Getting the Most of the Basketball Warm-up Routine

I spoke in a teleconference with current Norwood boys basketball and former Braintree girls basketball coach Kristen McDonnell. Her accolades include several state championships and numerous players that have gone on to play at every level of college basketball. I have heard from so many different coaches that I should try to learn from Coach McDonnell and the conversation we had lived up to the hype. Andover girls coach Alan Hibino raved about her team’s approach at halftime of JV games. Thus, my first question for Coach McDonnell was how to warm-up for basketball games.

Compete as Soon as You take the Court

At the high school level, the first time that both teams take the court together is during halftime of the JV game. At the college or professional level, teams meet during pre-game shoot around. And for youth levels it might be during a timeout at the end of the game that precedes it. Regardless of the level, Coach McDonnell preaches to her team that this is actually the start of the game. Her team should win that initial warm-up 95% of the time or more. In order to win, they need to warm-up with more energy than the opponent. If players do not have a ball, they should be clapping. Players should constantly be saying names as they give and receive passes. To anyone watching from the stands they should notice what team has more energy. And it should go without saying, but her team is very organized in getting up shots.

Coach McDonnell’s Traditional Warm-Up Routine

After the JV game, teams in high school generally have fifteen minutes to warm up. Again, this time can fluctuate a little depending on the level. Youth teams should simplify this routine to consider how to warm up with only five minutes. College and professional teams have more flexibility in determining when to start and end their warm-up routines. Coach McDonnell breaks this warm up time into four sections. They have game-like shots, defensive principles, individual offense, and lay-ups.

Game-Like Shots

When I say game-like shots it could be lay-ups too. They want to simulate the types of shots they get within their offense. If your team runs sets, how do those sets usually end. That is what is important when considering this in a warm-up. They also look at the types of passes that get thrown and make sure those are game-like. Too often players go through the motions and throw passes that would never come close to being in the game. Finally, it is imperative to communicate. Again, this hits on the energy theme that is sacred to Coach McDonnell.

Defensive Principles

Coach McDonnell admitted that the defensive portion of their warm-up is boring, but still essential. Therefore, immediately after the team completes the game-like shots, the players will quickly huddle. In that huddle, they talk about the energy that they are going to have during the 3 on 3 defensive drill to make sure it is actually higher than the first part of the warm up.

The 3 on 3 defensive drill checks off many boxes. Coach McDonnell wants the players to close out and have the players off the ball be exactly where they were taught to be in their shell principles. The last player in the sequence is expected to take a shot. They do not go after it with true game intensity, but she is looking for one thing. Instead of saying “box out” which becomes a cliché in the game, they instead say “tag.” They just want the players to get contact on the offense with the forearm before pursuing the ball. A concept that Coach McDonnell said she picked up from Jay Wright.

Individual Offensive Skills

After the defensive principles, Coach McDonnell likes the team to split into positional break out. The guards will go between half-court and the top of the key to work on zig zags and dribbling. The forwards will remain inside the arch to work on post defense and offense. One thing that she wants to add heading to the next season is a single player getting free throw reps in simultaneously with the post players on the blocks.

Lay-up Drill to End

Coach McDonnell wants to end with an up-tempo lay-up drill. The theme the entire time leading up to the game is energy and she does not want the team to let up. The lay-up drill needs to be at game speed. That way players are getting the aerobic fitness they need, but also seeing the ball go in before they finally take on their opponent for real.

After Halftime

I loved Coach McDonnell’s competitive perspective on trying to win the JV warm-up and the game warm-up and told her as much. She cut me off as I was finishing and added that they want to win the warm-up after halftime too.

Many coaches forget to emphasize to players what types of shots to take or even to take shots at all after halftime. They feel it is their job to review adjustments and give positive feedback, which it is. If coaches are efficient though, they should do this all in a timely fashion in order to get the players back on the floor. Coach McDonnell told me it is their objective after halftime to get more shots than their opponent. Especially on the road where they are shooting at a new hoop and players need to familiarize themselves with the new setting.

What Not to Do for a Warm-up

There are certain drills that are very popular in warm-ups that Coach McDonnell is not a fan of. I happen to agree with her even though my teams have historically used one of them.

Defensive Disadvantage Drills

She does not love the 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 disadvantage drills. It gets to be pretty messy. One player might make a sloppy pass and the ball gets juggled. As a result, she is not open anymore, so she throws a pass. That player reverses it. Are you serious! That is not game-like. The disadvantage will not exist anymore. The other thing about the disadvantage drills is that players will try to be unnecessarily flashy. They want to put on a show for their friends in the stands instead of making the fundamental play. Coach McDonnell even said one year when they were doing it a player got injured before the game.

The Take a Free Throw and Rotate Drill

Another drill that she does not find valuable that many teams use is the one shot free throw rotation. Many teams will warm up for ten or eleven minutes with high energy. Then, eleven players are just standing on the lane line watching one player take a deliberate shot. It runs counter to everything they did in the first ten or eleven minutes.

The flaws to this drill are endless. It is not game like. When was the last time there were ten players lined up in a lane line in a game? Also, the players find it boring. Watch the body language of any team that does this before a game. Despite the preparation at practice, scouting the team you are playing, writing up a game-plan and the last emotion players feel before heading into action is boredom.

Pay Attention to Your Team’s Warm-up

When I coach I usually do not watch my team warm-up. I watch the other team warm-up. I talk to the JV players and give feedback on their game. The assistant coaches and I will see who the refs are. Opposing coaches and I might exchange pleasantries. Much of this has value, but it is hard to argue that anything is more valuable than making sure the team is warming up well.

Listen to Coach McDonnell rattle off the routine and the reasons behind everything they do, I got the impression that she watches her teams warm up like a hawk. She is a self-proclaimed “control freak”, but clearly it works for her. If at any point during the warm-up routine she feels like they are not meeting the bar that she has set for their expectations, she will call the team over and tell them. On the flip side, when they warm up well, she also gives them feedback. Even for teams that are clearly less talented, there needs to be a sense of competitiveness that they will not lose the warm-up.

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