Years ago I landed a copy of basketball coaching guru Sidney Goldstein‘s book The Basketball Coach’s Bible. Obviously, I’m not a basketball coach, though I was working on my hardwood skills at the time and found the drills informative.
Goldstein has a solid fundamental philosophy on developing basketball skills, one a lot of coaches don’t share. Most coaches recruit and play the best talent available, treat drills as a warm up and think that drawing up plays and running their players in scrimmages will make them better. Goldstein believes any player of any shape or size can learn and develop the skill to do anything with regular, proper practice. Goldstein for example says a 7 footer could learn to crossover dribble and hit a jump shot with practice, and the reason most can’t is because most coaches focus on having them stand near the hoop, rebound, block shots and dunk on people… and thus never teach them those other skills.
Most typecast the tall guy and then have him use the same small rudimentary set of skills, as well as typecasting the short guy to be the dribbling point guard who drives the lane, plays super low on the perimeter, etc. I bet a coach who would bother teaching players the way Goldstein does could create a great group or professional basketb- oh wait there’s a whole league full of people who do.
But I digress. I read through Goldstein’s topics, specifically his Advice to New Coaches, and couldn’t help notice parallels to learning and teaching effective improv. Both basketball and improv are active skill based endeavors that for any preparation has to be done in the moment on the fly, where a combination of execution and creativity determines success.
1. Don’t let your players practice bad habits in practice. Remember: if your players practice negative habits, then they become experts at those negative habits. If you must, keep scenes and exercises simple and build upon simple improv to keep players practicing with positive habits. Institute restrictive rules during individual sessions if needed e.g. you must move when speaking, only say one sentence at a time… or use a short form game like New Choice as an in-scene coaching tactic.
2. Don’t try to do it all! Focus on fundamentals, on how they perform and develop 2-person/group scenes, how they edit, how they make moves and how they improvise from source material. If they can’t do the simple things effectively, the bigger picture is going to cave in anyway. You don’t need to synthesize skills. A player will learn more involved skills in only minutes after properly executing individual ones. Often, with a fundamentally sound and practiced team, practicing the overall form is the easy part.
3. Don’t focus too much on doing full runs in a session. Learning not only follows repetition, it follows rapid or consecutive repetition. In a full run of a form or show, you do not achieve this type of practice because a player may only get to make a given move once or twice in a set, or may only get 1-2 solid scenes. In a scene or exercise, a coach can watch each individual’s work closely. A coach watching 6-10 players in a game probably won’t have opportunity to correct or even detect most mistakes.
4. Build from the bottom up. Stick to having players respond to what has just been said or done in the moment, building on existing information in lieu of inventing new information. More complex stuff like callbacks, deconstruction and expansion are a bigger picture extension of this skill, and if they don’t do the first thing well, they’re not going to nail the other stuff. Always start with and focus on building upon the moment.
5. Condition your players. Conditioning makes a difference, and man are a lot of improvisers not in shape. In the last few minutes of a set, conditioned teams miss fewer opportunities and do more cool shit faster than poorly conditioned teams. Conditioned players are better performers. All conditioning should involve improv skills. Want to have players run around the room? Okay whatever, but have them pass a phrase or do a two person scene this way or something.
6. Write down your practice plan. Yes, a lot of good teachers and coaches already do this. Yes, Mick Napier famously is amazing at his job without doing it. But generally, you can get 5-10 times more from your players if you plan. Plan for the day, week, month, and season. All but daily planning involves deciding when to introduce particular skills. It’s okay if you don’t stay exactly on schedule. Some skills, like edits, two person scenes and adding to the moment, need to be practiced every session. Others can be practiced every other session. Many team skills, especially full sets, can be postponed. Make sure your plan keeps players involved all the time, not sitting and waiting for other scenes and players to finish.
7. Give homework. Players can and should practice skills at home, even if another player is not available. Consult Mick Napier’s Improvise for solo exercise ideas. Have your players see shows and report back. Assigning homework yields remarkable results. Homework assignments should follow what you do in practice, not involve new material.
That’s one example. There will be others I share later.
As always, you’re totally free to take this with a grain of salt. It’s food for thought.