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4 Drills to Improve Your Basketball Skills

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Man dunking a basketball

Basketball demands an active body and a calm mind. Two experts offer techniques for training both.

Basketball has enthralled players and fans since 1891, when James Naismith first tossed a ball into a peach basket while trying to engage a YMCA gym class in Springfield, Mass. The sport is unpredictable, fast-paced, and multidirectional. Most anyone can play, but not everyone knows how to train properly. 

“The combination of physical attributes, such as height, strength, speed, and agility, with required skills like shooting, dribbling, and passing, makes basketball a unique sport,” says Alan Arlt, the founder and senior director of Life Time’s Ultimate Hoops, the largest U.S. recreational basketball league. 

This mix of abilities allows players to customize their own style of play. But it can also lead to bad habits — including selfish play — if personal style isn’t balanced by proper training, he says. 

It’s when skill and style blend that we get to see “the true beauty of the sport — five players with unique sizes and styles all moving in sync,” says Arlt.  

Basketball melds experience, practice, athleticism, and teamwork like no other sport, notes Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Walt Hopkins. 

“Basketball requires players to play on both sides of the ball,” Hopkins explains. “They have to be able to dribble, pass, and shoot, as well as have the ability to play both individual and team defense.”

Instead of focusing on how to dribble with finesse like Lynx star Seimone Augustus or nail three-pointers like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Hopkins advises sticking to the basics. 

“Amateurs are best served to spend their time studying, understanding, and mastering fundamental skills like defense, shooting, and consistent finishing around the rim,” he says.

Getting back to the basics begins with a surprising practice: “Meditation helps you find your flow and get in the zone. If you can visualize executing your skills in a game situation, it slows the game down and builds confidence,” says Arlt. 

As for skills, it’s all about repetition. “Kobe Bryant famously would not leave shooting practice until he’d made 400 shots. Basketball requires that type of dedication to become an elite player. There are no hacks or shortcuts. You have to get your reps in.” 

Arlt and Hopkins offer these drills to get your mind, body, and reflexes ready for your next game of hoops.

Technique Tips

Drill 1: Mental Preparation

Before a game or workout, Arlt builds in time for 10 minutes of meditation and visualization:

  • Find a comfortable seated position in which you can keep your back straight.
  • Close your eyes. Or, if you keep them open, maintain a relaxed gaze.
  • Breathe naturally, focusing your attention on the breath and body movements.
  • Continue to focus on your breath, returning to it if your mind wanders.
  • Begin with two minutes and work up to 10.
  • After this meditation, keep your eyes closed or in a relaxed gaze and visualize yourself on the court, dribbling the ball, passing, playing defense, and grabbing a rebound for a basket.

Drill 2: Frankenstein Kicks

This dynamic-stretching routine limbers up the hip flexors and stretches the hamstrings before a game, helping prevent injury, says Arlt.

  • Holding your arms straight out in front of you, kick your right leg up toward your right hand, keeping your leg straight.
  • Walk forward as you alternate legs, traveling the length of the basketball court and back. 

Drill 3: Defender Dribbling 

“Cone drills are great,” says Hopkins, “but cones don’t try to steal the ball.” Instead, recruit a friend or coach for this dribbling drill.

  • First, ask your partner to guard you closely. This forces you to use your body to protect the ball while keeping your head and eyes up to see the court. It also helps you anticipate the other person’s movements. Dribble up and down the court five times. 
  • Next, have your partner vary his or her distance from you, which will develop your ability to handle the ball while moving more quickly up the court. 

“If you can learn to keep calm and maintain your dribble in spite of contact, then change directions or explode past an aggressive defender,” says Hopkins, “it will take you a long way.”

Drill 4: Straight Shots

Hopkins swears by this routine to improve accuracy:

  • Standing so you’re facing the side of the hoop, with your back to the sideline, shoot the ball against the side of the backboard so it bounces back to you.
  • Take a step away from the basket and shoot at the hoop instead of the backboard. Repeat until you are no longer making shots consistently.
  • Pay attention to timing the release of your shot with the peak of your leg extension as you jump to shoot. If you’re shooting the ball on your way back down, you’re releasing it too late.

This originally appeared as “Net Worth” in the November 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

is a Colorado-based outdoors, health, fitness, and nutrition writer.

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