A critique of coaches and the misunderstanding of learning

Last week, a friend attended a college basketball practice. As he watched, and grew frustrated by what he witnessed, he sent me a series of texts. The texts began:

The poor skill level in WBB is sickening.

I should mention that he watched the practice of a program with many highly-rated players that likely will be a top-25 team this season. To provide some context, my friend played and coached college basketball and has trained at least two All-Americans. I value his insight. Read more

A Lesson from College Football

In Greg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, he writes about Oregon University’s offense:

Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace…The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly.

Oregon emphasizes execution and speed of play, and they score at a near-record pace. Rather than add complexity, as has been the trend over the last decade, Oregon simplifies. As Easterbrook writes, offenses and defenses ebb and flow – an offensive system gains an advantage and then defensive systems adjust and force offenses to develop something new.

The idea of simplification is important for basketball coaches, especially at the youth level. Rather than out-duel the opposition with added complexity (more presses, more defenses, more set plays, more OB plays), out-execute the opponent through simplification, speed of play and skill execution.

Often, when a team lacks great individual skill, a coach feels compelled to add complexity to give the team an opportunity to compete. However, rather than adding complexity which makes the skill execution more complicated, why not simplify?

When we developed the Blitz Basketball methodology, we simplified. We were an u9 boys’ team, and we had no great shooters. Rather than adding complexity to create open shots for the best shooter, we implemented a system so most outside shots resulted from dribble penetration into the middle and a pass out; were shot off the catch; and the pass was received with the player facing the basket and standing still. In essence, from a shooting standpoint, we eliminated as many variables as possible to simplify any outside shots.

From our standpoint, the Blitz system dovetailed nicely with a Teaching Games for Understanding approach to coaching. I had been coaching college basketball where my primary responsibility was running off-season workouts with the guards and running through shooting and ball handling drills with the guards during position breakdowns. Therefore, I was in an individual skill and drill mind-frame when I started to coach the nine-year-olds. The program director, Jerome Greene, had a son of the team, so he attended every practice. After every practice, he implored me to allow them to play more – he said that they would only learn to play the game through playing, not through a bunch of drills. He changed my mindset and the Blitz system developed naturally through this change.

In his New York Times’ article, “Oregon Turns Practice Into Nonstop Sprint With Precision as Goal,” Pete Thamel writes:

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common.

While basketball differs from football, a shorter, more intense, more focused practice is better in basketball too. When I coached in a professional league in Sweden, we had 90 minutes for practice. When time is an issue, it forces the coach to prioritize and make decisions.

“That relentless pace and superior conditioning help explain how Oregon has outscored its opponents, 86-7, in the second half this season without ever running that staple of football conditioning drudgery — wind sprints.

‘Practice is a wind sprint,’ said Nate Costa, Oregon’s backup quarterback. ‘There’s no real need to do that additionally.’”

When we added more small-sided games and scrimmaging, as opposed to drills, we eliminated conditioning because the players were in good shape. The practice conditioned the players for games because the entire practice was game-like. In a limited amount of time, we prepared players for games while improving technical skills like ball handling, passing and lay-ups and tactical skills like handling traps, spacing and trapping on defense.

In addition to simplifying, Oregon Head Coach innovates:

The high-speed practices mean that wide receivers must learn to run backward to the huddle to see the next play. Receivers are taught not to chase after missed passes and to sprint to the referee, who is a manager wearing an official’s jersey, to hand him the ball after a completion.

Simple things, really, but innovative and creative because few coaches cover the small details. When I visited Vance Walberg to write an article about Fresno City College, the two things that stood out to me the most were that he taught the jump ball and he chose specific players for specific spots for blocking out on opponents’ free throws. Many teams have a play for the jump ball; Walberg actually taught the principles of making sure they won the tip. Many coaches concentrate on blocking out: Walberg made it a reward or honor to be the player under the basket, and at that time, it was 6’2 point guard Tyronne Jackson boxing out under the basket.

As the end of the day, whether the offense is simplified or complex, execution determines success. Last season, at the high school level, I used one defense, one offense and four out of bounds plays. We won the league championship, and we were not the most talented or skilled team. We beat one team by 30+ points, and the coach called a different play every time down the court, none of which worked because the players thought too long about what they were doing and were constantly correcting each other on where they were supposed to go.

I recently read a post with the coach of a youth team bragging that you could not win a game in their youth league playing only one defense. I find that astonishing since UCLA went to three Final Fours in a row without changing its defense. In the end, it is not so much what you do, as how you do it. The blur offense looks great, but it is the precision and execution that makes it great, not the intricacy of the 20 different plays in the playbook.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Curiosity as a coaching skill

From the latest issue of Fast Company:

Michael Harvey, writing in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, identifies curiosity as a trait that “stimulates learning and, concurrently, increases the effectiveness of decision making and quality management…” Curious leaders excel at problem solving by intuitively filling gaps “between what one knows and what one wishes to know,” and they’re so important that Harvey suggests corporations administer curiosity exams.

A reader emailed to point out this passage in Grant Wahl’s article about Vance Walberg:

“Where do innovators come from? An original idea – the new new thing – can be sparked anywhere, but the majority of college basketball’s greatest innovators share a common trajectory… they became head coaches early, often in anonymous hoops outposts. (Gives examples of Pete Carril, John Beilein, Bo Ryan and Bob Knight using their offense creations early)”

“No matter how obscure the team, when you’re a head coach, you get to tinkering with what you want.”


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