Applying lessons from the tennis lab to the basketball court

Every singles tennis match is bound by the same dimensions…. yet each one is a laboratory for innovation, unrestrained by a risk-averse coach or the conflicting desires of teammates (Bialik, 2016).

Basketball often is compared to the improvisational nature of jazz, but it tends to be played more like a well-practiced orchestra with a conductor standing and controlling the action as much as possible. Innovation is more difficult when someone conducts your actions from the sideline, and deviation from the rehearsed plan often is met with disgust and a quick substitution rather than celebrated for its creativity, as it would be in jazz.

As fans, we desire the game to appear like jazz, and we lavish praise on teams (2006-08 Phoenix Suns, 2014 San Antonio Spurs, 2014-2016 Golden State Warriors) who appear to master the improvisational. Unfortunately, nothing attracts derision quite like a team attempting to play in an improvisational style, but failing to master it with the aplomb of the Suns, Spurs, or Warriors. These teams are considered to be poorly coached, whereas their more risk-averse peers running play after play and conducting from the sideline are deemed to be well-coached due to their organization, almost without regards to their record or success. Therefore, the message that we tell our coaches is that it is better to be risk averse, unless you can win and win big; I mean, many people ridiculed Mike D’Antoni, although many teams now replicate many features of his Suns’ teams, because he dared to take risks, but failed to win a championship.

How can basketball coaches, players, and teams learn from the innovation on the tennis court?

Top-ranked players can afford coaches who analyze and dissect play instead of serving as glorified companions, hitting partners and lay sports psychologists — but even they can’t help players once they’re on court at Grand Slam tournaments.

One reason that I prefer FIBA rules is the lack of live-ball timeouts. When a player picks up his or her dribble, or a team is about to be called for a 10-second violation, or the player dives on the ground for the ball, a coach cannot call a timeout to rescue the player. Whereas coaches can call timeouts when the ball is dead (after their opponent scores or after a whistle), and therefore they have some ability to instruct players during a game, these opportunities are reduced. This puts a greater emphasis on the player’s decision-making.

At youth levels, where games are stacked back to back and always running late, why not eliminate timeouts rather than shortening the game time? Do players sign up to play basketball because of their coach’s expert strategy at timeouts or because they want to run around, shoot, and have fun? Would forcing players to play without their coach calling timeouts create a better learning environment? How many timeouts are used to teach important lessons rather than to employ a new strategy or simply to yell at players?

If children were to pick between 18-minute halves with no timeouts, and 15-minute halves with 2 timeouts per half, which would they pick? I know that I’d prefer to play for 6 additional minutes than listen to my coach talk for 4 additional minutes! Just because the NBA has a certain number of timeouts does not mean that youth basketball must as well; after all, the NBA plays 48-minute, stopped clock games, and I have never seen a youth game longer than 32 minutes with a stopped clock. If we can reduce the time on court – the part of the experience that is most fun and most valuable to children’s learning – certainly we can reduce or eliminate timeouts.

Singles players make hundreds of decisions in each match, sometimes thousands, all alone on their side of the net….Any one decision like these might involve an entire coaching staff in another sport, but tennis players not only do it alone, but under match conditions that evolve because of weather, injury or an opponent’s change in strategy.

Because I do not rely on strategy, my teams tend to start slow and improve as we get toward the end of the season. Without strict rules and strategy, it takes longer for players to get comfortable playing together and reading each other’s movements. Whereas this creates an early-season weakness, it becomes a late-season strength, as it makes us more difficult to scout and more resilient to defensive changes. I watch high-school and college teams, and they would be very easy to defend because they are so reliant on one player, or one offensive entry, or one play. Take away that player, entry, or play, and will they be able to adjust?

Several years ago, when Ben Howland was at the height of his success at UCLA, UCLA dominated Stanford in the first half. UCLA’s teams were known for their scouting of the opposition and the ability to take the opposition out of their sets. Stanford’s players could not adjust, and UCLA led by +/-20 at halftime. In the second half, Stanford threw away its playbook. As an observer, it appeared that Stanford’s coach put the ball in his best player’s hands and told his team to play as if it was on the playground. With Stanford simply playing, and not running their plays, UCLA’s defensive advantage disappeared. Now, it was my guys against your guys, and Stanford came back and won. Stanford’s players struggled to adjust within their sets, but when given the freedom to play, they excelled. UCLA’s defense could not adjust to players not running plays.

On the basketball court, players make hundreds of decisions in game conditions, and these decisions are modulated by teammates, opponents, time, and score. The better teams tend to be the teams that make better decisions. The coach can try to conduct from the sideline as best as he or she can, but ultimately players have to decide who is and is not open, when to pass ahead, when to shoot, and more. Unfortunately, in many situations, coaches make these decisions in practice – either explicitly or implicitly – which prevents players from learning to make better and better decisions. Worse, rather than making their own decisions in games, they attempt to make decisions that their coach would make; they think about similar situations in practice, but a somewhat similar situation is not the same exact situation. No two decisions are exactly the same; the more experiences that a player has, the more well-equipped the player will be to transfer that experience to related decisions. Improving decision-making and creativity will lead to improved performance.

Tennis players have figured out something that still flummoxes multimillionaire decision-makers in other sports: The riskiest strategy is often what looks like the lowest-risk tactic, and even if aggressive shots misfire once or twice, hitting many of them will pay off down the line.

The low-risk strategy in basketball is to play a slower tempo, emphasize defense, and run organized set plays, but this is becoming the riskiest strategy. The NBA teams most averse to three-point shots tend to be the least efficient offenses, despite arguments from Charles Barkley that jump-shooting teams cannot win. Yes, when you shoot threes, your overall shooting percentages will dip, as 40% from the three-point line is great, but 40% on layups is terrible. Due to the extra point, however, strict percentages are not very meaningful in terms of measuring efficiency or offensive success. As Bialik wrote, even if shooting threes leads to several misses, shooting many threes will pay off down the line.

It is instructive to listen to the comments of players and coaches. I often watch a high-school or college practice or game and hear someone (teammate, coach, fan) yell, “Good shot!” after a player misses. Often, I am flummoxed because it was a terrible shot. I understand that in many cases, the coach/teammate/parent is offering positive encouragement rather than a critical evaluation of a shot, but many players need a more critical evaluation. I see coaches who are happy with 15-foot contested pull-up jump shots, but immediately substitute for a player who misses an open three-pointer. That is insane; that is encouraging bad shots and punishing good shots. That is a symptom of an old bias that shots closer to the basket are better than shots further from the basket, but that bias neglects the extra point for shots of a certain distance, as well as the effect of defense on shooting percentages.

To learn from the lab on the tennis court, and apply its lessons to the basketball court, we need to create more learning environments that are not just learner- or athlete-centered, but that negate the coach’s influence during games. Allow players to play and make mistakes and learn from the mistakes rather than allowing coaches to save players from mistakes with their timeouts. We need to create more decision-making opportunities in practice to enhance the decision-making and creativity in games. This means more practice against live defenders, and more practice time without the coach stopping the action on every mistake; the goal is to improve, not to be perfect. Finally, we need to realize that the risky strategy is trying to control the action from the sideline, and the more resilient strategy, the anti fragile strategy, is to teach players how to play the game and rely on their decision-making in the game. This will create better players, and will be more fun for the developing players.

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

4 thoughts on “Applying lessons from the tennis lab to the basketball court

  • There are many who criticize coaches for not having their teams organized. There are also many to who criticize coaches for being too controlling and not letting players “play their game”. I think it’s all about finding that middle ground. Providing some structure and organization can reduce stress, as having too many options can limit decision-making abilities at times, but I do believe players must have options and freedom within the structure. It’s not an easy line to strike, and part of the challenge of coaching is finding the right balance for each given team.

  • I’d argue that those who criticize coaches for being too controlling do so in the abstract, not in the midst of a game. I’ve never heard a fan in the stands say, “They are so well-organized, and run their plays so beautifully, but it’s really to their detriment.” I think fans, parents, and even coaches like the idea of giving players more freedom because it looks great when the Spurs or Warriors appear to do it, but when a youth or high-school coach does the same, and it looks like something far from the Warriors, fans, parents, coaches, etc. are quick to judge negatively. I mean, I know a college coach who had a “fan” criticize her for not running enough plays for a player who shoots 44% on 10 3FGAs per game because their offense looks chaotic sometimes as the players play rather than running sets every time down court! In the abstract, I think people want it all; player freedom and aesthetically pleasing basketball. However, when those two things are not always possible, as with any level below the NBA (and even many NBA teams), people will say that they choose player decision making and freedom when talking away from the court or game, but as soon as something goes wrong when watching a specific game, they’ll wonder why they aren’t more organized or running more plays or whatever. Just my opinion based on sitting through a lot of games with a lot of different fans.

  • I guess it’s probably parents moreso than fans at the youth and high school level. At that level, the parents are the fans, and when they feel the coach isn’t letting their son/daughter showcase his/her game, the coach is “too controlling”.

  • I’m primarily speaking about high school games; I typically attend 3 per week. Parents will complain about their son/daughter not playing enough, and occasionally about being substituted for mistakes, but when a coach gives players freedom to make plays, and making plays does not look good, the most common complaint is that the coach isn’t doing enough, they’re unorganized, they don’t look like they know what they’re doing, he/she needs to call a timeout, etc. I frequently hear coaches yell, “We worked on that yesterday,” or something to that effect, when a player makes a mistake or commits a turnover, which has no instructional value as feedback, but is meant to tell the audience that it is the player’s fault, not the coach’s. Often, I feel that coaches yelling “Run the play” is as much for the parents’ benefit as it is to get the players to run a play.

    The people who I hear complain about a coach not allowing a player “showcase” his or her game are private coaches and AAU coaches criticizing a high school or college coach.

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