difficulty is not going to improve transfer to the court, but challenging an athlete’s ability to adapt will. And while training to read the defense is absolutely vital (as well as something I preach probably far too often), we’ve got to have more tools in the toolbox. This is one of them.
Check out a few of my favorite audio cue examples here.