Do Your Homework

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You might not know it to look at me now, but I was a pretty good player. I was not very big, not very quick nor did I possess any other special physical tools. Still I was good enough to play in high school, with some distinction, and go on to play major college basketball.


I know how I got there as well. My usual routine included working on my skills, usually by myself, for a couple of hours and then going to one of a few courts where I knew there were good players and playing until I knew I couldn’t get back on the court before it closed. Sometimes I got a ride to the park, sometimes I rode a bike, and sometimes I took a train. Regardless of the method, I would get to the games. If I got to the court early, I would workout some more until the players showed up.

Two things motivated me. First, and foremost, was my desire to be a good player. Without that internal motivation, no amount of external motivation can be effective. Second, in the area where I grew up, if you lost a game the chance of getting back on the court for the rest of the day was small. For that reason, if you weren’t good enough, nobody picked you to play. And I loved to play. That was life on the court when you grow up fighting for court time with the likes of Dr. J, Mitch Kupchak (yes, GM of the Lakers), Rick Pitino (yes, coach of Louisville), they were good players before you heard of them, and other soon to be pro players (unless you were of that era, you won’t recognize the names).

That is what I did. I never played in any leagues; I never played on any teams outside of my high school team I never had a personal trainer, and never attended any clinics or basketball academies. I was still pretty good and I am sure that if I was still able to play, I would still be pretty good against a high level of competition.

To be truthful, those things weren’t available to me. There were no skill trainers or regular clinic or training sessions. The only leagues were in the summer and I found better competition on my own. If they had been available I probably would have taken advantage of some of it, but not at the expense of my regular routine. I would still work out on my own and then search for the best competition I could find.

As I travel around with my Drillz and Skillz Academy and our “Attack and Counter” skills camp, I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in our game. I have seen a very disturbing trend for quite a while. I ask kids, “Do you play pick up ball?” More and more I get the answer, “What’s that?” I ask kids, “Do you go play in the park?” I get the answer, “Why?” I ask, “When was the last time you worked on your game?” I’ll get a reply, “Last weekend. We played 6 games in a tournament on Saturday and Sunday.” I’ll ask, “When do you practice?” I’ll get, “My travel team practice on Tues. and Thurs.” “What do you practice,” I’ll respond. I’ll get, “Plays.” My question is, “How does that get you better?” In this scenario, how many shot reps do you get, how much time do you spend working on your ball handling?

When I talk to parents I find, on the whole, they are very supportive. They talk to me about helping their kids improve and what kind of things can they do to get better. I always ask, “What are you doing now?” Invariably they tell me about the number of leagues they have paid to have them play in. Some will talk about the personal trainers they have paid for. The conversation always contains “It is very expensive. I don’t know how much more I can do.”

In reality, if you want to become a better player, it really isn’t expensive.

If you want to become a good player, I say over and over again in my camps, “There is no substitute for repetition.” The more repetition you do, the better you get. Playing in leagues and tournaments is fun, and by all means you should play, but it doesn’t get you better. Only practice gets you better. It’s good to have fun, but it’s more fun to be good.

Now, there is a whole new industry of personal skills trainers that have sprung up to fill the void that has been left as the culture of play, play, play has infiltrated the sport. I am one of them. Teaching skills has always been a passion of mine. Through over 25 years of college and pro coaching I gained a reputation as a great teacher. When I stepped off the sideline, it was a natural transition for me. But the rise of personal trainers may have actually made matters worse.

I have found, for some reason, those players who have a desire to get better and have the willingness to work, now ONLY work with a trainer. I speak to players and parents who say they work out once per week or twice per week, or more, with a trainer. Parents always talk about how expensive it is. They are constantly looking for other players to split the costs.

While I appreciate the work, I really don’t think that working with a trainer only is the best way to go. I like to compare basketball training to musical training. If you are trying to learn to play the piano, how does that work? Usually, a piano teacher comes to your home (or you go to theirs) and gives you a lesson. Your responsibility is to practice what you have learned in your lesson and get better at whatever exercises were done. Then, the next week the teacher comes back, and if you have improved enough, moves on to the next lesson. In learning piano, just showing the exercises and then moving on makes it more difficult to improve. Moving on to more advanced exercises before you have mastered what have come before weakens your skills. Try doing algebra before mastering multiplication and division and see how that works for you. When I work with players, I will only work with them for a maximum of twice per week. I try to teach them to do what we do together alone or with other players (that’s why I video everything, so they can duplicate the workout). Each time he comes to me, he should be improved. If it becomes evident to me that the player doesn’t work on his own, I will not work with him. For me, it’s about passion and improvement. If that is not the objective, he is better off working with someone else. I am not into just taking someone’s money for the sake of business.

As we move along, we are all products of the things that surround us. In today’s basketball culture, it’s leagues and tournaments. If you want to get better, go to a trainer. That, now, is the culture that surrounds us. I don’t know if kids are being exposed to anything else right now. I don’t believe that system will help make you better. I look at the drop off in skill level of high school and college players over the last 15 years as proof.

I am not saying don’t play. I am not saying don’t use trainers. I am saying that those things are tools for you to get better. They are good tools. But, if you want to become a better basketball player, you have to do your own homework. You have to take what you learned from the games, take what you have learned from your trainers and go to the court in between those lessons and work on your game.

If you want to be a good student, you have to do your work after school is over every day. If you want to play the piano, you have to practice between lessons and recitals. If you want to be a good player you have to do your work outside of leagues and trainers.

IF you want to get better at anything, you have to do your homework.


Don Kelbick

Coach Don Kelbick has had 27 years of coaching experience, 25 at the college level including 14 years as a head coach and 10 years as a Division I assistant including stops at Hofstra University, Marist College, Keene State College, and Florida International University. In 2 years as a high school coach, his teams produced 6 Division I players and was ranked #1 in Florida 28 out of a possible 34 weeks. In addition to coaching he has scouted for NBA teams, including the Knicks and the Hawks, and served as a general manager in the USBL.