Basketball and the Night Watch.
When I first started driving back and forth to Visalia to coach at COS, I developed the habit of holding these imaginary conversations where I would debate particular people about things I felt strongly about. For example, there were many times where I tried to convince Christopher Hitchens, the most eloquent speaker I've ever heard, about the error of his atheistic beliefs. I realize when I'm doing this that I'm really just talking to myself, but I use this technique to whittle down my thinking to where my ideas can be best expressed while using the least amount of words. If I started getting too distracted from the main point, I would start over from the beginning.
I often use the same technique when I'm trying to convey an important idea to the kids I coach. Speaking in a pre-game or half-time talk we are usually pressed for time. So, on the way over to a game, I try clean up my thinking to where I can state the main point(s) in the minimum amount of time.
We had a big game against Fresno City this last week, and I was worried about the outcome. The main reason I worry is the fact that the team doesn't make much of a concerted effort to get to the line. It's something I have stressed throughout my career. Somewhere along the line, I picked up an observation that said that one of the ways to guarantee success is to always,"Make more free-throws than the other team shoots." My experiences have often verified the truth of the statement. Over the years, I've seen a lot of teams shoot themselves out of games by continuing to shoot threes when their shots weren't dropping. I would swear on a stack of Bibles that the quickest way to go from a closely contested one or two point game to a ten point deficit is to string together too many non-scoring possessions because of three-point misses and the long rebounds they create.
We had a rule; Miss two - Get fouled. It applied to both individual and team play. I would let the girls make their own decisions in our continuity until they came away empty a few times, I would step in and call one of our go-to plays to get the ball inside where we more likely to draw a foul. The reasoning for this came from a clinic where I stuck around on a Sunday, something I never did, to listen to Hubie Brown talk about the importance of controlling the pace of the game. The thing that usually kills you when you're missing threes is the long rebound that ends up as a lay-up at the other end. You lose control of the pace and suddenly your team is reacting rather than imposing their will on the other team, and, in turn, this leads to impulsive decision making and rash play when you most need cool heads and discipline.
Stopping play on your offensive end, allows you to control the pace. Not fouling at their end also helps as does doubling up the weak-side rebounding area. Another strategy that serves the same purpose is waiting until the ref hands our free-throw shooter the ball before sending a sub to the table. That way, if the shot was made, the horn sounded and play stopped, allowing us to get into our press if we were pressing, or drop back on defense if we weren't. This usually helped put us in control of the game clock. It also allowed me to send in instructions via the sub without calling a time out or having to yell them out where the other coach could hear.
In the game leading up to the big Fresno City showdown, we had scored 51 points on 43% three point shooting on the way to scoring 114 points for the game. We shot forty percent from the arc in the previous game and put up 115 points. We shoot the ball pretty well, especially when have big leads and there's not of lot consequences for our misses. However, missed shots and a lack of free-throws were factors in both of our losses.
Earlier in the week, I started thinking of using the story of the Three Pigs and the Big, Bad, Wolf as an allegory to stress the idea of being better prepared for this game than we were for our two losses. If you remember, in the story, two of the pigs tried to cut corners and instead of being able to slam the door in the wolf's face, the wolf blew their shoddily constructed shelters apart and ate them. The third pig took the time to fully prepare and constructed a fortress made of bricks. I imagined the confrontation with the wolf going something like this:
(Barry White voice) The wolf. I'm hungry. Open the door!
The pig rises from his easy chair, walks over to the door, opens the peephole, puts his lips to the peephole and says, "Screw you, Wolf!" and slams the little peephole door. The wolf gets angry and blows and blows, but the brick doesn't give. Eventually, the wolf blows himself out and falls down on the sidewalk, and the pig comes out and vanquishes him and starts using the wolf's tail to dust his blinds. The message of the story being that preparation is the key. We are generally well- prepared for games, but, it was our inability and unwillingness to attack the rim and draw fouls that failed us in our two losses. The problem is we score a lot of points without the rack attack. That shooting success caused me to re-think our emphasis on getting fouled. We did not want to give our players the idea that they shouldn't be shooting the ball, or that we thought that it wrong for them to be shooting threes late in the game in tight contests.
I was trying to mold the Three Pigs thing into something useful and drove back and forth from Corcoran to Visalia talking to myself and trying to figure out a way to make the key points without sounding too trite and/or corny. The process wasn't going all that well. I was mostly thinking about how to explain why getting to the line was so important, even when we were shooting so well.
Earlier in the year, I had told them half jokingly that it wasn't the shooting of threes to which we objected; it was the missing. It was the coming away empty handed from consecutive possessions that was the real problem. While driving to Fresno and practicing how to phrase what I wanted to say, I started to think about how my high school team used what we called The Flash Drill where a player in the middle of the key would have to keep a player from flashing from the weak-side low-post to gain position in the ball-side high-post. I was going to tell them about the lost art of the arm bar and how you don't ever use it with an open palm or to push off. You simply hold it in position, palm facing you, to bar someone's path toward the ball.
The offensive player was expected to secure the post in such a way that the wing player could pass into her without resorting to a 50-50 pass where the defensive player would have a fifty percent chance of stealing the ball. The defensive player's job was not to allow the flasher into the high post. It was a tough drill that encapsulated two of the main points of our offense and defense, the high post is the most advantageous place to possess the ball because of the multiple passing lanes, and the defense should therefore never allow the ball to get into the high post.
We ran that drill in the middle of our practice because it summarized every other aspect of our defensive philosophy in one drill. It contained the very essence of our get wide/get low close-out drills, all the mental toughness of our box-out drills, and the intensity and positioning of our denial drills. I realized that it also contained the essence of our offense. For some reason, that thought made me realize that what happened when the shots quit dropping was a mental issue. The basket grew smaller in the shooter's head when he/she starts to feel the pressure engendered by thinking about the consequences of missing.
I abandoned the idea of using the Three Little Pigs analogy altogether. Instead, I explained that we shot so well in the games where we felt no real pressure and that we needed to maintain that pressure free shooting attitude in every game and every situation. I had always told them not to defend themselves, but this time added that instead of thinking about the consequences of missing, they should use the attack-the-rack mentality as an attitude adjustment to remind themselves and their opponent of their willingness to get a lot nastier on defense while ramming the ball down their opponent's throat in order to re- impose their will, regain control of the pace, and not have to resort to impulsive behavior and rash play.
We ended up winning a very important, very hard-fought game. The girls were pretty impressive through-out and shot the ball very well. I don't know how much help, if any, that those words played in the win. These girls are a pretty chill bunch to begin with, they play hard and usually aren't afraid to shoot the ball. The process of thinking about what to tell them and how to tell it, did open up my eyes to the importance of attacking the rim in teaching how to re-rout their mental/emotional response to missed shots, changing a worried shooter into a stress free shooter.
Or, in other words, how to build a house of brick before the wolf suddenly show up at the door.