Michael Zweifel: You can’t build technique and then decision-making – it’s ass backwards

Agility is one of the most critical components of succesful basketball player, that's why Michael Zweifel from Building Better Athletes shares a lot of useful and for some people for sure, controversial, insights about agility development of basketball players. Enjoy the interview!

How much time would you devote to top speed development with basketball players, if any, if you had the whole season to work with them?

I would devote a substantial amount of time to speed development with basketball players, not only for the performance benefits but for the injury reduction benefits.

Despite basketball consisting of mostly short accels and bursts of speed, athletes would benefit from being explosed to top-end sprinting for a couple of reasons.

First, the neurological benefits outweight any other stimulus you can apply to the body. We’re taling ~5x bodyweight in ground reaction forces and ~7x bodyweight in muscle forces – you can’t get that stimulus from any other modality.

Second, improving top-end sprinting speed will drive up accelerative abilities. If an athlete can increase they’re max velocity sprinting, this will naturally increase their acceleration. Not to mention, when you train for Max velocity, you have to accelerate to get there, so you’re also getting work on accelerative abilities – the qualities aren’t isolated.

 Third, my friend Josh Bohnotal makes a good point when he says, getting athletes fasters means the slower speeds during a game become easier – less energy expenditure and can maintain lower speed easier. For a crude example, if basketball is played at 15 mph (miles per hour) – you can train athletes at 15 mph or train them at 20 mph, and then 15 mph becomes that much easier/slower for them. Thus I believe the game would slow down, it would help with processing the environment, and allow athletes to play a certain speed for longer.


Do you believe that players can transfer their ability to change direction with perfect technique in the game itself when that have to react as fast as they can to a stimulus?

No, and this has been shown in the research as well.

It all starts with what is perfect technique? The technique used during a COD action is not the same as technique used in an agility movement or game situation. Coaches somehow think doing something predictable over and over again and with „perfect“ technique will somehow make an athlete better at doing something that is unpredictable – it just doesn’t happen.

This is why coaches should always strive to have a stimulus or decision-making present. You can’t make better movers/thinkers if these are absent.

Remember it’s the stimuls that dictates the technique – so an athlete chooses a kinematic action (technique) based on how they perceive a technique. This is going to be different for everybody, so trying to pigeon hole athletes into a certain movement technique is a poor idea.

How would you teach decision making in your players? Do you think it should precede the learning of the technique of the specific movement, or that it should be incorporated after the technical part of the movement was acquired?

YES, decision-making/perception should be what we as coaches focus on. Each athletes own indivudual movement technique or movement signature will be a result of their perception to the movement problem.

You need decision making before the technique – the process of learning a technique cannot interfere with the perception. The problem is we as coaches learn in the opposite - We learn technique/biomechanics, but omit the perception. Instead we should emphasize perception and build technique into the athlete’s perceptions.

If an athlete uses the crossover step, they have decided that is the best movement strategy for the problem they are encountering

You can’t build technique and then decision-making – it’s ass backwards. The decision an athlete makes dictates the technical application they use – when the decision/perception is absent, then the technique isn’t relevant. So basically athletes learn these „techniques“ that have no relevancy to a decision/perception and we think it will somehow stick. Or worse yet, we as coaches have decided this is the technique EVERY athlete needs to use in this situation, again this is another horrible thing we can do as coaches.


Many coaches hate to see players cross their legs when they’re defending despite the possibility to cover more space by this movement. What is your opinion about teaching this crossover and using it in the game?

I’m all for it, again if an athlete uses the crossover step, they have decided that is the best movement strategy for the problem they are encountering. Their perception and brain are deciding – a crossover step in this situation will put me in the best postion – sorry coaches, but you aren’t smarter than the body and more importantly you can’t alter what the athlete is perceiving in that moment – that is UNIQUE to that athlete in that instant.

So one athlete may choose a crossover based on their instant perception, past experiences, anthropometrics, etc while another may choose a shuffle step (not crossing over) based on those same things – neither athlete is wrong in the moment, and neither athlete's movement can be considered right for the other athlete.

It’s similar to a false step during acceleration from a squared stance. Coaches forever call it wrong, and wasted movement because the athlete is moving backward first and it doesn’t look right. Same with a crossover, coaches don’t have any reason other than it not looking right as an answer for an athlete to not use it.

What is your opinion about speed ladders and their use in agility training?

In agility training, NONE – there is no place for ladders agility training.

Now overal for athletes, I think one can make the case for using ladders in small doses and for appropriate reasons – but be clear they are not directly going to enhance speed or agility.

Having a routine warm-up can help relax and ground an athlete during high pressure games/events as they’ve done it hundreds of times

What I’ve found them useful for is to develop some rhythm, timing, lower leg stiffness, CNS activation – overal to help develop an awareness and framework of how the foot contacts the ground, shin angles, rhythm, body positioning and foot stiffness.

That being said, they are a tiny part of what I do, and I use them maybe once a month to break-up monotony and because athletes typically enjoy them.

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How much variety would you use in the player’s warm-up? Would you prefer a strict routine or to have some variety in every warm-up? 

This is something I’ve been thinking about regularly. For the qualification of athlete I work with (typically HS and college) I like variety, as it keep things fresh, allows me to work on a variety of movement skills, and introduces contextual interference into our warm-ups.

For a higher level of mastery, giving an athlete a standardized warm-up has it’s benefits from a coaches and athletes perspective to understand a movement baseline for that athlete. With an athlete performing the same warm-up everyday, as coaches, we gain an understanding of their movement strategies and baseline and we can easily see when they may fall outside of that bandwidth and we now know we need to make adjustment or something is up. Also, from a stress standpoint, having a routine warm-up can help relax and ground an athlete during high pressure games/events as they’ve done it hundreds of times, it allows the body to be comfortable and relaxed when doing it.

Is it possible to create a drill that will mimic as reliably as possible the stress and anxiety of the game?

Great question, and a difficult one to answer. It depends on the athlete and what raises their anxiety. Some athletes are very calm and thrive during a competition, and may actually get raised anxiety during a practice drill – others are the opposite.

Overall, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to mimic some of the stressful/anxiety ridden situation of a game in practice, but that shouldn’t mean you don’t try. The goal should be to include times where you get as close as possible. Again for a crude example – if you can get with 90% of the stress/anxiety of a game during practice, at least the athlete will now have some decent exposure to it. If practices lives at a 60% stress/anxiety level, then that is a much bigger jump to the game and will lead to a higher liklihood of choking or poor performance.

Finally, I think it’s important to note we can increase stress/anxiety in a multitude of ways during training/practice – it doesn’t have to be just competition. It could be giving a speech, remembering a phrase throughout practice and having to recite it at the end, it could be through artifical crowd noise, it could be with having people watching practice, it could be by putting the athlete in a disadvantaged posiition, it could be with artificial weather (warm/cold), etc. There are numerous ways to accomplish this.

It should also be noted that there are times for this and times when we want to decrease stress/anxiety and let our athletes be comfortable and confident – mainly the closer to compeition, we want athletes to feel confident and competent rather than stressed and challenged.

Last question is a little bit different than the others, but: Is there one thing that you’ve learned recently about life or coaching from other industry than sports that makes you a better person?

Great question Kuba, and a tough one! One thing I’ve been working on valuing my time and being more stingent on my time. I used to say yes to everything, yes to a camp, yes to extra sessions, yes to training on Sundays, etc. I’m working on valuing my worth and time and saying no to things that don’t excite me or people that don’t value my time. I’d much rather now say no to things that aren’t really valuable so I can have time to read, write, spend with family, etc.

People need to value their time, experience, and expertise and sometimes say no to things/people that don’t respect those things. Earning a little less money is well worth the added time and happiness to pursue projects that excite me.


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Jakub Kalus

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