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Basketball Coach's Guide to In-Season Practice Programming

The science of weekly preparation


In sport, the upcoming game is the only one that matters. Great coaches understand that every available minute of practice must be maximized with purpose. One of the biggest conundrum facing basketball coaches is the planning of weekly practice schedule to ensure optimal performance come game time. Every practice session should induce a desired adaptation to the physiology of the players. Without clear training objectives and strategies to reach our goals training become a random ‘practice’ that is ineffective with increased risks of injury and burnouts.

Before we delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of scientific programming, we must first understand that players are people. People deal with life stress and any high performance programs are only adding to the stress that players are already overcoming. No matter how scientifically advanced a program may seem, a program will only be as effective as the people executing it. Hence appreciation of players as people is the fundamental premise of player preparation.

In this article we will examine game planning for a typical Australian basketball season that includes: NBL1, BigV, and VJBL; it would also apply to a pre-Covid NBL season where teams generally play one game a week on the weekend.

Programming Variables

Every week during a competitive season poses a different degree of stress that deals with the magnitude of intensity, volume, density and collision. It is the coach’s job to manage a team’s working week in it’s entirety and employ the appropriate levels of stimulation to trigger the desired adaptation to empower maximal performance of each player come game time.

Contrary to popular belief, practice and training loads should always be lower than the game. Generally speaking, practice load should never exceed 75% of game load. i.e. There are approximately 60-70 game plays over the course of a basketball game hence the highest practice volume should be between 40-50 repetitions at game-like intensity. Such a day should be employed one day a week that is far from game day to ensure adequate recovery. Up next we will look at the 4 fundamental variables coaches can manipulate for weekly programming.

1. Intensity

Intensity deals with how hard the training level is. It concerns the degree a practice compares to a game-like flow and how fast the players operate. High intensity training sessions are often paired with high collisions and they require frequent breaks (even if they are short), so they are often low density. The exception will be a high speed session before game that features high intensity and low collision day for recovery.

It is impossible to maintain high intensity for very long as it will tax the central nervous system, hence these days are associated with low training. Here we must clarify that during a high volume and high density based session, a player may feel the session is intense where they are out of breath and fatigued, but the key lies in the nervous system. When players are fatigued they can not move as fast as they are fresh hence the intensity must drop.

We must understand the difference between fatigue from intensity and fatigue from volume

A high intensity basketball practice is one that features high levels of mental focus, high player speeds and collisions. During various phases of the season these intensities can exceed that of a game. An example of these types of sessions maybe the use of half-court 5 on 5 games in a competitive environment. To maintain a high intensity coaches can adopt a 3 team rotation to reduce training volume and overall density. In addition, coaches can further manipulate training intensity by playing quarter court 3 on 3 games that will increase amount of collisions however because the players typically don’t build up speed in smaller playing areas, the intensity of collision will be lower.

2. Volume

Volume is how much work was performed in a training session. These sessions are generally low in intensity and high in density. These session typically involves the use of full court drills where a coach can further stimulate the conditioning effect through manipulating the number of players involved in each play.

During these sessions muscle will typically be under tension for longer durations, but the eccentric load is reduced since it involves more linear movements with less frequency to changes of directions. Conversely, a high intensity day will demand more frequent changes of direction that places more stress on a player’s hips, knees, and ankles. In every change of direction manoeuvres a player’s muscles, tendons, bones and connective tissues absorb a lot of forces before transferring it to another direction hence it is smart to keep volume in moderation during high intensity, high collision days.

Should the team have advanced monitoring technology, coaches should expect to see the highest internal (through heart rate measures) and external loads (through accelerometry data) with lowered intensity of the measure because speed is typically compromised due to reduced recovery time between sessions.

3. Density

Density describes how compact is the amount of work been performed in a duration of time. It is manipulated through the frequency of breaks during a session. High intensity practices must be low in density to allow enough rest to sustain high outputs and maintain mental focus. To improve endurance qualities, coaches can use sessions of high volume paired with high density.

A density practice session will be higher in overall load for the muscles and stimulates the cardiorespiratory system without lesser impact on the nervous system. Due to the stimulation of the aerobic process a high density session can help stimulate nervous system recovery if placed a day after a high intensity session.

4. Collision

Collision refers to the amount and intensity of body contact during practice. By it’s very higher injury risks is associated with high contact days and hence these days require lower volume and longer recovery periods.

High collision days expose the muscles to high loading over a short time period. Hence it makes sense to pair high intensity and high collision-based practices in the same day. It is advisable to place these practices earlier in the week to allow enough time for recovery by game day.

Now that we have established the key training variables that coaches can manipulate to program their practices we now turn our attention to the physiological demands and post session recovery required for different types of sessions.

Now that we have established the key training variables that coaches can manipulate to program their practices we now turn our attention to the physiological demands and post session recovery required for different types of sessions.

Training Recovery Rates

Every type of physical session will produce a distinct stimuli to a player’s mind and body that causes different physiological responses, dependent the magnitude of their exposure. The table below can be used to estimate the physiological impact of a training or competition session and the associated recovery time frame that’s required post session.

When a coach is planning a practice understand it is about the precise adaptation that he/she is trying to induce immediately (one session) and chronically (sequence of multiple sessions). Understand that fatigue is a necessary part of the training process, it is a signal to the body to synthesize specific proteins needed to restructure the body so it can adapt and grow. However, too much fatigue over one session and/or accumulation of sessions can lead to overtraining; when a player starts to shut down.

By considering how different training loads will cause different type and magnitude of fatigue a coach can strategically organize training in precise sequences that accounts for different recovery timelines for specific forms of training and give players a better chance of adaptation.

With a basic understanding of the different training variables and different types of training sessions we can now work backward from the next game to structure a typical training week; planning what the team is doing on a day-to-day basis with clear adaptation objectives to each session.

On a typical in-season training week, there are broadly three phases of preparation that a team goes through that is used to formulate a plan to prepare a team between games:

  1. Individual correction and recovery from previous game

  2. Acquisition of learning experience that improve tactics and further game plan objectives

  3. Rehearsal of patterns before facing the next opponent

Understand these phases are not rigid and is adaptable according to the actual week to week schedule. For instance, during a short week phase 2 can be skipped. There are never ideal situations in sport, in fact the art and beauty of sport preparation is to find the best method to adapt and work as effectively as possible.

The chart below is a sample of how a basketball coach can plan his weekly training load. Given a typical team would train twice a week it is best to place the most demanding session – high intensity and high collision – in the front of the week that will ensure ample recovery time before the next game. In addition, because the teams only practices twice a week coaches will need to be creative and implement aspects of speed into this Tuesday training session.

Although Wednesday is normally an off day it is advisable that teams encourage players to voluntary technical and conditioning sessions to refine specific skills and promote recovery. In this example Thursday is a volume day that involves multiple run through of plays and preparation for the upcoming opponent. This day should be low in intensity and collision to minimize the physical stress on the player. Since these sessions feature less breaks it will activate the aerobic processes to maximize recovery leading up to the Sunday game. The Saturday before the game it is advisable that coaches run a game plan review and technical priming session to get the players ready for game day.

Hopefully this article has provided basketball coaches some tools to formulate a more structured weekly plan and improves your overall coaching practices. With these tools in hand the strategy of how you employ and sequence various types of practice sessions become your art as a coach. Early on in my career I was taught trainers plan a session and coaches plan a career!

Finally this article has discussed training planning in the most rudiment levels, it is the beyond the scope of this article to examine the deeper nuances of programming strategies and considerations. Interested coaches are encouraged to delve into the topics of Sports Science and Periodization as this will open a whole new world of athlete preparation in your coaching career.


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