Basketball and the Night Watch.
I work at a local Junior College assisting with the Women's basketball program. I recently watched and heard as my head coach did something that I regard as one of the best coaching decisions that I have ever seen. When it happened, I was also amazed at what simple thing it was and how it passed by almost completely unnoticed.
I don't think of any our players understood how what a great thing that just happened, and, in fact, I think that they barely noticed it at all. You might fairly ask, just how great could the decision be if the players didn't even notice it?
It involved talking. The day before, we had ridden the players pretty hard about not talking on defense. I myself am a recent convert to the importance of teaching defensive talking, and, like most new converts, believe in the concept with an almost missionary zeal.
The next day, Coach told the players , "I don't care how you say what you need to say, just say it so that your teammates can all hear and understand it." Simple, yes? I would have to admit that it is also something that would normally pass by without much thought.
Why I even noticed it was because I have been reading the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and the book advances the rather unique idea that it is not so much natural talent that wins team championships but advanced skills learned by making repeated mistakes. I'll state that again, "making repeated mistakes!"
The author points out that myelination, a process of coating the axon of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently, is simply put, a better way of learning difficult skills.
As players figure things out by learning from their own mistakes, a substance called myelin creates a thick, protective coating that allows their neural pathways to function more efficiently and greatly increases their ability to respond more quickly and forcefully while performing complicated tasks.
The book goes on to mention a practice currently employed at the highest level of coaching soccer where a player's brain is engaged in making difficult mental decisions at the same time while he is stressed out physically. The practice builds up both the mental and physical endurance of the player allowing him to play harder and smarter for a longer period of time. This extra endurance usually comes into play at time that the player needs it most, at the end of hard fought, highly competitive battles.
After reading the book, I began thinking of ways to create drills to be employed at the end of practice that would help us to create such an endurance advantage. Then, my Coach said the words I quoted above, and it suddenly dawned on me that what he told the players would achieve that goal.
The act of figuring out what you need to say in a game situation is a complex and much needed mental skill. In order to assess the situation and then formulate the words that would tell your team mates what you need for them to do, requires focused mental engagement, and the act of listening and figuring out what your teammate is telling you and determining how you should respond does the same.
In other words, it not only helps the myelination process to occur, but doing it while you are both physically and mentally stressed increases your ability to perform quickly and confidently in tense situations at the end of tough, demanding contests.
Some might question this interpretation and say that talking on defense is not such a new idea. I would counter with the argument that most of what passes for talking on defense nowadays is not really great communication. Many players just automatically repeat what their coaches tell them to say in certain situations usually using rote phrases such as: "Ball! Deny! Got Help! or Open-Up! This means they are usually blathering and not communicating at all.
This is not the same as figuring out things for themselves. Requiring him to access the situation himself and then come up with what he needs to say in order to get his teammates to respond efficiently is probably the best way not only to help the player learn to react more quickly but to increase his endurance and confidence level in tough games.
It is something that also might just help your team win a few more basketball games.