Eastbay recently chatted with renowned basketball trainer DJ Sackmann to talk about the most important aspects of training, pet peeves of his, where the game is going, and what you can do to stay ready during COVID. Make sure to check out the training video as well to add some tricks to your jab game.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing for you about coaching?

A: That’s a loaded one. I like empowering the players I’m working with. Empowering and helping them understand that with diligent and hard work you can accomplish anything. Say your goal is to make it to the NBA. The majority of players will not make it to the NBA, but if they’re working hard on that goal, they will eventually land where they should be. Hopefully, it will be doing something they are passionate about, that they love. I love helping kids build the right habits and work ethic through the game of basketball that will carry over for the rest of their lives.

Q: What are some key things you think middle and high school kids forget to work on?

A: For middle and high school kids, I think the basketball training world is oversaturated. Players are training too much and not playing enough. I think kids need to be playing in a more uncontrolled environment. Whether that’s 1v1, 3v3, or 5v5, I think that’s a missing element right now. Training is good, but mixing in playing with their training is a missing component with that middle school and high school group.

Q: Yeah, that’s where you really learn because you can be as comfortable as you want in a controlled environment, but if you can’t perform in a game situation then what have you really learned?

A: Exactly! When a lot of the kids are playing now, it’s only with one of their coaches, either AAU, high school, or middle school, so they can’t make mistakes. Anytime they make mistakes, they’re getting yelled at or taken out of the game. Uncontrolled environments allow them to explore some of those weak points in their game without getting yelled at or benched.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to work on with young athletes?

A: First off, I want them to enjoy the process and have fun with it. I think it’s important for them to remember why they’re playing the game; they’re playing because they love it. Once they find some success in it, they’re enjoying it, then you can go a little bit more attention to detail and really expand on what they can already do.

Q: What do you think is the hardest position to master (guard, big, wing) and why?

A: I think all the positions are equally hard to master. I would go by whoever is the leader of the team because they are responsible for making sure every player is maximizing their potential. Typically, that’s the point guard, but not always. Look at someone like LeBron James – he’s not necessarily the point guard but he is the leader of that team. Whoever it is that’s responsible for managing all the personalities and maximizing everyone’s potential, that’s the person with the most difficult job.

Q: What are some of the mental aspects you think kids are overlooking these days?

A: Number one is confidence, without question. Without confidence, you can’t play the game. I see this a lot with players overthinking during training. They’re getting too much instruction, and suddenly they’re overthinking. Once that happens, your confidence is going to be affected. Focusing on having fun and keeping your confidence is super overlooked, and it can be challenging to do.

Q: What is something a player does when you’re watching a game that is your biggest pet peeve?

A: I think body language is huge. I work with a lot of players who are working on getting a scholarship. I’ve seen bad body language become the difference between getting a full scholarship and having to pay for school. It’s something most players can control too. I see way too many kids who aren’t comfortable making mistakes. They’re a little insecure, and that’s when you’ll see bad body language come out. It’s a pet peeve of mine because it shows they haven’t worked on it, or they haven’t had the right people around them to harp on the idea that this isn’t ok.

Q: Kids are playing so much more basketball nowadays and receiving so much more instruction, whether it’s their high school coach, AAU coach, or if they have their own personal trainer. What are some things you think these coaches could do a better job teaching?

A: They could do a better job giving their players more freedom rather than boxing them in and just focusing on the things they’re going to do well for their teams. In high school, coaches need to allow their players to explore some of their weaknesses in their game. Coaches can still give players a plan of what they expect from them this upcoming season. It’s about working to maximize those few components while also expanding on their overall game.

I don’t think coaches are giving their players enough plans or setting expectations for them about the future. These players are out here training recklessly, unsure of what their jobs are. I think there is a more systematic way to go about, “Hey this is what you’re going to do this season, this is what I’m expecting from you, and these are 2-3 weaknesses you can improve on.” Then a more long-term approach where it’s, ‘Hey, in 2 or 3 years we’re expecting this and this from you, and maybe we’ll be able to get you a scholarship if you work on these things.”

Q: How is high school basketball different now than when you were playing?

A: More positionless basketball is trickling all the way down from the NBA. There are more players able to handle the basketball and shoot than when I was playing. Our 4s and our 5s, when I was in high school, they weren’t shooting 3s. You’ll have a couple of true 5s on some teams, but the majority of players are putting the ball on the floor. The floor is more spread out, and if you can’t shoot or handle it, you’re going to struggle to reach a high level one day.

Q: How do you see the game changing moving forward, and are there any rule changes you would like to see at the high school, college, or NBA level.

A: I think you’re going to see players be able to shoot from even deeper. The further your range is, the easier the game is for you. It forces defenders to pick you up much higher, which causes the help side to be much deeper. This creates more room to attack once players step over half-court, because there’s now extra space between there and the three-point line.

One of my biggest things I would love to see changed in high school basketball across America, is the shot clock. It sounds silly, but New Jersey doesn’t have a shot clock, and New York does. It’s messing with a lot of stats for a lot of kids, and it completely changes the game. I wish there were more concrete guidelines across states so that everyone is competing under the same set of rules. In New Jersey, you’ll get a team up by 10 in the 4th quarter, and they’ll hold the ball. It’s not fun for the fans or players at all.

Q: COVID has obviously impacted sports in ways we could never have imagined. There are a ton of kids out there right now who don’t know if they’re even going to play this year. Do you have any advice for kids who are out on their own training without the benefit of a system?

A: I think right now, players should focus on controlling what they can control. What I mean by that is you can always continue to work on your game. Stay ready, so when the time comes, players are conditioned, feeling good, and confident in their games. It’s also a good time to work on a couple weaknesses. Take shooting for example. If you’re struggling shooting the basketball and you need to make a switch, now is the perfect time to do that. You can focus on repping it out so when games are back on you don’t fall back into bad habits. Then hopefully in a few months when we’re playing again, they’ve fixed that subtle detail they were missing in their game.