When I was a much, much younger coach, I had this weird ability to be reading something like the back of a Cheerios box and come up with basketball play inspired by something I had read. I went through a pretty rough patch these last few years with my wife leaving me and later dying of brain cancer and my mom developing heart problems at the same time that I was dealing with my father's dementia. I couldn't afford therapy, they wanted $400 a month that I didn't have, so I did what most American males do in such situations which was try to fix things on my own. I made a hobby out of reading books about psychology, mythology, self-help, and spirituality.
I began to see a lot of weird patterns and how a lot of things we often take for granted in the material world are actually based on the laws of energy, biology and physics. There is book entitled The Master and His Emissary about brain structure written by a professor named Ian McGilchrist who argues that the more analytical left-side of the brain is jealous of the slightly larger right-side of the brain and will lie and manipulate things in order to seize command of our thought processes. The more spiritual, big-picture right-side is ousted in a type of coup and afterwards the left, now unable to understanding the meaning of things, will run shit right into the ground until it is necessary to hand the reigns back over to the right side to restore the proper balance. McGilchrist points out the ancients seemed to be aware of this situation and encoded it in their myths. He also argues that it is possible to look at history and recognize which societies were working with functional bi-cameral thinking and those time periods where all social activity was being governed by the left side only.
The other day I wrote an article triggered by my efforts to explain to our players how their offensive thinking should be integrated with their defensive thinking. For example, they should regard defensive rebounding as the beginning of the offense, and their offensive efforts should in some way be governed by what the needs of the defense are. I swiftly recognized this as an example of bicameral thinking, and then I noticed that the outline of the basketball court closely resembles the make-up of the human brain.
The American government for example is set up to resemble the bi-cameral brain as does our two party system. There is supposed to be a middle ground performing the function of the corpus callosum, a flat, thick bundle of nerves that exists between the hemispheres and enables the communication between them, where the two parties meet to hammer things out. Our current lack of the middle ground in American politics and political polarization that we are now experiencing seems to support McGilchrist's thesis very well.
The basketball court has two sides, an offensive side and a defensive side and the half-court line acts much like a corpus callosum in that it governs the interplay between the two sides. If the player is on one half of the court, they are in an offensive mindset, but the moment they cross the line, they instantly switch to a defensive mindset. If a coach only focuses on one side of the game, say the offensive side, it could lead to an imbalance where their defensive choices are what gets them beat. A perfect example would be when a team keeps shooting threes when they are not dropping and suddenly a few long rebounds leads to their defense being overwhelmed in transition. This makes the case for thinking in an integrative way where you need select an offense that serves the needs of your defense, and vice versa. Some people might say, "Well duh, that's totally obvious," but I don't think that's the case though, over the years that I have coached, I've seen many, many instances where a coach seemed to have selected his/her defensive planning without much thought on how it would benefit the offense.
It is obvious how running a defense that limits your opponent's possessions is beneficial to your team's efforts to outscore the opposite team. Possessing the ball is clearly the best defensive strategy there is. But what do you do when your team is made to run? The faster you go, the more possessions and scoring opportunities the other team gets. Therefore, there would need to be some concessions made to offset those increased opportunities. I think on the offensive end they would come from an emphasis on not turning the ball over, not taking bad shots, and extending the possession getting offensive rebounds. On the defensive side, you would need to emphasize the need to force turn-overs, create steals, not foul, and control the defensive boards. Nothing too ground shaking here.
Understanding how defenses and offenses mesh and work together could help a coach when scouting the opponent. A key question that could be asked would be, "Does their choice of defense help their offense? If so, how? The right answer could give an idea of where to attack in order to disrupt this coordination. For example, say they run a fast paced offense but take bad shots and make risky passes and their defense doesn't put any pressure on the ball. A coach could counter by hanging on to the ball and running time off the clock limiting the opponent's possessions and dropping two back to safety positions on shots to neutralize the running game.
Defending the Corner Versus the Four Out
A fellow coach and I had a long discussion a few years back about how to defend what I call the 'long line', or the passing lane between a guard with the ball on top looking to drive right for a lay-up with a teammate in the corner looking to catch and shoot the three after his/her defender goes to help stop the penetration. The difficulty in defending this action is one of the primary reasons that coaches run the dribble drive or four-out offense; it stretches the defense almost to its breaking point. At the time, I didn't think there was any one great way to defend that option, and I wrote a blogpost referring to it as a contradiction that needed to be resolved by which I meant it needed to be practiced, not so that the defender would ever master the skill, but the effort would at least help to increase his/her reaction speed and help them to get better at both stopping the penetration and recovering to contest the shot in the corner. In most cases, I still believed that by helping on the drive, the shooter would still get a good shot off, sometimes contested, sometimes not.
I now think I may have been wrong. I came home the other night from a scrimmage in San Jose and couldn't sleep. Later that night, I started thinking about that action. I think I was being triggered by something that happened in the scrimmage where the other team came down on offense, and we didn't have any body in the gap defending the pass to the girl in the corner. We we ended up breaking down and giving up an easy bucket. The girl who was supposed to be defending the gap was just to the right of the ball side block, lined up almost directly behind the ball's defender in order to stop the drive to the basket. I think she was worried about being back-doored. Suddenly I began to picture the right angle triangle involved. Seeing the triangle in my head helped me to realize that the defender needs to place him/herself between the driving lane and passing lane at a point where he/she can go from threatening the passing lane from a closed position with the denial hand held thumbs down. The moment that the dribbler tries to get by the ball defender on that side, the corner defender needs to open up to the ball, stay down and take two steps straight across to interdict the drive to the basket. It is important to emphasize the straight across movement as many defenders will make the mistake of moving upward toward the ball and thereby increasing the length of the recovery run.
Arriving at the help position, it is important to still maintain a lowered stance, and sit across the driving lane at about a forty-five degree angle while pointing the inside shoulder toward where the free throw line and the opposite lane line meet. This staggered stance allows the defender to point his/her outside foot toward the offensive person in the corner. If the pass goes to the corner, the defender should push off on the inside foot and keeping their shoulders low take two big steps toward the corner.
The threat of being back-doored can be mitigated by keeping pressure on the ball and having the weak side help defenders treating the action like a downside rotation drill, or the same as they would defend a baseline drive. Also, by placing their hand thumbs down in the passing lane, the defender gives his/herself an arm's length cushion to recover if the person in the corner disappears behind the defender's shoulder.
Points of Emphasis
1) Two-steps- The defender's original position should be predicated by his/her ability to arrive at any of the positions needed by taking two quick steps either to the side or toward the corner.
2) Staggered help stance - The defender needs to turn their bodies to indict the drive at a forty-five degree angle which allows him/her to point outside foot toward the corner. This allows the defender to use the inside foot to thrust toward the corner.
3) Straight across - cut the driving lane directly opposite of where the passing lane is being defended. Do not run up to intercept the drive.
Run and gun style of basketball has become one of the most common features on the American sport’s scene. It is a style that usually produces a lot of points and excitement among the fans. Yet, it has also become somewhat of a justification for the acceptance of a lot of sloppy play and terrible shot selection. Because of this, the great potential that the style of play possesses is often obscured by a plethora of basic errors and just poor overall play. It has also caused a general decline in the defensive abilities of a lot of teams as they become more and more willing to give up two-point baskets in exchange for threes. This doesn’t have to be the case because the short-comings of the fast-paced style of basketball can often been attributed to the failure of many coaches to grasp a complete understanding of how to obtain all of the benefits of a quick strike offense without the need for sacrificing solid basketball principals.
When I was a high school coach and had to decide if we should play man or zone, I did a comparison of the two defenses and decided it would be a smart thing to emphasize the areas where they overlapped. I then selected three areas where they were similar and made them our daily points of defensive emphasis. They were the following:
I would give this speech and talk about these three principals where I would ask one of the players to repeat what I said back to me. They would invariably come up with three things I mentioned, slow the ball down, not allowing straight line passes, and keeping the ball out of the high post. Then I would ask the others if they agreed or disagreed, and usually they would all concur.
I would then inform them they were wrong.
This would cause a great deal of confusion because they were all dead certain that I had in fact stressed those three key points. Having gotten their attention, I would tick off those points on my fingers, and ask them what they had forgotten. I would then continue counting the following points on my other fingers, to stress quick ball movement on offense, the need for direct line penetration, and for getting the ball into the high post.
This is not a facetious point. Too many players and their coaches regard basketball as being two things, offense and defense. In reality, the game of basketball is one thing only and teaching your players to think about how the two different aspects of the game are actually integrated has a lot of benefits, and it will help coaches to better define their roles and therefore help the players to better understand those roles.
Defense starts the offense
All offense begins with the procurement of the ball. There are only four ways of doing this and Coaches only need to emphasize the three that make your team better defensively - forcing turnovers, creating steals and getting the rebound. Having the players fully realize that your offense can only start when you gain control of the ball will help them to better understand the need for carrying out their defensive assignments. We have played pressure defensive exclusively for several years and have always had problems teaching our kids the importance of recovering to the gaps, and putting so much pressure on the ball that the offensive player will feel the need to put the ball on the floor (where we have help procedures in place) and not just allowing the ball to sit and think about what he/she needs to do. They need to make the ball nervous because it is always the calm and composed players who cause your team the most problems. Nervous players make mistakes. They fumble the ball. They let you steal the ball. They make bad passes and take bad shots.
Most players do not like to box out. Coaches waste a lot of time doing box out drills that never carry over to the game. Teaching defensive rebounding as the part of the offense allows the coach to stress the idea that procurement of the basketball is the first and main requirement of any offense. It is therefore irresponsible not to box out your player if he/she attempts to move toward the boards. It is the player’s job to understand that every time the other team shoots, the ball belongs to us. Any qualms about the courtesy and politeness in forcefully placing your rear-end into your opponent’s body need to be forcefully dispelled. What is socially acceptable in everyday life often does not apply when it comes to procuring the basketball. Your players need to consider it the height of rudeness for the other team to even consider that a rebound of their missed shot belongs to them. In other words, they need to be disciplined and taught not to be so rude. (Of course, the rules reverse again when you are on offense. In that case, boxing out and trying to keep you from procuring the ball is becomes the rude behavior.)
This also require a rethinking on the part of the coaches about what they need to stat. Coaches need to know who on their team is allowing the other team to gain second chance opportunities, which player is allowing straight-line drives to the basket, and also which player allows is allowing easy passes to be completed. There needs to be a perfect understanding that a coach has a responsibility to the player to put him/her on the bench and keep them there until they learn to both properly defend the dribble and the passing lanes and to keep the offensive player that they are defending from getting a rebound as they will never become the best player they can be if they are continually allowed to shirk their responsibilities.
Offense should benefit the defense
There also has to be an understanding that the offense needs to help the defense carry out its duties. Too many teams get ran off the floor without having a slightest clue as to what they were doing wrong, or how often they abetted their own destruction. For example, continuing to shoot three pointers when they are not falling is the quickest way to go from one point down to ten down when long rebounds leading to run-outs occur. Many teams will start forcing up bad shots or making risky passes when they are trying to cut a lead when the situation actually requires the opposite, better ball movement, valuing the basketball, only taking wide open shots, and an effort to get the ball inside to draw fouls.
One problem is that a lot of people feel that the value of ball possession goes out the window when you are playing an up-tempo offense. This need not be the case. There will be some sacrifice as you will allow the other team a lot more possessions than you would if you slowed the game down, but there needs to be compensations in place to counter the negative effects. There is no need for sloppy play. The need for good ball-handling, good passes and good shot selection needs to be strictly enforced. What needs to be done is actually a speeded-up version of ball possession, that is don’t turn the ball over and don’t take bad shots.
There are several things can help your team mitigate what you lose by going faster. For example, besides the things just mentioned, you should attack the rim hard and open up the post for the drop-off pass. This is not only the easiest way to score, according to NCAA study it also gives you the most points per possession. According to the study, inside shots are valued at 1.2 points per possession while free throws produce 1.4 points per possession.
Wide open three pointers produce 1.02 points per possession compared to the .86 ppp produced by mid-range jumpers. A recent NBA study states that 3s created by a solid assist are made about 15% more often than self-created shots. Analytically, this means that coaches need to emphasize getting fouled on lay-ups and shooting 3s off inside out passing and while not totally disallowing the self-created 2-point shot, at least minimize those shots. These studies emphasize the fact that quick, hard and direct-line drives are needed along with great passes to produce great shots. Doubling or flooding the weakside boards, as most shots on the side end up on the opposite side at a sizable margin, will also help your increase the efficiency of your offense and help to offset, what you might expect by simply hanging on the ball to keep it out of your opponent’s hands.
Playing fast does not mean playing stupid
Playing fast never means to play foolishly. Too many times when a coach emphasizes the quick strike, the players hear that it is okay to force up shots that should never have been taken and think that it’s ok to take a lot of unnecessary risks with their passing. A real emphasis should be laid on the idea that attacking quickly does not mean to force up bad shots and make dumb passes. Attacking the rim helps because your team will be able to get to the foul line and use the stoppages to help control the pace of the game. Playing basketball quickly doesn’t have to be a risky endeavor where all structure is thrown to the winds. Teaching guidelines where it enforces the idea that there is a method to the chaos you are trying to create in the other team’s huddle is of the utmost importance.
It is actually kind of like playing ball possession basketball at 78 speed as ironic as it may sound.
"In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory."
Alfred North Whitehead
Last year, I wrote a post about the importance of resolving contradictions in the sport of basketball. It was triggered by a conversation I had with another coach about the difficulty of helping stop a attacking dribbler and recovering to a shooter in the corner.
At the time, I wrote, "Say, for example, take the command to never lose sight of your own player and then add in the second command to never lose sight of the basketball. This is split brain stuff. It leads to contradictory demands. Or, how about being told to defend your player and not let them score while also being told to make yourself available to help defend another person's player if they drive past your teammate toward the basket? These are contradictions, and, believe me, there are many, many more. And as Lord Whitehead points out, getting caught on the horns of such contradictions can lead to defeat. In basketball, it usually leads to a player shedding one of his/her responsibilities, or worse sometimes freezes them in the middle where they can't perform either task well."
Recently, the same coach and I were talking about a problem he had with a project he was working on. He told me that he had worked hard to come up with a practical solution that ensured the project would go forward and was justifiably happy with his efforts. At the time, I was working on a writing a post about the importance of talking on defense and had used some of the ideas from the previous year's post on how to deal with on-court contradictions. It dawned on me, that my friend was dealing with the same concepts in a real life setting, and that in turn, triggered the sudden realization that life on this planet is about nothing but dealing with such contradictions, many small and inconsequential, but others larger and very impactful.
I reached this conclusion after reading a book about DNA titled "The Divine Code of Life" written by a Nobel Prize winning Japanese scientist named Dr. Kazuo Murakami. The author argues that our genes are hardwired for us be the best that we can possibly be. The way I figure, if our genetic make-up is wired for us to be the best, then, that is probably what we are supposed to be doing. Murakami also argued that such things as enthusiasm, curiosity and positive thinking can change our genetic make-up for the better. One insightful reviewer wrote that the book offers, "a devastating argument against genetic determinism and the idea that one's identity is written in the genome. It captures the majestic and spiritual dimension of the universe without being too religious."
The book points out the mostly hidden connection between what the spiritual teachings of the ancients actually said and modern science. Some support for this belief comes from no less an expert than Jesus Christ and his Parable of the Talents, in which the master of a house goes on a trip and hands out 100 talents of gold to each of three servants. Upon his return, the master only gives his blessing to the one servant who returned 100% profit on the money he was given by the master to invest. A fifty percent return from one of his servants did not cut it and the servant was admonished and dismissed. The parable clearly states that a 50% effort is not good enough. It occurred to me that a lot of the ancient spiritual teachings were about this same idea, and actually were used to explain scientifically provable concepts way before the invention of science and its terminology.
While searching on-line for a printable copy of a fictional plot-line in order to have my reading class label the terminology, what showed up on the page was a fictional plot-line, a plot-line of a hero-quest, and another plot-line for the psychological concept of individuation where an individual maps his/her progress toward psychic wholeness. It only took a second to realize that they were all dealing with the same idea. This suggests that the ancients used the mythic stories (hero quests) to teach a metaphorical message about how people were supposed to live their lives. The hero/heroine is called to go on a journey, fight monsters and overcome obstacles, and return to the community stronger, more confident and powerful than before he/she left.
I believe, the fictional narrative, invented a little over 500 years ago, was created and used to pass down the same message as the hero quests. In the Middle Ages, the Church had become totally obsessed with eradicating any and all mythological roots of Christianity. At the time, you could be tortured and burned for merely pointing obvious truths contained in the Scriptures.
I believe the narrative plot line used in fiction serves the same purpose that the ancients used hero quests to convey, which is that people are supposed to learn to overcome obstacles and slay their psychological monsters in order to become the best version of themselves. Which also happens to be the same message that the Dr. Murakami argues for in his fascinating book. The protagonist is usually a normal person who has issues and dissatisfaction with his/her current state. It's this dissatisfaction that propels the story forward where it is intensified by the addition of obstacles (life contradictions). In books and movies, the final obstacle is usually constructed so it appears the the hero/heroine will not be able to overcome it because of their character flaws. The climax (highest point of interest) of the story deals with the actual inner transformation of the main character into a stronger, emotionally healthier individual who becomes, upon return, a much better asset to the community as a whole. In other words, the hero achieves psychic wholeness by overcoming a final test or contradiction only after obtaining the necessary inner transformation, or a rebirth.
In modern life the concept has been increasingly complicated by the advent of mass communication, and the Church has been replaced by those who control the mass media. In the fifties, an anthropologist by the name of Gregory Bateson while researching the causes of schizophrenia, advocated the use of extreme contradictions to control populations. It was called the Double Bind Theory, "Bateson’s research focused on double-bind theory as a brainwashing and propaganda technique. A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and, therefore, can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation." In other words reaching an apparent dead end causes psychic paralysis. This might explain why our media only tells two conflicting sides of the story and many modern issues never seem to get resolved.
This also explains the insane efforts to commodify everything about sports. In their infancy, athletics were always a form of the hero-quest, where the participants sacrificed time and effort in to prove they were not ordinary, or profane but special. Now, professional sport is all about the branding and the money. It's hard to escape the realization that most fans nowadays watch a lot more commercials than they do actual sports; even the rights to name home runs and extra-points are being sold. Sports are also currently being used to serve the narrative message of the state. Even amateur sports, once a bastion of the mythic experience, are currently being destroyed by the quest to make a profit from commodifying everything involved in human existence.
Sport itself is one of the most important vehicles we still possess to teach the importance of resolving contradictions in order to achieve personal positive transformation. Modern politicians want to resolve our contradictions for us in order to buy our votes, and also to steal the power for transformation that resolving our own issues offers us. In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the importance being able to achieve the flow state which enables one to find true and positive meaning out of his/her efforts to become the best that they can be. It involves sacrifice and not mindless hedonism as our culture seems to suggest. The author says that a study he conducted revealed that the two most important factors in achieving such a state were doing the right things for the right reasons. True hero quests were never about the acquisition of wealth or getting a pair of tennis shoes named after you.
That day after practice, I admonished the team by telling them that I didn't think they boxed-out on 10% of the rebound opportunities presented. Driving home, I realized that this has been the case in my entire career. In the thirty-five plus years I've coached, my players have always resisted the need to box-out as a team discipline. This time a lightbulb went off. Most kids I've coached have been very coachable, and this is also the case for the girls we have now. It finally dawned on me that there has to be a deeper issue involved, maybe something similar to the double-bind theory, that they just can't figure out how to resolve the issue, or some psychological issue (Say something like the inability to leave a comfort zone, or fear of failure) stops them.
In literature, the climactic moment where the hero/heroine transforms is often accompanied by a lot of noise and action, gun shots, squealing tires, car crashes, thunder, lightning, etc. I used to teach my classes that the noise and commotion associated with the transformative process is meant to signify the tremendous release of psychic energy involved in such a transformation. However, I now believe it alludes to the destruction of the former self necessary to bring about the rebirth of the newer version. I also believe that the real message is that everyone on this planet will eventually be led to that final confrontation with their own version of the monster that guards the gold, or the ultimate contradiction they need to resolve.
It is not enough to keep cajoling or screaming at our our athletes and students about the need to do right things. We must also teach them about the necessity of overcoming contradictions, teach them how to overcome extreme frustration and anxiety, teach them how to face down demons and keep making decisions that might not be perfect but represent the best that they can do with what they have, and also teach them about the need to keep moving forward and never settling for trying to give back only 25% or even 50% as long as perfection is out there. And when they insist that they have reached a limit and can't perform what's needed, we must teach them how to understand how to slay the monster within that keeps telling them no.
In sports, we need to fight back against the idea that amateurism is a bad and out-dated idea. We need to make our colleges go back to the days when they were about teaching and the free exchange of ideas and not about creating super conferences and allowing more commercial time outs that interrupt the flow of the contests. We also need to take the ridiculous amounts of money out of professional sports and put it to a better use. Most importantly, we need teach our kids the importance of always trying to be the best that they can be and the role that learning to solve your own problems plays in that effort.
We are at that point in the season where us coaches are doing our best to get these players to communicate on the court. Notice I used the word communicate and not the word talk. Not all talking is a form of communication. I had that truth drummed into my head the last few years of my teaching career. Since the Sixties Revolution of the Day-Glo Painted Morons, kids have been told not to trust adults and especially adults who are trying to teach them what they'll need to become adults. This served a two-fold purpose, first, it deprived them of the tools they needed to transition into more responsible human-beings grounded in the hard won wisdom of the past, truths paid for in blood and sacrifice. And secondly, it detached them from the communal binding effects of such knowledge, making them more narcissistic, gullible, and easily manipulated at the same time.
Another reason has evolved out of this effort, a lot of the so-called adults in the room, who never learned the value of tradition, don't really have much to say. I learned this the hard way after attending many, many staff meetings where most of the speakers communicated very little that actually mattered and only parroted what came down from the top, in other words, they blathered a lot. Don't believe me? Look at how many sports commentators are making millions of dollars by proving how little they know about life and sports in general.
We had a college coach come in at the beginning of the season to look at some of our players. We warned them at the practice before that the coach did not want to hear us yelling at them to talk. Yet, the first thing the coach asked afterwards, was a question, "Do they talk?"
I had been there since the first day of practice and noticed that there were several of them who were making an effort, but things sounded more like the chatter at a polite afternoon tea than an actual attempt to communicate their needs and/or positions on a basketball court. And I, once again, was left to question my own beliefs as to why "talking' is so important to the game of basketball.
First there is the obvious, the talk to remind yourself what you are supposed to be doing in order to acquire the skills you need. This type of talk usually ended up in basketball versions of the rote multiplication drills that teachers used to teach math back in the day. (Those math drills were later discarded, and our kids haven't been able to multiply in their head ever since.) Stan Kellner, a legendary high school coach and advocate of cybernetics, said that we need to make our players talk in order to remind themselves of what they were supposed to be doing. For example, every time they do lay-up drills, your players should also say 'high and soft' as a reminder of where to place the ball. Kellner's concepts were pretty valid, but this method of simply repeating a phrase led to a wholesale questioning of the value of the technique because the players were simply repeating what the coaches told them to say.
To counter the more stifling effects of such rote learning, coaches freed up what was said and now emphasize the need to 'communicate', in order to let your teammates know what your needs are, or to let on-ball defenders know that you are in help position so they can feel safe in putting more pressure on the ball, or to let a defender know when and where a screen is approaching and what you are going to do in order to help them. Reminding your teammates what they should be doing, such as boxing-out would be another type of such communication.
College coaches are looking for leadership. They cannot afford to invest time, money, and effort into players that need to be dragged across the finish line. Who doesn't know someone who is more successful than others merely because of their ability to talk? I had a boss once who picked his nose and ate the boogers. I was shy and he was loquacious, he kissed ass to be truthful, but that's a form of talking.
I was a very well read, intelligent young man, but the people around me didn't know it because I never talked. Players need to understand the correlation between success and ability to communicate what they know. Talking also forces them to articulate what comes out of their mouth and that is an important factor too.
Author Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code describes the importance of figuring game situations out by learning from mistakes. He describes the process of myelination where the connections in our nervous system are coated with a milky white substance that guards against energy loss and makes the communication between our brain and muscles more efficient. Figuring out your needs on a court and then quickly determining how to communicate those needs is a great skill that not only makes you smarter but improves your physical response time. Modern coaches need to devise more drills that allow their players to be placed into game-type situations where they have to recognize not only what what their individual response needs to be, but also how to let their teammates know what they need to do to help, and all in a timely fashion. This also enhances their teammate's ability to 'listen', another skill which is almost universally ignored when teaching players to talk.
Lastly, the most important reason players need to learn communicate could almost be said to be the best excuse in not 'communicating' while playing; it's pretty damn hard to do sometimes. A lot of well-intentioned players simply give-up on the task because of the difficulty involved in things like defending a dribbler. I raised this point one time in another blog post about resolving contradictions, such as how to best help and recover against the offenses that place their shooters in the corners and dare you to stop the top penetration. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said it like this, "In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory." In other words, the ability to resolve such contradictions to the best of your ability leads to the acquisition of 'real' or more meaningful knowledge and skill. Placing players in what could reasonably be called no-win situations and teaching them to how to 'best' accomplish the task, makes the player mentally stronger and a lot less likely to be overcome with frustration, and therefore, less decisive when the optimal response demands a quick decision. Things they might learn from such exercise include when to talk and when not to talk, how to use non-verbal cues to enhance communication, and using encouragement and praise to promote teamwork.
I feel cheated when I look back in time and see all the lies I was fed by some of our leaders and the media, such as, "Don't trust anyone over thirty." The way I figure, thirty trips around the sun, is just about the beginning of when someone should start noticing patterns and shit. It was a stupid thing to say, maybe the stupidest. But looking around me now, I can see it took hold, and our society is in jeopardy because of it. Our kids need to learn to listen more to the people who will tell them things that will genuinely help them to deal with the vicissitudes of living, and one of the most important things they can learn is the value of being able to communicate, on the court and off.
A young coach I know recently asked me about how to attack a zone press. I responded with two so-called 'rules of thumb' that I acquired over the years 1) attack zone presses by in and out passing 2) don't react to it; attack it. The first part was pretty basic knowledge that most coaches would tell you; the second part was knowledge learned the hard way, via personal experience.
My first traumatizing ass kicking happened the first year I coached, a middle school boys B team who were drubbed by thirty points by a mid-court 1-3-1 trap. I felt that we had we lost because I didn't know what to do. Later that season, we returned the favor because I had learned four important lessons. The first was to keep a safety across and slightly behind the point guard (two guard front) which allowed us to change the angle of the entry if needed. Next, we threw over the top of the first line of defense, but the most important lesson was teaching that first receiver what to do when he received the pass which was to take it as far away from where the first trap would have been in order to make the defenders have to run a longs ways (creating gaps by making the defense have to cover space). We then dribbled or passed the ball into those gaps and attacked the back side weakness of the press. Finally, we unleashed our own full court trap on them (Rule of Thumb: Most pressing teams don't like being pressed themselves). When the coach had the audacity to complain that I kept the press on until we had a thirty point lead, I responded by saying, "Well, it didn't seem to bother you all that much the first time."
Most lessons that I have learned about breaking presses were not all that immediate; they have taken years to learn and were usually prompted by someone teaching me the lesson like one of those old school teachers using a yardstick to drum the point home. The last really important lesson that I've learned was when one of the best teams I've ever coached was totally demolished by a great, probably the toughest team we ever faced, Edison High School girls team. That lesson was never to lead your point guard into the corner to be trapped. Since that night, I've always screened one of my bigger players into the corner and reverse pivot-posted my screening point guard in the center where she had more room to operate. We also began to use jailbreak concepts to get the ball out and moving forward. There were times when we placed our attacking wings as far away as the opposite corners. We usually didn't have an in-bounder who could throw it that long, but by then, I had also had picked up another important rule of thumb which was 'never overestimate the intelligence of the opposing coach' (The opposite is just as true which is a much more painful lesson to learn).
Placing those attacking wings that deeply means the other coach has to deal with it; you can't just leave people that near your basket unguarded. It creates coverage problems which allows your primary ball handler room to operate. More recently though, we placed our attacking forwards at half court to combat the more aggressively trapping teams. If their defenders are guarding up the line, we took them a few steps forward and then broke toward the basket. A jail break action would quickly turn the press break in a three-on-one fast break. This strategy served us well and made a lot of topflight pressing teams stop pressing us.
The success of the strategy led to logical conclusion that became one of the greatest 'rule of thumbs' that we employed which was 'you can be pressed all night unless you hurt the press'. Because of this truism, from the beginning of the season, we would attempt to drill it into our player's head that being pressed worked to our advantage. The value of teaching your players not to be fear a press cannot be overstated as a large part of a press's effectiveness stems from the panic and anxiety that it creates. I've seen way too many coaches who unknowingly increase the pressure on their own team by keeping too many players (with their defenders) in the backcourt to plug up the escape routes.
It was a friend asking for advice that inspired me to write this. I have a whole pile of strange shit in my head, painfully learned, most of it, that I sit on the top of like a fat dragon guarding his pile of gold. I generally try not offer people unsolicited advice (unless I've been drinking in which case, I start talking prolifically as a nervous school girl on her first date). I've been reading this great book Primal Wisdom of the Ancients: The Cosmological Plan for Humanity. It's about this tribe in Africa called the Dogon who have been guarding some ancient cosmological knowledge concerning the origins of the universe for thousands of years. They will share what they know with anyone as long as long as that person can keep asking the right questions. I've seen enough glazed over looks and rolled eyes when I've forgotten that rule to not know how jealously we each guard our own thought processes and prerogatives. I fully understand that.
But another lesson that I've learned is that we humans have a tendency to listen and learn more when we have been emotionally aroused. There ain't nothing quite emotionally stimulating as getting your ass kicked by thirty points because you don't how to handle a press. Rather than go through that twice, it is probably advisable to go ask an old person how to avoid getting bit by a snake. He/She might roll their own eyes at you, but chances are they'll answer something to the effect, "You got nothing to fear from a dead snake, Pilgrim."
I got up this morning and first thing checked my Facebook feed and saw a post entitled something like "Ten Things You Should Always Remember", and the first thing mentioned was You Can't Change the Past. I thought to myself that this wasn't quite true. I don't remember what I was reading the time, but some months back I came across the idea that you can change the past. I'll get to how in a moment.
I was worried about going to practice today because of the comments that were made after our game last Saturday. We had beaten a legendary coach and program by 18 points, and the coaches should have been happy, but we weren't. We hadn't played particularly well, and that fact had been partially masked by an amazing three-point shooting performance by one of our players, and the fact that we had pressed the tired and short-handed opponent hard in the third quarter and got a lot of steals. In the game however, we made a lot unnecessary turnovers and displayed a lack of understanding of what we were doing with our zone offense.
I felt bad when I left the locker room after criticizing the players because they had worked hard all weekend and we had won by such a large margin. I also felt that it was needed criticism though. The head coach felt like I did too and let it be known that we would have to take some much needed steps in practice to toughen them up a bit before the next tournament. It is never a good feeling to leave your team in such an unsettled state after a hard week-end of tournament play.
I had tried to mitigate things somewhat by letting them know that I've had to criticize a lot of hardworking kids many times before and never felt especially good about doing it. The community where I began my coaching career was located in one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. Our little piece of paradise was known for its social/economic disadvantages (The Tulare-Kings area had overtaken Appalachia in this regard), teen pregnancy rate (we were once #1 in entire USA, and low educational achievement (also in the bottom nationwide).
In this area, vocations like teaching and coaching by necessity have to be regarded as something more than just a job; there is definitely a spiritual aspect to serving the youth in the Central Valley of California. It doesn't mean that every coach or teacher realizes it, but it's always there, just the same.
I explained this to our college kids just like I explained it to my high school teams back in the day. There were several times when I had to fight the urge to tell a bunch of tired and emotionally drained kids they had played well, or the urge to just give them a hug and console them after a tough loss. We had this tradition after every game, win or lose, where we talked first about what we had done wrong and sometimes the list was pretty lengthy and the discussion ran over into the time that we could have been celebrating. We called this exercise "Washing Our Dirty Laundry".
I felt that if I resorted to lying to them, no matter how small the lie, or merely comforting them after a tough loss that nothing would ever change, and it would result only in maintaining the status quo which was just a slower way of losing ground. Yet, noble motives never made it any easier for me or them.
I had inherited a varsity girls team that had gone 30-1 with a section title the year before. I added about four or five underclassmen from a group that had been pretty successful at the junior high school level. For whatever reasons, we didn't mesh real well at first with the only common denominator being the doubt a few of them had about my ability to coach. Things got so bad to where there was practice scheduled where it looked like it was going to be more like an episode of Jerry Springer than a basketball practice. It was my first year as a head coach, and I was already dealing with enough self doubt because of their success the year before. I didn't know what to do.
Right before going to practice, I had a sudden inspiration and showed up at the gym with a couple five gallon buckets of ice cream, some bowls and some spoons. Instead of a Battle Royale we had an ice cream social. They came with their guards up, ready to defend their aggrieved sensibilities, and the ice cream got them to lower their guards and talk. I learned that day that sometimes people just want to be heard. We worked our problems out and went on to win a second section championship, setting a section scoring record in the process.
When I showed up at practice today, Coach had placed a bunch of football pads on the court. He had the girls put them on, and we ran some drills wearing them. The tactic was just odd enough to pique their curiosity and lower their guards reminding me of that practice many years ago when the ice cream had served a similar purpose. It allowed us a chance to talk to them where we got past their defensive mechanisms, and we had a chance to restate and clarify what we had tried to tell them the previous meeting. This time they listened intently, and most importantly, we had a chance to praise them for showing up and facing down their fears of what lay in store when they first entered the gym. It was a great practice. They worked very hard and learned a thing or two about themselves. They are a very talented group of kids, but for some reason we haven't always maximized that talent. I believe we will however.
The night after the last game, Utah State knocked off a 12-1 San Diego State Football in the Mountain West Championship game. The Utah State coach said in the post game interview that he never wanted his team to get too comfortable as it prevented them from making progress. I took that statement as validation that we were on the right track. You see I believe that truth validates itself. I arrived at that idea after reading a book about the Dogon in Africa, a tribe who believes that they have been charged with guarding the cosmological secrets of the universe for thousands of years. They believe that there's a plethora of falsehoods that surround us at all times, and that the way to distinguish truth from all of the lies is that truth self validates. I can't say enough how much I love that notion.
We have lost three tough games against top level competition. Some time in late March, we'll look back on those losses and either we'll regard them as the beginning of our failure to reach our team goals, or as three important stepping stones on our way to reaching the Final Eight in state.
You see, what I learned a few months ago was that you can always change the past by using the present to change the future.
In most of my coaching career I would not allow a mid-range jump shot. I wanted lay-ups, and if I couldn't get the lay-up, then I wanted the free throws that resulted from the effort to get lay-ups. I would also be cool with a rhythmed three coming off a kick-out.
My thinking on such matters could largely be explained by an article I read entitled The Free Throw Game. The article explained the value of certain types of shots as related to each possession. Lay-ups, and-ones, free-throws, and three pointers were the highest rated with each yielding a plus one point per possession. The only shot that was lower than one point per possession was the mid-range shot, and this basically told me that my teams should concentrate on shooting threes, making lay-ups, and getting to the free throw line.
It has taken me quite a while, but I've finally reached a point where I can see some value of the mid-range jump shot. Firstly, because I've watched our girls shooting them off the dribble and see how quickly they can align the shot and pull the ball into the correct shooting pocket with the elbow up and pointing toward the rim. That doesn't happen all the time with threes, even off of kick-outs. Too many kids like to hold the ball at waist level or out in front of their body to begin their shot.
Secondly, there are several times in game where an attacking player gets into a situation where the drive is stopped and there is no passing option. It is a moment that requires that the player shoot the ball, and it is always better from a coaching perspective to be prepared for such moments than it is to just throw up some random bullshit. I've learned that the caveat at such times should be don't throw up random bullshit and not don't shoot the midrange jumper.
Finally, I've watched way too many games not to realize that the truly great players have great mid-range games. They are able to put shots up in traffic that not only add points to the total but also great artistry to an already beautiful game. Coaching with analytics does not have to be boring.
I would add a condition though. Stats don't lie (people do, not stats), and the fact is that attacking the rim will statistically always produce more points than utilizing the mid-range game. This needs to be acknowledged in how teams prepare. In certain situations, the stats change though, and it becomes what has a better chance of scoring when a player is caught in traffic, a hastily thrown up piece of crap, or something that has been practiced?
Practice time is severely limited. So, I would still emphasize daily practice on offensive execution, attacking the rim, shooting rhythmed threes, and free-throws. I would tell players who want to shoot the mid-range shot jumper the same thing that I tell them about shooting threes which is that "you have to earn the right to shoot". That shit ain't guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. I would also mention how much I hate people who shoot just inside the three-point line, and how I would disown my own daughter for doing so.
But if I had a player who wanted to excel and raise his/her game to that next level, I would have tell them to work at shooting pull-up jumpers on on their own using timed pressured drills and requiring the making of consecutive shots.
And more than likely, it would be their number I would call when the game was on the line.
I've been sheltering in place for over forty days. It's truly been an unholy experience. I've got a kid next door who shoots on a portable hoop in his driveway. He got a nice stroke too. His basket doesn't have a net though.
I had one in my garage and gave it to him. He wore it out in no time. I got him a new one. I was thinking that if you want to be a shooter, you need to have a net. You need to hear that twang of perfect shot caused by the stretching of the strings.
I've coached thirty-three years, and in that time, I've seen thousands of great warm-up shooters; kids who can hit every shot they take in the fifteen minutes leading up to a game, but once the ref tosses the ball into the air, forget everything they ever knew about shooting. I figure it's because they learned to shoot with their elbows tucked and with their wrists over their elbows and flapping down as they dip into the cookie jar.
They learned to shoot by the book. Unfortunately for them, you can't read a book during the game. They should have concentrated on aligning the rhythm of the dribble with the music inside of them and with that little p-f-f-t sound that net makes when the ball doesn't hit rim.
I gave the new net to the kid's dad and told him, "Shooter got to hear them strings stretch, Man."
He understood. Must have been a shooter himself back in the day.
Just over ten years ago, the Corcoran High girls basketball team was riding high having just garnered their eleventh section title since 1993. The following year we were placed at the behest of the Competitive Equity model into a higher division despite losing six seniors and four starters from the 2010 championship team.
I believed at the time and still do that a grave injustice was done to our program as we were systematically being denied an fair opportunity to compete in the natural division where our school's population placed us.
After watching the recent Valley championship games, I cannot help but think that the idea of leveling the playing field was never the true intention of Competitive Equity, but that it was used in order to move us into the system that is currently in place, a system that favors the larger urban school districts at the expense of the smaller rural communities.
I remember reading somewhere, possibly in the archives of the minutes of the CIF meetings, that at one point, the idea was being kicked around that smaller schools should/could/might be contented with winning valley championships and not state championships which would/could open up state berths for larger, more deserving schools. (italics are my own)
If this true, it makes it possible to discern where the pressure to change the system originated, not so much from the smaller schools, but from the larger schools who felt that they were being denied an opportunity to compete at state because they felt that they deserved the opportunity more than some lowly rural school district whose only valid claim for getting to state was because they didn't have enough kids in their district.
In any case, we now have the specter of Yosemite Division schools winning section championships in the lowest divisions which were once the safe harbor of the smallest and most vulnerable schools in the section.
What has been lost in translation is why these divisions were created in the first place, and that was probably to guarantee that the teams with smaller populations be given an equal and fair opportunity to compete for state championships too, not so much to see to it that larger schools who didn't fare well against their own divisional bullies, can now drop down and beat up on the smallest kids on the playground.
And if that's the case, why have any divisions at all?