Basketball Advice from a Sprint Coach- Part 1

Jun 22, 2022

This article first appeared on The Track Football Consortium

I'm known as a sprint coach but I spent the first half of my life focused on basketball. My father, Don Holler, coached 47 years at six high schools and one college (Aurora University). Dad, pictured above at Kiel Auditorium (Decatur vs. East St. Louis) almost 65 years ago, was a head coach in his first year out of college. My childhood was spent in school buses, locker rooms, and gymnasiums. Match-up zones and motion offense were discussed at the dinner table.

At age 23 I became the head basketball coach at the worst 2A school in Illinois (only two divisions in Illinois back in 1983). Harrisburg High School played in a conference with four schools twice their size. At six of the eight schools, the basketball coach was also the Athletic Director, meaning they hired the officials and handed them their checks, sometimes after the game. Four of those athletic directors were Hall of Fame basketball coaches (Rich Herrin, Lee Emory, Bob Bogle, and David Lee). In 1983, I inherited a 35 game losing streak and a near-impossible challenge.

My first five years were tough, showing progress but losing 92 games. Going into the 1987-88 season, Harrisburg had accomplished only one winning season in the previous 21 years, averaging 18 losses per season.

The 1987-88 season started well, winning eight of our first ten games with two close losses to state-ranked teams (Marion and Carbondale). We won the 16-team Eldorado Holiday Tournament, never trailing in any of our four games. Despite playing with a 6'1” center, we ran disciplined offense and destroyed teams that played us man-to-man. When teams went zone, we bombed threes. In the second half of the season, we went into a slump. Teams got tired of getting back-doored and back-picked for lay-ups and decided to make us win from the perimeter. My best two shooters picked the wrong time to go into prodigious slump. My team went on a miserable losing streak. We eventually got back on track but the damage had been done. We finished the year 13-12.

My teams went 14-11 and 13-13 in the next two years and I got fired in March of 1990. Lucky for me, I had been hired as head track coach the month before I was fired as basketball coach. In the next ten years, my track teams won three state championships.

I give you this historical perspective to let you know I'm not a total basketball outsider.

More important, I give you this historical perspective because of a mistake I made reacting to my team's slump 30 years ago.

When things went south, I reacted like 99% of all coaches react to failure, I doubled down. Instead of giving my kids time off, I put them through “Hell Week”. We practiced before school, 6:15 until 7:45, and then practiced 2:30 until 5:00 after school. I was a monster. We did full-contact take-the-charge drills. We did loose-ball drills (one kid lost a tooth). We ran at the end of practice until someone puked. I was a product of World War II coaches, guys who had literally fought in WWII or were coached by guys who had fought. The answer to defeat was always hard work and toughness. Losing showed weak character and a lack of courage. The simple act of writing this paragraph has elevated my testosterone levels, which is not necessarily a good thing.

I'm a different type of coach now. I understand high performance and I've abandoned the military bullshit.

Back in August, I wrote New Ideas for Old School Football Coaches and two follow-up articles. The articles were well received and I know of several programs that changed what they do based on my ideas. I've received nothing but positive feedback.

I've done some consulting with basketball programs and recently a local basketball coach, Brett Hespel, asked for some basketball advice. Instead of writing Brett a three-hundred word email, I figured I'd write a three-thousand word blog.


Train like a Track Athlete

The hard-easy concept goes back to Bill Bowerman's Oregon days (1948-1973). Bowerman realized that training was more effective when he allowed ample rest between hard workouts. The key word here is “hard”. Bowerman believed low-intensity training achieved nothing. World records are not the byproduct of moderate exercise. Bill Bowerman chose to train for high performance, not fitness. To achieve excellence in practice, Oregon never practiced hard two days in a row.

This is my take on hard-easy: “Sprint as fast as possible, as often as possible, staying as fresh as possible.”

Basketball coaches must decide, like Bowerman, what they want from practice. Should you try to “go hard” every day? Or, do you prioritize rest and recovery in an attempt to teach players to go faster and harder than they've ever gone? Would you rather have two practices per week in fifth gear or four practices in third gear? Most coaches demand consistent effort at every practice. They accept “the grind” of the season. Teams practice slow and hope to play fast in games. Believe it or not, many track coaches make the same mistake.

Here's another one of my sayings: “Never let today's workout ruin tomorrow's workout if tomorrow's workout is important.” I would rather practice less and feel great the next day than to practice until failure and trudge through the next day's workout.

I can remember my dad telling his team 50 years ago, “We are going to work so hard in practice, games will feel easy.” This seemed to make sense to me at the time. Not anymore.

As a track coach, what if I adopted the “work hard in practice to make meets easy” philosophy? Would running ten 200s in practice make one 200 feel easy? Maybe. The problem comes with the unintended side effects of hard work. Athletes would RUN ten 200s, they would not SPRINT. It's physically impossible to sprint 10 x 200. My guys would RUN each 200 in 25-28 seconds. How does this prepare someone to SPRINT a 21-second 200? How does slow in practice translate to fast in meets?

↑work + ↑volume = ↓intensity

There's no arguing this fact. As a basketball coach, you have a choice.  You can attempt to practice hard for two hours at every practice, or you can build your practice schedule to promote high-energy game-speed efforts.

When Dick Vitale talks about a formula for success, he refers to the three E's, “Energy, Enthusiasm, and Excitement.” If these traits are important, coaches need to get away from the grind and put an emphasis on quality by incorporating rest and recovery.



I talk about hormesis everywhere I go. I tell people about Paracelsus (1541), “Everything is a poison, nothing is a poison, it all depends on the dose.” I tell people about Hugo Schulz (1888), “Small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, and large doses kill.” Hormesis is similar to The Law of Diminishing Returns. However, too much, too often, and too intense will do more than just diminish your returns.

Hormesis can be applied to food. Eating sustains life. Overeating is a national epidemic. Hormesis can be applied to medicine. Most medicines are poisonous in large doses. Alcohol is a perfect example of hormesis. The first couple drinks puts you in a good place. The third or fourth drink begins to inhibit. When you lose count, the alcohol starts to kill.

Obviously, the hormesis application for coaches is exercise. Training is like a poison. Training can stimulate, inhibit, or kill. Coaches are tough guys descended, in one way or another, from WWII survivors. Our natural instinct to celebrate hard work and beat our chests telling everyone how tough we are. But coaches are not leading a platoon against Rommel's tanks. Coaches are directors of high performance. Coaches are in charge of skilled kids who compete against other skilled kids. We must keep our eye on the prize.

For more on hormesis, check out The Survival of King Mithridates.

Skill Work

Skills should be taught when the brain is alert and the body is rested. Tired and unfocused skill work borders on stupidity. In track, vaulters never practice tired. Jumpers only practice on days when they are fresh. Hurdlers go fast or go home (slow hurdling is beyond stupid).

Shooting is the most critical skill of basketball. I've witnessed basketball practices where teams did drills, scrimmaged, and then ran sprints until exhausted. The skill of shooting was NEVER addressed.

I've watched middle school teams spend more time on out-of-bounds plays than on shooting the ball correctly.

Bobby Knight believed “how to play” was infinitely more important than “plays”.

Ball-handing is another skill that can be practiced and improved. In my opinion, scrimmage situations and AAU games do not improve ball-handling. If you think about it, only one player has the ball in any live basketball situation. Two teams, one ball.

John Wooden said “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Too many basketball coaches are proud of their busy practices. Just because players are on the move doesn't mean jack shit. There can be tons of activity in a practice while shooting, passing, and ball-handling skills remain unchanged.

John Wooden reminded coaches what it takes to improve fundamentals. Here are Wooden's “Eight Laws of Learning”:

#1 Explanation
#2 Demonstration
#3 Imitation
#4 Repetition
#5 Repetition
#6 Repetition
#7 Repetition
#8 Repetition

Tony Holler has taught Chemistry and coached track for 37 years at three different high schools, Harrisburg (IL), Franklin (TN), and Plainfield North (IL). Inducted into the ITCCCA Hall of Fame in 2015, Holler's teams have continued to feature great sprinters. Along with Chris Korfist, Holler co-directs the Track Football Consortium held twice a year (June and December). Holler has written over 100 articles promoting the sport of track and field and sharing everything he knows. His articles can be found at, and You can follow Coach Holler on Twitter @pntrack and email him at