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Develop game confidence and ball toughness

This is an excerpt from Court Sense by John Giannini.

Competitive Toughness

In basketball, the competitive nature of a player is often most apparent in defensive play and ball toughness. Ball toughness refers to getting the ball and keeping the ball. Again, personal pride is a factor here, because it translates into taking responsibility for getting in position and grabbing rebounds, gaining possession of loose balls, and not allowing the ball to be turned over against defensive pressure. Highly competitive players believe that the ball is theirs to claim and no one else's. They attack rebounds by exploding to the ball and snatching it. A loose ball means diving on the floor with reckless abandon to get the ball before anyone else does. There is no picking up the ball or trying to dribble it as it bounces around. The ball is snatched or dived on. When a competitive player handles the ball against defensive pressure, the ball handler is "strong" with the ball and minimizes turnovers.

During time-outs before an opponent's offensive possession, top defenders on a team encourage teammates with words such as, "This is personal. Don't let your man score." Although team defensive concepts such as helping are critical, no defense can be successful if individuals regularly get beat one on one. Great competitors take pride in shutting their man down. After the game, they want to see the stat sheet-not to find out how many points they scored, but to find out how many their opponent scored.

A key ingredient to a strong team is having a defensive stopper-someone to guard the best scorer on the other team. The role of defensive stopper is a proud role that is critical to team success. Even when playing zone defense, coaches can talk about each player taking pride in no open shots coming from his side or area of the zone.

The highly competitive player takes great pride in stopping people defensively, getting rebounds and loose balls, and being strong with the ball (i.e., no turnovers). This is a player who will successfully outcompete opponents through superior effort and toughness. This is a "winner." To help players develop ball toughness, coaches can do several things.

First, a loose ball drill can be done in a way that does not increase the risk of injuries. Players line up along the baseline, and the coach rolls a ball out onto the court. When called, a player must sprint to the ball, dive onto it, and pass it to a coach (or manager) while on the floor (to avoid traveling). The player then quickly gets up and sprints down the court to receive a pass back from the coach for a layup. To reduce the risk of injury, this drill is done with a single player at a time, as opposed to having two players fight for the ball. However, players must pursue and dive on the ball with gamelike intensity.

Competitive toughness is also developed in a lot of rebounding drills. A good one for ball toughness is to start with three or four players on the three-point arc and have them all crash to attack a missed shot. The successful rebounder will then attempt to score on the offensive rebound while the others try to stop him. The ball is played live until someone scores on a rebound. After going through the net, the ball is immediately returned to a coach who will attempt (and try to miss) another shot. The players must sprint to touch the three-point arc and then crash again. This teaches great aggressiveness in going for and getting the ball.

To teach a defensive stopper mentality, a coach can ask for a volunteer (players must want to be a stopper). The whole team will watch this individual defend a good offensive player starting under the basket. Screeners can be set up at the free-throw line and on each block (i.e., three or more screeners with no defense on the screeners) so the offensive player can use multiple screens and go anywhere. When the offensive player comes off a screen and receives the ball, the screeners move off the court and let the "stopper" defend the man with the ball. Thus, the stopper must get through screens and stop a good player one on one with the whole gym watching. This simulates the abilities, toughness, pride, and attention that go with being a stopper and guarding the other team's best player. The defender should continue until he gets a stop, and then continue to see how many stops in a row he can get.

Do More Than Talk Tough

Highly competitive players are critical of themselves and may sometimes be critical of teammates. Two conditions are necessary for criticism of teammates to be accepted. First, the critical player must be a great competitor who consistently practices what he is preaching; otherwise, he will not have the credibility or respect to be taken seriously. Second, the critical player must be short with criticism, making his point and then continuing to encourage and lead by example.

Constant criticism by a teammate is not positive-no matter how talented or competitive that teammate is. In fact, some people believed that Michael Jordan was too hard on certain teammates and hurt their confidence. Even the greatest player, coach, or person in life will have faults, and excessive criticism can be a fault. Yet, some criticism is necessary to point out and correct mistakes or lack of effort. The highly competitive player lets his play do his talking, and when he needs to challenge teammates, he does so by being direct and to the point. Most important, being competitive means backing up what you say.

Want the Ball

Competitive players want the ball in their hands, not because they are selfish, but because they are confident in their abilities to make positive things happen. This is a good thing.

For example, the best ball handlers have to come to the ball hard against the press. Even if the pass is denied by the defense, the ball handler must find a way to get open. The ball handler must be proud of his role, because the team relies on him to break the press. A dominant post player must seal the defender on his back to get open. An excellent scorer must set his man up and come hard off screens to get open. A competitor must want the ball.

Michael Jordan typically demanded the ball at the end of big games, as in his memorable top-of-the-key floater over Craig Ehlo in Chicago's win over Cleveland in the 1989 NBA playoffs. But in the 1993 NBA finals, Jordan gave up the ball to teammate Scottie Pippen, who in turn bounce passed it to Horace Grant about five feet from the hoop. Rather than shooting the ball or passing it to Jordan, Grant kicked the ball out to a wide-open John Paxson, who nailed the game winner from just beyond the three-point arc. Four years later, at the end of game 1 of the Bulls' memorable NBA finals matchup versus the Utah Jazz, Chicago's strategy was simply to "get the ball to Michael and get out of the way" (as forward Scottie Williams said). They did, and Jordan's crossover dribble freed him from defender Byron Russell for the game-winning shot just inside the arc. Five games later, as the Bulls were breaking from a huddle in which Coach Phil Jackson had drawn up a play that could well decide the game, Jordan turned to a teammate. Here's how Jordan later described what happened: "Everybody in the gym, everybody on TV knew the ball was coming to me. I looked at Steve Kerr and said, ‘This is your chance,' because I knew [Utah's John] Stockton was going to come over and help." As Kerr described it, "He [Jordan] said, ‘You be ready, Stockton is going to come off you.' I said, ‘I'll be ready, I'll knock it down.' He's so good that he draws so much attention. And his excellence gave me the chance to hit the game-winning shot in the NBA finals. What a thrill. I owe him everything."

Learn more about Court Sense.

More Excerpts From Court Sense