DISCLAIMER: This is not what you want to hear…
It is, however, what you need to hear.
Who am I kidding? It wasn’t what I wanted to hear (erm… accept) – either!
We’re human. We make mistakes. We think A leads to B, so more A gets more B. Yet, A and B may have been related, it’s just not a foregone conclusion that more A is going to do anything to B.
I’ve come to realize that the answer to our most pressing coaching questions are typically: “It depends!”
“On what?” Well, it depends on the context AND it depends on the person/people.
Without context, we can fall prey to what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman terms:
“What you see is all there is.”
Ben Falk, in his blog CleaningTheGlass.com, expands on why coaches so easily take for granted how decisions are made:
“When presented with evidence we tend to think only about what’s in front of us and construct a story from that information only. We are blind to what we might be missing, and blind to our blindness.”
Programming the solution before seeing the problem
Lee Taft said it well: “As coaches, we try to program the solution before we see the problem.”
We filter. Compartmentalize. And, come up with ready-made over-the-counter prescriptions for treating the problems that confront us.
When I think back on my coaching style over the years, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve gotten it wrong. The number of times I’ve used the same formula for correcting errors (e.g. ‘…your toes, knees, hips, elbow, should all point to the basket when shooting’ … or, ‘…create a 90-degrees at your elbow’ … or, ‘…dominant pivots,’ etc.). It’s an endless list of giving a prescription without treating each case as its own problem to be solved.
My approach has changed. Here’s why…
Our knowledge is temporal.
The things that we know to be true today, weren’t yesterday. And, one day, we’ll know better and be in a position to do better.
That’s why we should cringe when we hear: it’s alway been done this way. Or, it’s why one of Europe’s top soccer coaching academy fails coaches who say ‘in my day’ or ‘my soccer’.
The game is evolving. Style of play changes. Our knowledge of motor learning, skill acquisition, neuroscience, and effective teaching techniques continues to deepen. Oh… and, globally, there’s a bigger competitive pool of multi-skilled players to choose from (at the highest levels).
It wasn’t that long ago that the notion of bigs shooting 3’s was reviled. Nowadays it’s commonplace, accepted, sought out, and even thought to be a high-quality shot for several teams and players.
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a scoring point guard was thought to be sacrilege. Fast forward to today’s perimeter-oriented offenses and point guard dominant league; with the likes of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Isaiah Thomas leading the NBA’s 2016-17 regular season in points per game.
In Golden State, Steve Kerr would’ve loved to replicate the Spurs Way. Who wouldn’t want that level of sustained success? Yet, to his own admission:
“Cultures are really built based on personalities and human qualities,” Kerr says. “You can’t base a culture on philosophy, you know? If I came in and said, ‘We’re going to do everything just like San Antonio,’ the players would’ve sensed that that was phony because that’s not really who I am.
The personalities that make up the Golden State Warriors are different than the Spurs. “The Spurs have been the Spurs because all of their main guys going back to David [Robinson] and Tim [Duncan] have been smart, quiet, respectful, hardworking, and Kawhi too – baller, no agenda, just wants to get better. So it all kind of works.” 
The Spurs are allergic to the media. On the flip side, Golden State is far more open to the media. Draymond Green delights in jousting with the press. Not everyone though. Curry and Durant don’t desire the attention that Green enjoys.
What works in San Antonio, doesn’t work in the Bay.
Per person. Per context.
A few more examples…
The Problem With NBA Draft Workouts
- I once had a long-time, and highly respected, NBA scout refer to the draft process as: “Trying to ID a top pick is like trying to find a black cat in a dark room.” Well, it’s not that imprecise, yet the process is fraught with pitfalls. It is, as Ben Falk so aptly phrases it, “how [NBA teams] end up writing off a good player because of a bad workout, or overrating a bad player because of a good one.”
7-Seconds or Less
- Mike D’Antoni and his Seven Seconds or Less offensive scheme with the Phoenix Suns was hailed as revolutionary. With the Lakers and Knicks, it fell flat. Yet, the record-breaking results in the 2016-17 season with Houston Rockets highlights the point. When the environment/culture (read: context) changes, as well as the people, the same process will often yield different results.
- People have long said you can’t win playing zone. Yes… and, no. It depends. You surely can’t tell that to Jim Boeheim. His 2003 Syracuse team won an NCAA championship playing zone. Further, you can easily become a “winning coach” in youth basketball utilizing a zone defense. What the difference between Beoheim and the youth coach? Context. Zone defense works in youth basketball primarily because players at that age-and-stage lack the strength, skill, and tactical experience to counter it.
- The ‘Pack Line Defense’ has been adopted at many levels. (For those not familiar this defensive strategy, instead of off-ball defenders pressuring their player and denying passes, everyone except the player guarding the ball must be inside an imaginary line 16 feet from the rim.) It works. Why? The context and people. I’ll avoid getting myself in too much trouble with my NCAA coaching friends other than to point out that there’s a reason why this defensive scheme isn’t frequently used by coaches in the Euroleague, Olympics, WNBA or NBA. (Spoiler Alert: More players at those levels can shoot the ball – from multiple positions!)
In all the above cases, context is key.
There’s only one absolute in basketball: high score wins. That, in all my years around the game, is the only thing I can say with certainty.
When the context and/or people change, how you do what you do, needs to change too.
We must go deeper what assessing the merits of any strategy, tactic, teaching methodology, coaching style, etc. to understand the context and people.
Oh darn. Guess that makes for a second absolute: Per person. Per context.
As the saying goes: Any dog that says it’s too old to learn new tricks, probably never could anyway.
— ALTIS (@ALTIS) June 7, 2017