Chaos and Order: Our bias toward organization

by on January 19, 2015
in Team Offenses

Last season, I rarely called plays. We ran one basic transition offense on over 40% of possessions, and probably ran horns on roughly another 40%. Occasionally, our offense looked aesthetically unpleasing. One of the biggest possessions of the season, to seal our first win in semifinals series, looked like a disaster for 15 seconds until our PG purposely dribbled toward a help defender and kicked to the open shooter (39% from three-point line on the season) for the game-icing three-pointer. Despite our aesthetics, we were in the top three in the league in offense, despite essentially playing 4v5 on offense.

A friend coaches a team with five players shooting over 35% from the three-point line (39%, 48%, 36%, 35%, and 43%) with no real inside presence. The team often looks disorganized as it attempts to draw help defenders to create an open shot for a teammate. Fans see the disorganization, and they question the coach. Is it really bad coaching when you continue to get open shots for players shooting +/- 40% from the three-point line?

Meanwhile, I watched a team that was described as well-coached. They were very deliberate. You could see the plays that they were running. They were organized. They lost by 20 points!

When Kerr made his comment, the twitterverse applauded. How would it have reacted if he was coaching the Knicks with 5 wins when he said that? Would he have been depicted as lazy and disinterested and just a TV analyst?

When a high school or college coach takes the same approach as Kerr, they often are criticized (because few have the immediate success of Kerr, and because HS and NCAA players rarely look as polished as NBA players). Coaching, it seems, is not allowing players to thrive in disorganization; coaching is creating organization. As Larry Paul wrote in Playing Better Soccer is More Fun:

“Get some cones, a whistle and a clipboard. Put the kids in organized lines while they wait patiently to take their turn running drills….It’s controlled and methodical….

Soccer players, on the other hand, play in a world marked by a chaotic and rapidly changing environment.”

We are biased toward the organized approach because we can see what the coach has been doing at practice: Working on plays. With my team or my friend’s team, it is hard to tell what we practiced (well, shooting, because I had four starters and five players above 38% from three-point range). If we were practicing our plays like other teams, the practice must have been poor!

That is my goal as a coach. I’m unconcerned with how well we can run a specific play. I am concerned with whether or not we can adjust and adapt if we run it incorrectly or if it breaks down because of the defense. Three times (that I remember) we hit shots out of a timeout to win the game or send the game to overtime. Great play design, right? Nope. In these three instances, we actually got the desired shot for the desired player, but we did not execute the play as I designed it at the timeout. Whether they adjusted to the defense or they forgot what to do and improvised, it worked. One reason, I believe, is that we spent more time on end-game situations than any coach I know, and they coached themselves during these situational games. We may not have executed correctly, and we may not have looked organized, but we accomplished in the game the very things that we practiced: Making plays, adjusting and adapting, playing through a teammate’s mistake, etc.

What do we value in sports? Order? From listening to fans in the stands, unless you win like Steve Kerr, it sounds like being orderly is a better way to keep one’s job than to encourage playmaking and decision-making in chaos. However, developmentally, is that what we want from sports?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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