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Skill Acquisition

The advice of a suitably qualified person should be sought before anyone uses or relies upon the information contained in this chapter. The chapter offers general information only and is not specific to any individual or team.

The content may require a certain level of skill and expertise, and may need to be adapted and/or modified to suit the needs of different individuals and different teams. The content may not be suitable for all individuals.

Neither the author, nor FIBA, accepts any liability or responsibility for any loss, damage, injury, illness or otherwise caused by the use of, or reliance upon, the information in this publication, including instances where the information contains errors or omissions.

Key Principles of Skill Acquisition

The highly dynamic and fast-paced nature of the sport of basketball requires competitors to be able to perform a range of different skills. This section provides an overview of some of the key principles from the discipline of skill acquisition that can be used to guide the design and implementation of practice sessions to help facilitate skill learning and performance.

It is important to acknowledge that the content within this section may require a certain level of skill and expertise and may not be suitable for all individuals. The content may need to be adapted and/or modified to suit the needs of different individuals and different teams.

Stages of Skill Acquisition

There are various stages through which performers will progress as they increase in skill level.1 Outlined below is a summary of some of the main components that are included in Newell’s2 model of motor learning (see also3,4).

The first stage: Coordination

During the first stage of skill acquisition, the learner typically attempts to explore a range of different methods for achieving a particular outcome.2-4 As a result, this stage is often characterised by frequent changes from one movement pattern to another.2-6

For example, when first attempting to execute a basketball shot, beginner players may initiate their shot from around waist height during their early attempts, but suddenly transition towards an overhead shot when competing against a defender (see 3,7,8).

This exploratory process is believed to be important for allowing the formation of a movement pattern that is most suited to the individual.3,9 That is, the learner’s previous experiences and current movement capabilities will tend to influence the way in which the pattern is formed.3,10

The role of the coach is therefore important in helping to shape the learning environment in such a way as to allow the learner to (safely) experience a broad array of situations9,11 (see also the section in this chapter on exploration and self-organisation), rather than restricting the search process by teaching players to use a predetermined or idealised technique that assumes all players are identical.7,12

The use of highly prescriptive technical instructions may restrict the search process, encouraging the learner to explore only a narrow subset of possible movement patterns.7,12

The second stage: Control

In the second stage of skill learning, the individual has typically acquired the underlying movement patterns and is now attempting to learn how to adjust those patterns to better suit changes that occur within the environment.2,4 In essence, learners attempt to adapt their movements to accommodate for the diversity of situations that may occur during different situations in games and practice sessions.3

For example, basketball players at the control stage may learn to successfully adjust the speed and force of a pass so that it can be accurately delivered to team-mates positioned at different distances.2,4 Players may also learn to recognise certain cues within the environment, such as the proximity of a defender, allowing them to adjust their movement accordingly.2,13,14

It is therefore important to use practice tasks that resemble the demands of competition so that players learn to recognise and understand the key sources of information that exist in the typical competitive environment.11,15,16

The final stage: Skill

The skills of experts are often described as being energy efficient, highly consistent, and extremely adaptable.2-4,17 In the dynamic environment of basketball, adaptability is likely to be a particularly important quality because it can allow a player to adjust to a vast array of different game situations.4,10,16,18

For instance, a basketball player who can maintain shooting accuracy under varying intensities of defensive pressure is likely to be better able to cope with the demands of most game scenarios, including those experienced in higher level competitions.7,10

Research has highlighted many other qualities that provide experienced players with a distinct advantage over their less skilled counterparts (e.g., see19). For example, the use of visual-perceptual information (i.e., information that the player sees) may be an important quality that allows an expert player to predict the play.20-24

By recognising critical cues such as the locations of certain team-mates or the foot position of an immediate defender, the experienced player is able to accurately determine the best possible course of action.14,25,26 Many of these cues may be quite subtle27 and it is likely that repeated exposure to the cues is required before the performer can fully appreciate their meaning.28 These factors highlight the importance of using appropriate practice tasks that contain opportunities for players to experience the types of variables that may be encountered during games.16,29

Another prominent quality of expert performance is related to the use of what are typically termed “situational probabilities”.29 Based upon prior knowledge of a particular team or individual player, experienced performers are better able to predict the likelihood of certain events30 (see also29,31).

This knowledge is often acquired during previous games against a certain team, or after competing against a specific player.29 These situational probabilities typically form the basis for team scouting meetings where players are given information on an upcoming opponent, often using edited video clips showing specific patterns of play.29

However, this information could also be delivered within carefully designed on-court sessions where practice activities are structured in such a way as to allow players to gain first-hand knowledge of the likely scenarios they will experience against a particular team29 (see also32). Given that expertise takes many years and many hours of dedicated practice,33,34 the judicious use of carefully designed practice tasks may help to optimise the benefits gained from skill practice sessions.3,12,32

Designing Suitable Activities to Enhance Skill

There are many factors that should be considered in the design and implementation of skill practice sessions. The following section is aimed at providing an underpinning philosophical approach towards skill acquisition that can assist in the formulation of an appropriate practice environment. Thus, rather than providing an extensive repertoire of prescriptive drills, the following section is intended to provide coaches with the necessary tools to be able to create and refine their own activities, specifically tailored to the needs of their team.

Exploration and self-organisation

As described earlier, the initial phase of skill acquisition is often characterised by an exploratory process whereby beginners attempt to explore a variety of different movement patterns4 (see also2). Although this process is often associated with beginners, exploration can be beneficial for all skill levels, including experts competing at the highest level.3,4,16

It is therefore important for players to be given opportunities to safely search through a broad range of movement variations, allowing them to find and refine movement patterns that best suit their capabilities, as well as providing opportunities to learn when and how those patterns should be adapted.4,7,10,11,16

The notion of self-organisation is a critical part of the exploratory process because it suggests that learners are largely responsible for finding their own solutions, without constant direction from an external source such as a coach.3,35 Practice activities that are excessively constrained or overly directed may restrict the search process and discourage players from finding optimal and adaptable movement patterns.4,12

In the opposite extreme, practice activities that are completely random and/or excessively unstructured may be unsafe, and may also require large amounts of time before players find suitable solutions.4 For these reasons, the role of the coach is critical in helping to design safe and appropriate practice tasks that guide players towards optimal movement patterns.4,16

The relationship between perceiving and doing (perception-action coupling)

The relationship between perceiving and doing (termed the “perception-action coupling”) demonstrates that what a person perceives (via senses such as vision, hearing, and touch) will influence what that person does, and what a person does will influence what that person perceives.16,36

For instance, a basketball player standing on the 3-point line with the ball may use visual information to identify an open passing lane before delivering the pass.16,36 In this situation, what the person perceived (an open passing lane) influenced the nature of the movement (the type and location of the pass).16,36

Alternatively, if the perimeter player dribbles towards the baseline, the player may see a different passing lane.16,36 Here, the player’s movement (dribbling towards the baseline) influenced the type of information that was perceived (a different passing lane).16,36

The coordination patterns exhibited when performing tasks that diminish or remove the relationship between perceiving and doing, often tend to be quite different to those that occur when the same tasks are performed in their natural state37,38 (see also39).

For example, when the defender is removed from a basketball shooting task, certain aspects of the shooter’s action start to change, such as the release angle of the ball, compared to when the defender is present8 (see also40).

Similarly, the common approach of breaking down a skill into smaller parts (such as learning to shoot a basketball by practicing the load phase in the absence of the extension and release phases) may alter many of the movement characteristics that are important for performance.15,16,41,42

While in some instances these changes may be relatively subtle, even small alterations to the coordination pattern in practice tasks may influence the extent to which the skill transfers into a game environment.8,15,16,41

It is therefore important for coaches to utilise a practice strategy that maintains the critical links between perception and action.43,44 A useful approach for applying this strategy, while simultaneously reducing the complexity of a given task to make it easier for players to perform, is to use the concept of “task simplification”.3,16,43,45

As the name suggests, this strategy involves either simplifying the skill itself, simplifying the environment in which the skill is performed, or a combination of both.16,43

Typical approaches towards task simplification often involve reducing player numbers, constraining the roles of certain players, or changing the size of the playing area.16,46 For example, rather than practicing completely uncontested shots, players could be asked to shoot against a defender who, depending upon the skill level of the shooter, could simply stand still with a hand raised into the air for the shooter to avoid, or for more skilled shooters, could advance towards the shooter from a specified distance to defend the shot.8,16,47

To teach offensive decision-making to inexperienced players, practice games could be simplified by including a greater number of attackers than defenders, thereby allowing players to execute their skills with reduced defensive pressure.16,48,49 An alternative approach could be to constrain the movements of certain players by creating a rule that only permits the defensive team to have two players inside the key at any one time.43,48,49

The important point is that wherever appropriate, practice activities should be designed to allow players to learn the critical links between perception and action, rather than breaking a skill into parts or removing important information sources such as defenders.8,15,16,41,43 The ultimate aim is to help ensure that the skills acquired in practice sessions will transfer readily to a game situation.15,16,50


One way to promote skill acquisition is to use increased levels of variability in practice.7,51 In this context, variability may simply be considered as the number of variations and changes that occur within a given practice activity or practice environment52 (see also51). Practice activities that are low in variability tend to be very stable, highly predictable, and often quite repetitive in nature.52

This creates a practice environment that is not only considerably different to that of a typical basketball game, but it is also likely to result in situations where there is very little impetus for players to explore or adapt their skills.18,53

Conversely, practice activities that are high in variability tend to be considerably less predictable and include more frequent changes.52 In highly variable practice tasks, performers must continually adapt their skills to cope with the constant changes.18

Research evidence has revealed a phenomenon referred to as “functional variability” which basically refers to the capability of highly skilled performers to make ongoing changes to a movement as it unfolds, allowing the desired outcome of the skill to be achieved with greater consistency.16,54

In this instance, the variability within the movement allows the performer to adjust the execution of the skill as required.54 In the absence of functional variability, players would be likely to experience greater difficulty in adapting to changes in the environment, thereby leading to inconsistent (and probably inaccurate) outcomes.16,54,55 This suggests that practice sessions should provide opportunities for players to learn how to adapt their movements to cope with the subtle changes that exist in the competitive setting.3,7,8,55

Variability can be implemented in a number of ways but the common approaches include varying the organisation of the repetitions of the skill itself or varying the environment in which the skill is performed.1,7,11,16

For example, if the goal of a given practice activity is to enhance the skills of shooting, dribbling, and passing, all three skills could be organised to occur in a highly variable manner by frequently changing between the three tasks (this is also an example of what is commonly referred to as “random practice”).1,56,57 The other approach is to vary the performance environment.11

For example, rather than having players shoot uncontested lay-ups, the coach could elect to include a defender within the activity so that the variable movements of the defender will act to increase the variability of the activity (as well as maintain the links between perception and action to improve the likelihood of transfer to a game context).8,13,16,58 For inexperienced players, the defender could be replaced by the coach who simply stands inside the key to provide a “static” stimulus for
players to evade.7,11,47

The use of variable environments in practice games may also prove to be a useful strategy for promoting the development of creativity.16,43 The increased variability may encourage players to search for a wider range of decision-making options, thus promoting more creative solutions.59

Research has shown that while a variable approach may result in reduced performance gains in the short-term, there are likely to be long-term gains to learning.57,60,61 In contrast, practice activities that are low in variability, such as drills where players simply repeat the same solution over and over again with minimal changes (commonly referred to as “blocked practice”), may often result in better performance gains initially, but are less likely to provide long-term benefits that transfer into game situations.1,57,60,61

However, low variability activities may still represent an important practice activity62,63 (see also7). For example, beginners who are attempting a skill for the first time may require more predictable and stable practice activities so that they can achieve a basic understanding of the skill without being overwhelmed.7,47,57,62,64 The early gains achieved by low variability activities may also help players to increase their confidence, encouraging them to continue with the task.12,65

Once a certain degree of proficiency has been achieved, the amount of variability can be progressively increased so that the player can benefit from the enhanced learning that typically occurs with higher levels of variable practice.7,47,57,62,63

“Challenge point” framework

One of the approaches that can be used to guide the design and implementation of practice activities is to use the challenge point framework outlined by Guadagnoli and Lee.47 The underlying premise of the approach is based upon finding the ideal balance between two factors: the current skill level of the performer and the relative difficulty of a given task.47

The framework suggests that optimal learning is likely to occur when the difficulty of the task is matched to the skill level of the performer.47 A task that is too easy or too difficult may be less beneficial for learning compared to a task that offers an optimal balance in terms of its level of challenge for a given individual.47 Thus, to optimise learning, one of the important roles for coaches is to design practice tasks that are ideally suited to the challenge point of the players in their team.7,47,48,66

Evidence suggests that teaching players to use a pre-determined technique may not necessarily provide the best possible outcome for motor skill acquisition.3,12,51,74-77

The challenge point concept also provides a set of guidelines that can be used to help determine the appropriate amount of variability to be used in practice activities47 (see also7).

A performer who is at the beginning stages of the sport may be sufficiently challenged by low levels of variability whereas an Olympic level player may only be sufficiently challenged when exposed to higher levels of variability.7,47

However, if that same Olympic level player is attempting to change an existing technique or learn a new skill, the optimal challenge point may be similar to that of a beginner (e.g., relatively low levels of variability).7,47

While this concept appears to be rather intuitive, research evidence suggests that some coaches may devote a greater proportion of practice time to activities that are less likely to benefit competitive performance50 (see also67).

This information suggests that coaches may be well advised to critically evaluate the content and structure of their practice sessions to determine whether principles such as challenge point could be better utilised.12

Constraints-led coaching approach

The careful manipulation of key constraints can be a versatile strategy that coaches can use to enhance skill acquisition43,46. Essentially, constraints are the features that guide the way in which coordination patterns are performed.3,68 There are three categories of constraints:3,4,68

  • task (e.g., rules, court boundaries, playing equipment)
  • environment (e.g., playing surface, weather conditions), and
  • performer (e.g., emotions, height).3,4,68

In a basketball practice setting, task constraints are arguably the easiest category to manipulate4 in order to encourage certain types of outcomes to emerge in a practice setting.11,46,68

For example, research has shown that simply reducing the mass of the basketball to 440 grams can significantly increase the number of one-on-one situations that occur in a junior basketball game.69

Varying another task constraint, in this instance, the diameter of the ring, has also been shown to influence shooting performance.70,71 When the diameter of the ring was reduced during free throw shooting over a 10-week training program, research showed that players exhibited a significant increase in ball release angle and shooting accuracy compared to a training group who practiced using a normal sized ring.71

Other task constraints could also be varied by manipulating the rules or instructions used in a game.48,58,72 For example, to encourage players to focus greater attention towards possible passing options in a practice activity, a new rule could be introduced that prevents players from dribbling the ball73 (see also48). This simple change to a key task constraint could achieve a number of positive outcomes such as encouraging greater movement of offensive players, increasing the number of off-ball screens, helping to promote greater team-work, and/or reducing the reliance on dribbling.46,73

In a broader sense, the rule change may encourage players to explore different types of offensive and defensive solutions, helping them to find creative ways to achieve successful outcomes.7,16,59

Coaching that caters for individual differences and the demands of competition

Given the numerous variations in physical attributes and prior experiences that exist across each player in a basketball team, it makes sense for players to learn movement patterns that are best suited to their capabilities.3,7,54,74 Evidence suggests that teaching players to use a pre-determined technique may not necessarily provide the best possible outcome for motor skill acquisition.3,12,51,74-77

This does not mean that coaches should avoid helping players to find a certain type of coordination pattern.4,9 The coach’s role is to guide the learner, providing suitable opportunities for players to explore a range of different movement forms so that the acquired movement pattern is optimal for the individual.3,7

An important characteristic of most, if not all techniques in basketball is that the technique holds up under a range of different conditions.10 A “perfect” technique is only of value if it allows a player to consistently achieve a desired outcome in all of the potential situations to which that person is likely to be subjected.3,54,78

For instance, a technique should ideally be able to cope with factors such as high levels of defensive pressure, increased fatigue, heightened anxiety, and variability in game scenarios.10

Anecdotally, one of the common features that can be observed in the shooting technique of inexperienced players is the tendency to adopt a relatively slow shooting action see also8).

In the context of a game, the increased time required to perform a shot may severely restrict a player’s shooting options. While undesired techniques may develop for a range of reasons, it is possible that a slowed shooting action may evolve as a result of performing large amounts of shooting practice in the absence of a defender (see8,50). It is therefore important for coaches to allow players to refine their technique in game-like environments, where appropriate, so that skills can become more robust to the demands of competition.8,10,50

Feedback, Instructions, and Demonstrations

The information provided by coaches can have an extremely powerful influence on performance.79-81 When given correctly, that influence can be highly beneficial; but in other situations, even relatively minor differences in the delivery of information can have a potentially negative impact.79-81

The following section is primarily aimed at providing coaches with a broad overview of the key considerations surrounding the use of feedback, instructions, and demonstrations when coaching basketball players.


In general, it has been suggested that feedback should only be provided when the information is likely to be of use to the performer, and when the information cannot be obtained in some other manner.3 In situations where the coach deems that feedback is appropriate, Magill and Anderson82 suggest that one of the important considerations is to ensure that the feedback is meaningful to the player (see also1,3).

That is, irrespective of the skill level of the players, coaches should determine whether the provision of feedback will be useful in helping players to enhance their performance.82 If the information is somewhat redundant, it may be better for coaches to offer no information at all.3

While this statement is relatively obvious, coaches will have no doubt observed many instances where information provided to players was either completely unnecessary, or it was delivered in a way that made it difficult for the players to understand.

Magill and Anderson82 believe that another important consideration in relation to feedback is the amount of information that is provided. They propose that only one piece of feedback should be provided to the learner to avoid overloading the individual with excessive details82 (see also53,83). The logical question for coaches is how to isolate a single piece of feedback from amongst the vast multitude that could be delivered after the performance of a skill.1,82

The suggestion is for coaches to identify and then prioritise the underlying core components for successful completion of the skill, and use that as the basis for selecting the type of feedback that is provided82,84 (see also53,85).

For a task such as basketball dribbling, the list of core components may include features such as the following:

  1. Ball is able to be controlled while moving at different speeds
  2. Dribbler is able to avoid a defender
  3. Ball is able to be controlled equally proficiently with either hand
  4. Player keeps eyes up while dribbling
  5. Stance is balanced

When feedback is provided to the player learning to dribble the ball, the information is directed towards the error that is associated with the highest priority component on the list.82

This helps to ensure that the feedback is isolated to a single component of performance, and that the chosen component is the most important aspect for enhancing the overall execution of the skill82 (see also86).

In terms of the content of the feedback, research suggests that providing the learner with information on the task goal to be achieved can be more beneficial for learning compared to specific information on the underlying movement patterns required to perform the task (i.e., the process)3,76,77,87 (see also82).

For example, if the coach determines that players need to snap their wrist to achieve greater backspin on the ball during the shooting action, the coach could simply ask players to shoot so that the ball spins backwards through the air (see76). To achieve this task goal, players must explore different movement patterns, thereby gaining valuable information regarding the underlying processes required to impart backspin on the ball.7 The focus upon an outcome goal allows the learner to explore the necessary adjustments to the processes required to perform the coordination pattern, without being constrained by specific information on how those changes should be achieved.3,76

One of the critical issues surrounding the use of any form of feedback is the potential for dependency88 (see also1,89). If players become overly reliant upon feedback, it is possible for performance to deteriorate when that feedback is no longer available88 (see also1,89). In basketball, the excessive provision of feedback from coaches, in practice and in games, may encourage players to rely upon information that is not always available, rather than encouraging players to learn how to extract and utilise their own sources of information.12,50,88

For example, coaches who regularly call out the desired offensive structure to be employed by their team during the course of play in a basketball game, may be creating a situation where players learn to rely more upon the coach’s interpretation of the game, rather than allowing players to learn how to “read” the game for themselves.12,88

Similarly, when performing a specific skill such as shooting, continuous feedback may create a situation where players become excessively reliant upon the guidance of the coach, thereby making it difficult for the player to correct the skill without the external assistance.1,12,88

While there are certain situations that are more likely to be susceptible to dependency than others, it is clearly important for coaches to consider the frequency with which they deliver feedback to determine whether they are inadvertently preventing players from learning how to self-correct their skills.12,82,88,89

Instructions should ideally be worded in a manner that explains the outcome that is desirable, rather than explaining the outcome that needs to be avoided (see 80,101).

One approach for avoiding dependency is to use the strategy of “self-selected feedback” which simply involves allowing players to select when they would like to receive feedback86,90 (for other strategies, see1,89).

For example, the coach may explain to the team that feedback will only be provided during practice when players specifically request additional information (such as verbal feedback from the coach or visual feedback from a video replay).86 This strategy is not only likely to help reduce the frequency of information provided during practice sessions, and hence reduce the potential for dependency, but it also has the added advantage of empowering players by engaging them in the learning process and giving them the opportunity to solve problems86 (see also12).

However, when the player requires assistance, the coach is still available to help guide players to suitable solutions86 (see also12).

Using questioning to enhance learning

The use of suitable questions is a strategy that can be applied to encourage players to detect and correct their own errors, thereby helping to avoid an over-reliance on the coach.12,73

It can also be used to promote discovery learning and problem-solving.73,91 By asking players to answer carefully constructed questions about a certain event or task, coaches can create opportunities for players to solve skill related problems concerning a range of different factors.92

For example, coaches may ask players to briefly explain why a defender just blocked their shot, or why they chose to pass to the post player rather than reversing the ball (see73,91).

Questioning should consider the capability and skill level of the performer.7,47,93 Players who are just starting to understand the basic concepts of the sport may require different types of questions compared to players with more experience.7,47 Beginners may be sufficiently challenged by questions related to the basic principles of basketball, whereas experienced players may require questions that challenge them to consider the game at a deeper level47 (see also7,93).

Using technology to provide feedback

The increasing availability of technology such as video cameras and biomechanical measurement tools offers unique opportunities for coaches to provide highly detailed feedback to players.94 However, there are some important considerations when using such forms of feedback.95

For instance, it is possible that the amount of information provided by video replays may be so vast that beginner players may be unable to discern many of the critical features that exist within the visual display.95 Beginners are therefore likely to benefit from the support of a coach who can direct the attention of players to the most pertinent details required for enhancing performance on the given task.95-97

More experienced players are likely to be quite advanced in their comprehension of the skills and tactics of their sport98 and so although these individuals are still likely to benefit from feedback, they may not require the same degree of involvement on the part of the coach as that required for a beginner.1,53,95


A large proportion of the information provided by coaches is categorized as being instructional in nature.50,67,99 This section of the chapter discusses a number of the factors that can impact the optimal use of instructions when coaching basketball players (for reviews, see81,100,101).

Research has shown that when an instruction asks a person to avoid performing in a certain way, the person may, under certain circumstances, perform in a manner that was
contrary to the actual instructions80,101 (see also102).

For instance, a basketball player who is asked to avoid passing the ball too high to a post player during a game may in fact execute passes to the post player that are too high (see80,101). This phenomenon suggests that instructions should ideally be worded in a manner that explains the outcome that is desirable, rather than explaining the outcome that needs to be avoided (see80,101). In the previous example, a better instruction may be to simply ask the player to “pass so that the post player can easily catch the ball” (see80,101). Although the difference is relatively subtle, it may nonetheless result in a better outcome (see80,101).

When instructions include quite specific details on the types of tactical decisions that should be employed within a game, players may fail to notice other potentially important information79,103 (see also104,105). In fact, evidence has shown that people will often miss an obvious opportunity to pass to a teammate when their attention is focused towards specific tactical information, even if that information is intended to assist the player to identify available passing options.79

In basketball, an example of a specific tactical instruction could involve asking players to “look to pass to the player coming off the double screen” (see79). This may create a narrowed focus of attention, leading to situations where players fail to notice other passing opportunities.79 The use of overly specific tactical instructions is believed to narrow the attentional focus of the performer, and this influences the capability to pick-up information that is necessary for the performer to identify a broader range of appropriate options.59,79

Attention-broadening instructions tend to have the opposite effect by helping players to expand their attentional focus.59,79 An example of an attention-broadening instruction could simply involve asking players to “look for open players in offence” (see79).

There is also evidence to show that broad instructions may help to enhance creativity.59 By giving instructions that are based primarily upon the overall principles that govern decision-making, rather than instructions that are overly specific, players may be encouraged to explore a larger variety of possible solutions.59,79 For instance, asking players to use broad tactical strategies such as “look for high percentage scoring opportunities”, may elicit more creative solutions compared to narrower instructions that ask players to “pass around the perimeter of the 3-point line and then look to make a pass to the post player”.59,79

Instructions that direct players to focus upon something that is external to their body, or that is associated with the outcome or effects of a movement, have generally been shown to be more beneficial for motor learning and performance compared to instructions that direct players towards the internal features or underlying mechanics of their movements.81,106

In basketball, examples of externally focused instructions could include asking players to direct their attention towards the ring while shooting,107 or to monitor the flight path of the ball as it moves through the air when attempting to receive a pass (for an example in golf, see108). Examples of internally focused instructions include asking players to focus upon their wrist snap when executing a shot,107 or to focus upon the location of their feet on the floor when defending the ball carrier (for an example using a balance task, see109). Basically, instructions that encourage players to focus on something that is external to their body tend to be better than instructions that focus the attention of players towards their body movements.81

One of the easiest strategies for employing an external focus of attention in basketball is to provide players with instructions that emphasise the actual task goal of the skill81 (see also76,110). That is, the instruction should ideally provide players with the objective to achieve, rather than the process to achieve that objective81 (see also111).

For example, asking a player to shoot the ball so that it moves through the air in a high arc may be a better approach than instructions that focus the attention of the learner upon features such as elbow angles, knee bend, or wrist snap.81,106,107

Implicit and Explicit learning

“Implicit learning” generally refers to situations where information is acquired without the person being aware of the fact that something has been learned, and without being able to verbalise the information that was learned.112-118 In contrast, “explicit learning” refers to situations where a person is aware of the information that has been learned, and the person is able to verbalise the information.113-119

Explicit learning often involves the provision of step-by-step information on the preferred movements of a task, such as delivering a series of detailed instructions to a player on how to perform a basketball free throw.120-123 Implicitly acquired information has been shown to have a number of advantages, including better performance of the skill under fatigue124 and greater resilience of the skill when the performer is experiencing psychological stress.125

In contrast, researchers have suggested that explicit learning may disrupt the motor system by encouraging learners to consciously control their movements.116,117,119,126

One of the easiest methods that can be used by basketball coaches to promote implicit learning is to apply the strategy of analogy learning where instructions are provided in the form of a simple analogy that summarises a vast amount of technical information.117,120,121,125,127

A common analogy used to teach shooting technique in basketball is to ask players to imagine that they are reaching into the top shelf of the pantry to take a biscuit/cookie from a jar.120,121,128

This statement gives an approximate movement pattern that helps players to understand the ways in which the shooting arm and shooting hand should be moved during the execution of the shot120,121,128 (see also125,127).

Importantly, such statements encapsulate much of the critical information required to perform the skill, but without delivering it in a highly explicit, step-by-step manner.125,127


The use of a demonstration can significantly enhance skill acquisition (for reviews of this area, see77,111,129,130). However, there are certain situations where a demonstration may provide no benefit at all, or could even be somewhat detrimental to the learning process.77,131,132

In general, demonstrations may be of particular benefit when attempting to learn a task that requires a specific form of movement patterning, or a certain series of movements12,77,111 (see also1,132). In situations where the task requires the attainment of a certain outcome goal, without necessarily requiring a specific form of movement patterning (such as successfully shooting a ball into a basket), a demonstration may be less effective12,77,111 (see also1,132).

Demonstrations may also act to constrain learners by encouraging them to emulate the specific movement pattern employed by the demonstrator.12,76,77,87,131 For instance, after observing a demonstration of a particular basketball shooting technique, the learner may attempt to exactly copy the observed technique, without attempting to engage in an exploratory process to search for a technique that is more suitable to the learner’s own movement capabilities.7,12,76,77,87

It has therefore been suggested that demonstrations should be interspersed with periods of actual physical practice so that learners are able to devote time to solving problems and trialling different variations of the demonstrator’s movements.87,130,133,134

Another suggestion is for the quantity and timing of demonstrations to be self-selected by the learner which may reduce the overall volume of demonstrations, and may possibly fade the use of demonstrations as learning progresses135,136 (see also130).

A different strategy that may encourage the learner to engage in greater problem-solving, and help to alleviate the tendency to imitate the exact technique of the demonstrator, is for coaches to focus the attention of the observer upon the intended outcome goal of the task being demonstrated12,76 (see also137).

For example, when players are observing a demonstration of a shooting action, coaches may highlight the way the basketball spins through the air, rather than focusing solely
upon the specific mechanics of the movement12,77,138,139. This may help the learner to attempt to use the demonstrator’s technique as a guide towards achieving a certain movement outcome, rather than simply copying the demonstrator’s process for achieving that outcome.12,77

Finally, by using several different demonstrators, the variations that exist in each demonstrator’s movements may further encourage players to try a variety of different techniques, rather than settling upon a single, idealised movement that may not be entirely suitable for the individual12 (see also131).