Creativity in coaching basketball

by on November 9, 2015
in Athlete Learning

“In action and adventure sports, creativity is always the point,” wrote Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman. “Football is a matter of creativity and imagination,” said former French footballer David Ginola in Dave Wright’s Performance Soccer Coach. In basketball, one rarely hears creativity mentioned so prominently as in other sports. Soccer coaches constantly mention creativity. Last week, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger went even further than creativity and invoked beauty:

“I am only a guide. I allow others to express what they have in them. I have not created anything. I am a facilitator of beauty in man. I define myself as an optimist. My constant battle in this job is to bring out the beauty in men. You could call me naive. At the same time, it allows me to believe in that and, more often, it proves me right,” Arsene Wenger said.

Can you imagine Greg Popovich, Coach K, or another elite basketball coach describing their job as “bringing about the beauty in men”? Why is creativity not discussed more openly and freely among basketball coaches? After all, when profiled for ESPN, the current greatest basketball player on the planet, Stephen Curry, spoke about creativity:

“This was a visionary place for me,” Curry says. “Make it work no matter what you have to work with — that’s something that stuck with me very early on as a point guard. Adjust. Get creative. Try a different angle, a different lane, a different move or a different shot — just make it work. Out there on my grandpa’s court, there was no better place in the world to breed that kind of creativity.”

In Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein wrote, “There are two primary ways to improve performance: Reduce errors and uncertainty or increase insights and creativity.” Reducing errors is easier because they are easier to identify. Increasing insights or creativity is more difficult. How do you identify a creative solution that was not used?

Imagine the play above. If Whalen had made another pass that led to a turnover (bounce pass maybe), it would be easy to identify the mistake: She was not open, there was no passing lane, hold onto the ball and set up a play. Nobody would have identified the pass that Whalen made and suggested that rather than holding onto the ball, she should have tried this audacious, creative pass.

That is how we coach basketball, in most cases. I received a text from a friend who works with an NBA team known for player development. He said that in their warmup drills, guys attempt 540-degree layups because they are asked constantly to finish in new and creative ways in the drill. Is that good coaching? In a vacuum, most coaches would say no. If I told you the name of the coach, every coach would incorporate 540-degree layups in their practices.  Neither answer is correct. The coach creates constraints and within this context and his objectives, it is appropriate. He is not trying to perfect the 540 layup for games; he is trying to ignite creativity.

Whereas everyone makes a big deal out of Curry dribbling two balls in pregame warmups now because he is an MVP, in 2010, there was an article in a local paper about Curry, C.J. Watson, and Anthony Morrow shooting what they called “crafties” in pre-pre-game warmups. The shots were described a s shots that you would not expect to see at the playground, but these shots are now a part of Curry’s repertoire. People point to his current warmups because he is tearing up the league, but ignore the work that he put in before he was a superstar. The crafties, like the 540 layups, are attempts to expand creativity and create potential options, whereas coaches tend to spend more time limiting players rather than encouraging them to try out new shots, passes, or moves.

How can you develop or enhance creativity? Wright wrote that Republic of Ireland and Barclays Premier League veteran Steven Reid described creativity as “being given license to make mistakes and take risks going forward, and enjoying the game.” Few players would attempt Whalen’s pass because few players are as secure in their positions with their teams. Few developing players attempt crafties and 540 layups because coaches are quick to criticize in an attempt to reduce mistakes.

Instead, what if we treated developing players like action or adventure sports and viewed creativity as the purpose? Would players develop differently? Would players develop into better players? Would players improve decision making? Would players have more fun?


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

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