Practice Players Versus Game Players – Why Do Some Play Better/Worse In Games?

By Don Kelbick


Why do some players look so good in tryouts/practice but totally become invisible during a game, while some look average in tryouts/practice but then go kick butt during a real game? How can I decipher through this during tryouts/practice to choose the best game players? Thank you.


What you are asking about is one of the challenges of coaching and there is very little you can do about it.

Firstly, let’s look at basketball tryouts. What is it that you do in the tryouts? How long do they last? How many days? If you are running one of those one day tryouts where players are on the court for 10 minutes and then they are done, you are working with a very small sample size. Have you ever had a bad 10 minutes on the court yourself, maybe gone 0-5 from the floor in your 10 minutes. If that is the only time someone will look at you, they will think you can’t shoot. They won’t see (or care) when you hit your next 32 shots in a row because they weren’t in your tryout time.

Players who shine during practice but not in games usually have one of two (or both) issues. One is talent. When playing in practice against his teammates, he might be more evenly matched with his opponent because, as a coach, you are trying to make practices competitive. You construct your competitions by finding players that are evenly matched so they are challenged but can experience some success. In a game you don’t have that luxury. He might be simply playing against a better player in a game.

More than likely, though, his problem is self image and confidence. Practice is a very comfortable atmosphere where there are more knowns than unknowns. That comfort breeds confidence and better play. In a game, where all the situations are different and the competition is a mystery, poor self image and doubt control the situation. It also has a tendency to snowball. If you don’t understand what is happening, think about how confused your player is. You have to be very careful how you handle this situation. Once he starts believing he can’t do it, he can spiral downwards and never become an effective player.

In regard to the second situation where a player is hidden during practice and plays well in games, again, there might be two issues. One is he might be bored in practice. You have to find different ways to focus him and to teach him the value of practice, even if he feels he isn’t challenged.

The second situation is simple, players play better with good players. In practice, everyone gets on the court. In games, theoretically only the better players get to play at the higher levels of basketball. It could be possible that his game is helped by the other players. Getting the ball at the right time in the right spots, having other threats on the floor to occupy the defense would even make my game better.

As far as how can you decipher as to what players will do in games, become a coach and guess with the rest of us.


  1. Gust van Oorschot — June 23, 2013 @ 3:27 am

    My compliments to this site.
    I like this article.
    What I miss is a reflection on the fact that some players become better players when it really matters. The warriors who, maybe without the talent, just put their head down and get the job done.
    These players done shine in practice but kick ass in games!

  2. Talented but... — December 4, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    I would like to add my two cents because i was one of these players. I always got picked for my jv and varsity teams but when it came to being in the court I froze and stunk. I can look back now 20 years later and say it was due to the following…

    Poor coaching and ability to get me to relax and make me believe in myself.

    I was so focused in running offense I never just reacted and played ball.

    I expected too much of myself and put unnecessary pressure on myself.

    I focused on winning and not just being me and the love of playing.

    Lastly…confidence. I never practiced dribbling and that there is massive if you want to do anything on the court. The game is 90% mental and 10% skills…

    This I take to my players each year and I believe I can be successful coaching. But really each player is a mystery and only the best know the real ways…

  3. Small Baller's Dad — December 26, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

    The ability to process visual information quickly is a significant variable once you speed up to game conditions. Many practice scenarios are constricted and predictable for the players so they can focus on a particular skill.

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