It’s a pretty common question from parents and players about how much time and practise should a player be putting in. Parents are often worried about a phenomenon called “burnout” which they believe is the result of someone putting too much time into competition or practise, which results in players either getting injured or losing interest in the sport.
In my time working with professional players and elite junior players I am yet to come across a player who is suffering from burnout!! What I have come across are plenty of players who have no idea of the time and effort they need to devote to the game if they truly want to become great at it. The realisation that it requires much more work than they are prepared to devote to will often result in the excuse that they’re burnt out.
This often happens with young players who are particularly tall or very athletic and either their height or athleticism has moved them into an elite group despite a short fall in skills. However, as they age and other players around them start to catch up in the height and athletic stakes they then need to do more work to stay ahead of the pack. Their preparedness to do the extra work will often determine whether they stay at the elite level or drop out and pursue other forms of recreation.
So how much work do you need to do? It’s a bit like the question how long is a piece of string? Here’s a couple of my experiences with the work required to excel at basketball.
In my early days at Basketball Victoria (I started there in 1984 to set up the McDonalds Basketball Development Program and finished in 1996 as the State Director of Coaching) I was fortunate enough to be around some of the young players who would go on to become legends in women’s basketball. Michele Timms and Shelley Gorman were both outstanding junior players and both also had a huge desire to be great, Michele worked at BV too and would lift weights each day, practise on her own, scrimmage against anyone who wanted to have a go and also train with her club team and often would train with some of the men’s teams. She would do four or five different types of work outs a day and would always push herself to give 100% effort in everything she was doing. Sometimes she would need a day off to rest but she loved what she was doing, had a clear vision of where she wanted to get to and was prepared to do the work required to get there. Shelley was the same, they would often be pushing each other to better times, better scores and lift more. No players of their age were doing more work than them but no doubt some felt burnout out. Michele and Shelley both went on to be triple Olympians.
I met a coach in 1993 named Andrej Urlep, he was from Slovenia and he came to Australia to live and work with us at the South East Melbourne Magic. He lived at my place and was very passionate about basketball and how to develop players. His view was that in Australia we were fundamentally lazy!! He thought it a joke how often our club teams practised and how little individual work was done with our elite junior players. He convinced me to visit Slovenia and see how the clubs in Slovenia developed their players, it was a life changing experience for me. I couldn’t believe the amount of work that was done each day – their under 16 rep team equivalent would practise each morning and evening 7 days a week, fit school in and whatever else they needed to do.
Some may remember Slovenia, a Country of 2 million people, beating the Australian Men’s team at the 2010 World Championships in the quarter final 87-58, a result that sadly didn’t surprise me too much.
The Serbians are also famous for producing outstanding basketball players. One of my players at the AIS Mirko Djeric, had the chance to train with one of the big clubs in Serbia, Partizan. He was with them for a couple of weeks in their preseason and this was pretty much part of their regular schedule - Practise for 3 hours in the morning then 3 hours in the evening, once the morning session was finished each player had to hit 10 consecutive 3 point shots before they were allowed to go home!! If they didn’t make the 10 in a row they just had to stay until the evening session started!!
Now most Aussie coaches and players would think a schedule like that ridiculous but to the Serbs it is just the way they do it, it would be ridiculous to them to practise one or twice a week and expect to get better – its perception versus reality. In Australia many have the view that all you need to do is practise a couple of times a week and you can achieve great things. In Slovenia and Serbia they believe you need to practise everyday, sometimes twice a day if you want to achieve great things, while some here might think them crazy they certainly think us crazy hoping to achieve greatness without putting in the work.
There is a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers which highlights the amount of time needed to achieve greatness, there is a theory that to achieve greatness at anything you need to practise it for 10,000 hours! So clearly the more time you put in the more likely you are to become great at it.
There is another view that I hear often from coaches in Australia and that is “its quality not quantity” that creates good players. I’ve found people who quote that often are looking for an excuse to do less work rather than promote some magical formula they’ve found to achieve greatness in a shorter time. I would argue that quality in quantity is the better way.
So how long should players practise for? It’s up to them, if they love the sport, love the hard work and have clear goals and a vision of where they want to get to, they will find ways of doing whatever it takes to get there. I’ve never had to tell anyone they are doing too much but I’ve had to tell plenty they aren’t doing enough.