Coaching expertise: It depends or an absolute

Rob Carroll’s tweet above resonated with me, as I often find myself answering questions with “it depends,” because there are few absolute answers. I do not see the game in black and white; to me, there are a thousand shade of grey.

Today, I discussed something with a college coach, and I constantly said, “It depends.” It depended on the coach’s objectives, the positioning of players, the situation, etc. I explained that the success would depend on the coach’s ability to communicate the objectives, and the players’ ability to make the real-time decisions based on those objectives, because every possession should not be the same (unless, of course, the offense does the exact same thing every time).

Despite answering many questions with “it depends”, I rarely describe myself as an expert, and never consider myself to be an expert of anything. However, every day, I run into self-proclaimed experts on the Internet, and others who the media or general population have anointed as experts. These experts rarely answer “It depends,” because the perception is that someone who does not have an immediate, black-and-white answer is not an expert.

I hear this when I referee. I referee soccer. I will see a foul. However, I will not blow the whistle immediately, as I want to see what will happen; I want to see if the offense has an advantage. When there is no advantage, I blow the whistle. Often, teams complain and question the call because I hesitated. They see that as a weakness or a sign of uncertainty. It isn’t. To me, it is good refereeing (depending on the foul and the location; again, it depends!). Multiple times this weekend, players or coaches screamed at me for a foul, and I allowed play to continue, and the team scored (I centered 7 games, and it happened in at least 3). If I had not hesitated prior to blowing the whistle, they would not have scored those goals. Should I blow the whistle immediately and appear more certain of the call or wait and see if an advantage develops? After the fact, I imagine that the teams were happy that I did not stop play.

I question things and attempt to present new ideas or at least new versions of old ideas. Perceived experts are quick to dismiss anything new or different. “Feelings of expertise lead people to be more dogmatic towards new ideas.” I saved an email from a former NCAA Division I assistant coach with 30+ years of coaching experience who wrote to me about my views on the defensive slide:

I just read your article on defensive footwork and was astounded about your theory of pushing off your back foot and that you cannot stay in front of someone without crossing your feet over. Spend time with Coach K, Tubby or Rick Pinto and watch how not pushing off back foot and crossing is perfected that is drilled that it is part of their religion.

A recent study found that people’s perceptions of their all-round expertise led them to display a close-mindedness in general (Ottati et al., 2015), as evidenced by this coach’s comments. Coaches with tons of experience or who have coached at high levels (NCAA Division 1) or who know coaches at an elite, elite level (Coach K) believe in their expertise. After all, there is a reason that they are coaching at a high level, right? Their teaching must be correct.

When I teach defensive movement, the footwork depends on the situation and the location. There is no absolute. We do not shuffle ALL of the time, as I was taught. We do not crossover step ALL of the time. It depends on the situation. Context matters.

Unfortunately, most coaches do not like to allow their players to make decisions based on context. They want absolutes. They want to teach black and white. Do this; not that. That is how many of the dogmatic beliefs take hold. Never cross your feet on defense. Square ten toes to the rim when you shoot. Always use your right hand on the right side when shooting a layup. These instructions are meant to help players by limiting their need to make decisions, but they limit players who abide by them completely. They are not ALWAYS incorrect, just as they are not always correct. It depends. To improve as a coach, you have to get comfortable with the ambiguity rather than sticking with the dogmatic beliefs.

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

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