Basketball Coaches Solving the Marshmallow Problem

In this TED talk, Tom Wujec discusses the Marshmallow Problem:

For coaches, I see two important lessons.

First, The Ta-Da Problem. Many coaches use a similar process as the groups that perform poorly. They orient, plan and build, but when they put the marshmallow on top at the very end, everything falls apart.

This happens when coaches and teams spend too much time planning and practicing 5v0 offense or defense. While waiting for a game last week, I watched a youth practice. The girls looked to be about 10 years old. The team spent nearly a half-hour working on 5v0 offense: screen down, screen away.

As they ran through the offense, the players predictably set screens on the wrong side of their teammate (the outside of the player on the block, rather than the inside where a defender should be playing). The screener and cutter often ran past each other rather than actually setting and using the screen. Also, without a defender present, the offense never read the defense and used the screen accordingly; instead, the offense ran from spot to spot.

Of course, in this scenario, the defense is the marshmallow. After 30 minutes of 5v0 offense, the coaches hurriedly added defense for the final few minutes of practice and the offense looked nothing like that which they had just practiced. The game changed completely. Players did not follow the pattern and when they did, they were not open because they did not wait for their screens or read the defense when making their cuts. In effect, the 30 minutes of practice was completely useless in terms of transfer to a 5v5 setting.

The kindergartners in the video would practice 5v5 throughout practice. They might introduce the idea of the screen quickly without defense, but then add defenders. They would struggle, presumably, so the coach would add another piece of instruction or maybe simplify the game. The players would try again. Just as the kindergartners spend their time building prototype after prototype, a more successful approach to developing a team offense with young players is to play against defenders in small-sided games or 5v5 scrimmages.

At this age, players are not going to memorize plays and run them perfectly against defenders in the game without considerable practice against defenders. Moving quickly to 5v5 before players perfectly memorize the plays in a 5v0 seems like a poor approach, just like building a spaghetti structure without first designing a plan. However, just as the trial and error approach works better for the kindergartners, players need to learn to adjust and adapt to mistakes during games, as their execution against defenders will never be perfect.

The second lesson for coaches is the influence of the executive admin with the CEOs. We tend to think of coaches as CEOs. However, in this video, coaches need to be more like the executive admins. The executive admin “have special skills of facilitation” and they “manage the process.” A coach needs the special skills of facilitation to work with his or her players and to bring out their best performances. In a sense, he or she manages this process. While CEOs tend to set forth their expectations and demonstrate their power, the executive admins work to make things work.

As a coach, we are bestowed a position of power. There is no need to prove this position to anyone. Instead, our objective is to assist players in their development and performance. We need to facilitate this development through physical, cognitive, social and psychological pathways.

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

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