Canadian Coach Mike Mackay asks how do you build intensity while learning new skills


Building intensity while learning a new skill


I remember when I first started out in coaching attending a Nike Basketball clinic in Springfield, Massachusetts. One of the presenting coaches brought up the idea of peer pressure punishment as away to solve all of your intensity problems in practice.The basis theory behind the idea was that whenever someone made a mistake the entire team would run. If one player was late the entire team was punished. If people were not working to the coach’s standard, everyone ran. By using the power of peer pressure you built a team that would constantly push each other and police their own behavior. I remember my former football coach using this selectively at Acadia University in the late 1970’s. He used it with university aged males who at times were lacking effort and responsibility. He never used it to teach a new skill. Being young I tried it with my team, but soon realized it did not create the desired effect. Used too much it created fearful players who played not to make mistakes. It took a student in my leadership class to teach me why. We were discussing various ways coaches can make players compete harder in practice. She related a story about playing for the NS provincial volleyball team. The coach was trying to introduce for the first time a new type of spike that none of the players had seen before. Being a smart coach he introduced it on air and gave the players plenty of reps to get a feel for the new skill. They then went to a competition where he wanted the players to apply the new skills. The teams played three on three volleyball. His final words were;”the losers will have to do lines.” Lines were a grueling punishment consisting of diving and getting back up quickly at various lines on the floor. No one liked to do this drill. In the three on three games no team used the new skill. When it was over and the losers finished the lines the coach asked why no team had tried the new skill. The answer was obvious; they did not want to lose and have to face the punishment. Stay with what you know when faced with pressure.

As a coach we must understand where are players are in the learning curve of a new skill. In the introduction or initiation stage you cannot force intensity. Players need to learn to wobble. They need to practice at a pace that makes sense to them. They are experimenting with the feel of the skill. Can you imagine teaching a young child to walk by peer pressure punishment? Every time the child falls all of his brothers or sisters have to do lines. Yelling at the child to walk faster does not speed the learning. We do the exact opposite, we praise the child for his/her effort and give them lot of practice at his/her own pace.

Jumping too quickly into competition is another way that we slow the learning process. If a player has not developed confidence with a skill in a paced supportive atmosphere he/she will not use the skill when faced with pressure of a game. If I am not confident dribbling with my left hand I will not dribble with my left hand when faced with pressure defense in a game. This leads to a problem for many coaches. How do I get my players to execute a skill at a higher intensity level, especially when no one on my team can create that intensity?

I see this problem quite often when working with players just entering the T2T stage. Coming from L2T where playing time is regulated by rule and there is not full court pick up, these players are often not prepared for an aggressive defensive player. Also the speed and contact of the game increases as they move up a level.
At this age you often find that players are more comfortable working with the same friend in drills. As coach you must be alert to break up and forming the groupings that will give the desired intensity in the drill. This is also a life skill of learning to work with other.

As in any learning situation self-awareness is the first point of learning. Players need to recognize what intensity looks like. Coaches need to be able to model what the various stages of intensity look like with each skill. This is easier when you have someone on the team who can do this, If not what does a coach do?

The coach can model


  1. Demonstrate just a part of the skill. As a coach I can no longer play full court one on one defence, but I can demonstrate in slow motion the one thing I want the players to improve on.
  2. Demonstrate without the ball. When modelling offensive skills the coach often loses credibility when he/she loses control of the ball or the shot does not go in. By doing the demonstration without the ball the coach places the focus on the speed and correct movement. You never miss the shot or turn the ball over. It is like an air guitar!
    The downside to the coach demonstrating intensity is that younger players do not always see a demonstration by an adult in the same light as someone their own size and age. It is sometimes hard to relate.
  3. Show a video. The problem here is that it is often not someone of their age and gender demonstrating the skill. Also, for the kinestic learning, those who need to feel the activity, it does not help them.
  4. Bring in other who can demonstrate. This could be:
    Previous players from your program, players from another team. This is a great opportunity to share. It also can also show your players how others work harder in drills. Be careful not to rub it in. Boys to practice with girls. Most successful NCAA programs have a boys team that trains with the players.

What follows are some ideas a coach can use to helping player’s progress to becoming a more confident aggressive player.


Make sure it is something they can achieve


  1. Can they physically do the skill? Remember if it is a new skill players need time to wobble.
  2. Do they mentally understand the skill? If there is any hesitation in doing a drill or skill they will not be able to do the activity with intensity. This often happens when we make drills to complex. The first thing the players will want to know is the rotation or patterns in the drill.
  3. Are they in a social/emotional state right now to handle the intensity level? If a player does not feel safe they will not go hard. If there is a problem outside of basketball that is weighing on their mind they will not be able to go hard. The coach must help the player deal with these before increasing the intensity.
  4. If the answer is no to anyone of these question, the coach must address the issue.


It starts by defining intensity


Players need to be able to clearly understand what intensity looks like, sounds like and feel like. Mark Walton, with the NEDA girls, last year was great at stooping the girls after a grueling drill and telling the players that they were now seeing, feeling and hearing the sound of success. (They could feel their heart rates and the fatigue in the legs, they could see each other breathing hard and they could hear the sound of heavy breathing.) He wanted them to understand that this was the proper intensity that they had to practice.

Stopping players and telling them that they are doing things right is just as important as pointing out mistakes. I remember practicing with my Canada Games team in a hot sticky gym in Halifax in the middle of the summer, just before we left for Saskatoon. They were expecting me to give them a blast for something they were doing wrong. I paused for a long time and then said., “I have never seen a group of players work so hard and concentrate on all the right things under such adverse conditions, We are ready, Practice is done.” They were floored, but also proud. They carried that confidence into our play at the tournament. We could always relate back to that practice as to the intensity we knew we could strive for, it was our benchmark.

I.C.E. check – I have mentioned on numerous occasions the importance of I.C.E.
The ‘I’ stands for intensity, ‘C’ stands for concentration and ‘E’ stands for enthusiasm or energy. An I.C.E. check occurs when a coach stops the players in a drill and asks them to self-evaluate where the intensity is right now. If they agree it is too low you now ask them what action they can take to get the intensity to the desired level. The coach’s job now becomes ensuring that the players keep their commitment to their commitment. If the players With T2C athletes and higher I do not think there is anything wrong with working on conditioning if players have not kept their commitment to their commitment of intensity after you have done an I.C. E. check.

Stance and pivot – I cannot express enough the importance of a good stance and proper pivoting in being able to play against strong and aggressive defence. Some of this will be a core and leg strength issue. Also, it is easier to stay extended (straight legs and arms) than to play compact. You need to work on having players get use to this compact stance. The players need to recognize when they are in or out of stance. Make it a challenge! See if they cannot beat their own person record for staying in stance. It is something you can ask them to do at home. Get in front of a big mirror and see if you are in stance.

The second key is being able to pivot while staying in stance. A major problem is how players are taught to pivot. They actually step rather than pivot.
An analogy that Coach Renato Pasquali uses is that of a skier. When descending the hill, the skier initiates a turn by twisting the hips rather than stepping with the feet.

The same is true in pivoting. The movement is initiated by twisting the hips. I actually get players to do the old dance “the twist” at first. Once the hips are twisting then the feet follow. By twisting the hips stay on the same plane and the knee and foot are aligned. When players step the hips raise up, the twist now occurs at the toot, This causes a torque at the knee. This often puts the player in an unbalanced position. Adding contact or repeated poor technique can lead to injury.

Pushing players out of their comfort zone – great coaches and teachers prepare players for the best players and the highest level of competition they will see in a season. This pushing is progressive over the year. Let’s use teaching math as an analogy. When a student enters school in September the teacher does not start with the skills and concepts that will be done on the June exam. The teacher will usually start with a review, making sure the students are up to speed. He/she will then progress the students throughout the entire year. The same is true in coaching developmental teams. You cannot start with everything you want to do at the final game of the season. You must slowly build up all of the pieces that make up that performance. Too often in youth sport we expect players to be at the June level in September.

Grizzly bear stare – One technique I have used is called the grizzly bear stare. I found this in a book called Beyond the Absolute Limit with Basketball Cybernetics by Stan Kellner. It starts off with the players facing each other like a grizzly bear. The players growl and groan trying to make the other player laugh or brake eye contact. It is about pushing out of comfort zones. Next the players perform the stare while dribbling. Finally have one player perform a skill while the defender is staring the player down. This helps young players get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

We also have to make sure players feel comfortable with using both sides of their body. Using both feet and both hands is very important in skill development. Players also have to be gradually introduced to contact. Start by having someone close. Then the players run near them, finally adding little controlled bumps and pushes. As they reach the highest level of confidence we want to use controlled contact that is greater than what they would see in the real competition.

Count the number of dribbles or steps. By progressively having the players reduce the number of steps or dribbles you can increase the speed at which the player moves.

Games approach

By adapting the rules, number of players, court size and scoring a coach can manipulate the intensity of a drill or activity:

  1. Change the rules – change the rules on passing and dribbling.
  2. Number of player – adding one extra defender can increase the defensive pressure placed on the offence; 1 vs. 2 dribbling, 5 on 4 or 6 on 5 press break.
  3. Court size – by reducing the size in which a small sided competition or drill is played, the intensity is increased. Playing 3 on 3 keep away in the ½ court is easy for the offence. Playing 3 on 3 keep away in the key is difficult.
  4. Scoring – reward the defence for being assertive. Call violation on the offence when they do not handle pressure. On the catch if the player put the ball above his/her head in an extended stance it is a violation.