When we first learn to drive, we’re instructed to scan ahead to see what’s in front of us. In doing so, we’re trying to gauge the distance between the front of our car and any approaching objects. This all has to be done while also having an awareness of the traffic lights and street signs that are upcoming.
We’re prescribed a pattern that the eyes are to follow. For example, a quick scan of our rear view mirror, then right side mirror, dashboard, left side mirror, straight ahead, etc. That may not be the exact pattern, but that’s not the point. And yet, it is the point.
As novices, we are told what our eyes should do. As we develop a competency at driving, our eyes create their own movement patterns intuitively based on experience.
I haven’t met many that would argue that driving is not a visual activity. Nor have I met a blind person who could drive solo.
Isn’t basketball a visual sport too? What an athlete does on-court, the decisions that they make are all based on visual cues. So, why then shouldn’t we take a page from the driver’s manual as prescribe movement patterns for the eyes of a basketball player?
Barrier Sports vs. Shared Space Sports
In barriers sports such as badminton, ping pong, tennis and volleyball, you get reps at hitting the ball to “groove the movements.” Although there are decisions that an athlete or team must make in response to the actions of their opponent, often it’s the case where the strategy of attack is based on a game plan set long before the match itself or each given point. In beach volleyball, for instance, you’ll see the athletes signal with their hands what they’ll do during the coming service game. It’s predetermined.
Tennis is similar in that way. Players will often predetermine their attack. For instance, one general tennis tactic is if the ball is hit to you along the sideline, one should counter hit cross court (and vice versus).
In shared space sports, such as basketball, hockey, football, soccer, etc., decision making varies. It’s action-reaction. Yes, you can predetermine at times, but inevitably, the athletes that excel at their sports, react and exploit the actions of their opponents at any moment. If someone abruptly steps into your ‘line of attack’, you must be able to change direction, pace or pass.
Decision training involves the formation of neural pathways that correspond to the actual requirements of the sports. In shared space sports, the requirements are action-reaction or move-countermove. It becomes the choice between two or more alternatives.
Decision making is just that: the choice between two or more alternatives.
It’s like the adage of which path do you take when the road splits? Left or right?
The decision-making requirements in basketball are similar: go left or go right, stop or go, push or pull, etc.
As an athlete progresses to higher levels of play, multiplicity kicks in as the choice between alternatives multiplies: pass, dribble or shoot; fill the lane, cut back to the ball, flatten out the defence by spacing to the baseline, etc. It’s almost geometric when you think about how top players will string together sequences of “actions” together as they process information – or visual cues – at a rate far greater than the average person. That, and their ability to combine decision making with skill execution is what differentiates good from great.
The What & How (of Decision Training)
Often as coaches work with athletes, they’ll develop the “fundamentals” and you’ll often hear coaches say “Eyes Up!”.
I know I’ve done it. I still catch myself doing it at times – although in the last few years I’ve been able to reprogram myself to say “scan.” Scanning, by definition, is the process of “look[ing] at all parts of (something) carefully in order to detect some feature.” 
Scanning involves taking a quick look around in order to identify relevant information. Players must learn – or be taught – to find, use, or create an advantage for their team . That level of decision making involves having control of one’s eyes and body (amidst the chaos of the game).
Where I’ve failed my athletes is in not indicating where they should be scanning.
To go back to the driving analogy, why not prescribe where the developing athlete’s eyes should be scanning (in order to accelerate decision training)? For instance, in ball handling, you could have coaches or injured players with different coloured cones or flags (e.g. one under the rim and another two positioned on either sideline). As they dribble the basketball, the coaches randomly raise a flag/cone. The athlete then call out the colour they see.
I’ve done this with our Canada Basketball’s Centre for Performance athletes during drills, scrimmages and small sided games. By having a coach under the rim holding up flags, I was trying to reinforce the notion of scanning – through the defense – to the front rim to make a decision on whether to attack with penetration or with the pass. (It’s amazing how many players fail to scan their defender or the goal when they get the basketball).
I’ve seen another coach have the athletes run at different paces while scanning in a prescribed patter: rim, left, right. Very much like the beginning driver.
The goal is to develop the neural pathway whereby athletes are executing a skill while also scanning for visual cues.
This is not decision making, don’t get me wrong. But, the goal is to develop the habit (albeit visual) whereby the kids eyes become accustomed to scanning the court while performing a skill. This is still the what and how of decision training: separating one’s seeing from the doing.
Building A (Neural) Pathway
I’m not going to get overly scientific here, but the neurons in our brains do explain almost every class of mental phenomenon—memory, emotion, muscle control, sensory perception and so on. In learning complex skills – such as performing a technical basketball skill, at speed, in an environment of full of randomness – we must ‘train’ the appropriate neural pathways.
Bear with me while I try and make more sense. (For your sake and mine. Ha!)
Coaches often break things down into “reads.” For instance, in the picking game, they’ll get a bunch of reps with the defender going over the screen. And then, they’ll do a bunch of reps with the defender going under the screen. Next they say, “let’s compete it using those two reads.”
The challenge with this approach is that the brain doesn’t intuitively connect these two actions – despite what our rational minds may think.
What we’ve done is worked on the brains ability to go right (i.e. defender goes over); then we’ve moved on to go left (i.e. defender goes under). The mind interprets these two things as completely separate things. And files them in memory in separate filing cabinets.
The neural pathway that we have developed in the brain does not connect that actions.
Transfer and Retention
Donald Hebb, a neuropsychologist, wrote it this way:
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Remember, decision-making – and in effect decision training – involves reps whereby one is forced to continually (and randomly) make a choice between two or more possible alternatives.
So, when we work on decision making and developing gamesense, we should make sure the athletes get reps with both (or, all) alternatives. Go hard first. Use a guided defender. Couple or bundle decisions (i.e. ‘reads’). Teach two together so that an athlete has to make a choice. (The motor learning and science-y crowd calls the “perception-action coupling”.)
Then, once they understand the why and when, the wiring in their brains start to fire and they can make the connection to the details around the what and how.
Our approach to teaching skills explains – not solely, but predominantly – why it takes so long to learn complex skills? We’re not giving athlete’s and the brain enough credit for their ability to process information. Keeping it simple is not always in the best interest of development – especially when we’re looking at decision training.
Let me rephrase that…
Keeping it simple when it comes to decision training involves limiting the decision demands on the athlete to two alternatives (e.g. penetrate right or left). As they demonstrate competency, then add a third (e.g. pull up and shoot).
The work done early in training the eyes to scan while performing a technical skill, then translates over to the decision training you do next.
When debriefing the athlete, the conversation becomes: “What did you see?” and “How were you being defended?”
This, I’d argue, is a useful starting point for how we begin to develop basketball intelligence.
Still curious? You should watch this recent video on decision training and coach development →
Want athletes who 'think the game'? Ensure they're doing most of the cognitive work. Boils down to practice design & coach interventions.
— theLLaBB·oratory (@theLLaBB) February 1, 2016