Albert Einstein once said “play is the highest form of research.”
With young hoopers playing upwards of three games per weekend during the summer, you hear it all the time: “players play too many games.” I’ll make an adjustment to that: players play too many organized games.
Let’s think about the nature of the typical AAU or high school game (or club if you’re in Europe). There are 10 players on the court, so you get the ball about 10% of the time you’re in the game. So even if you play the whole game, you touch the ball for about three minutes over the course of an hour-long game, and play on-ball defense for the same amount.
Maybe even more importantly, players are inherently placed in a bit of a box. They’re playing for exposure, so do you think they’ll ever purposefully get out of their comfort zone or try anything new? Hell no. They’re resorting to what’s comfortable for them. And when we think about what actually drives improvement in a skill, it’s not constantly resorting to what one thinks will help them succeed. It’s getting slightly outside of the comfort zone. Trying new things. Messing up. Which is the opposite of what is needed for these type of games.
Of course players need organized game experience, as well as the exposure and relationships that come out of travel ball. But there needs to be a balance, and sometimes that means less training (yes, I said it).
Now let’s flip it and talk about why unorganized play is so valuable. There’s a ton of research in soccer (football) players who have racked up hours upon hours of street ball that display how vital it can be in an elite athlete’s development. We’ll expand on these stats more in future videos, but for example, according to Dr. Mark Williams in “The Best,” World Cup winners in Germany had significantly less structured play as a kid, but more unstructured play. Brazilian pro players were also documented to have spent an average of 8-10 hours a week participating in pickup games. This stuff helps.
Such unstructured play can be anything from 1-on-1 to 5-on-5, but most times, you’re getting more time on the ball. If you play 1-on-1 or even 3-on-3, you’re touching the ball a TON, and it’s in a way in which spacing is emphasized. You’re always engaged. You get a ton of repetition (and to me, this is the best type of repetition, since every “rep” is different). And what else? You’re not afraid to make mistakes.
Of course you still maintain that desire to win, but you’ll pull new stuff out of the bag, try moves you haven’t before, and play with that free-flowing mindset. This process helps bridge the gap between training and real games, too.
This also allows players to figure out what works best for them, rather than be taught what works best in the mind of a coach. We often get too obsessed with a “perfect” technical model, when in reality players take a ton of different routes to accomplish the same things on the court. This allows players to learn on their own (implicitly), and decide what works beat for them without a coach boxing them in: a process that is far more valuable for long-term improvement.
Plus, when these players do eventually reach the structured environments, they have more to gain than players who have been receiving in-depth coaching their whole life. When you are taught the fundamentals from elementary school, you’re almost maxed out in that regard by the time you reach high school age. This is one reason why many of the “top-ranked players” in elementary and middle school have no correlation with the ones that go pro. Development is in no way a linear process, and most times, the players with the most success are ones who played a LOT as a kid, and then received targeted technical and tactical coaching later on.
Again, this is something we’ll really dive into in the future, but I wanted to give an introduction to the concept. If we’re looking to build adaptable, intelligent players with potential, we’ll have them play more by themselves. This can be done through encouraging pick-up games, implementing small-sided games into training, and more. Stay tuned.