Chaos and Order: Our bias toward organization

Last season, I rarely called plays. We ran one basic transition offense on over 40% of possessions, and probably ran horns on roughly another 40%. Occasionally, our offense looked aesthetically unpleasing. One of the biggest possessions of the season, to seal our first win in semifinals series, looked like a disaster for 15 seconds until our PG purposely dribbled toward a help defender and kicked to the open shooter (39% from three-point line on the season) for the game-icing three-pointer. Despite our aesthetics, we were in the top three in the league in offense, despite essentially playing 4v5 on offense.

A friend coaches a team with five players shooting over 35% from the three-point line (39%, 48%, 36%, 35%, and 43%) with no real inside presence. The team often looks disorganized as it attempts to draw help defenders to create an open shot for a teammate. Fans see the disorganization, and they question the coach. Is it really bad coaching when you continue to get open shots for players shooting +/- 40% from the three-point line?

Meanwhile, I watched a team that was described as well-coached. They were very deliberate. You could see the plays that they were running. They were organized. They lost by 20 points!

When Kerr made his comment, the twitterverse applauded. How would it have reacted if he was coaching the Knicks with 5 wins when he said that? Would he have been depicted as lazy and disinterested and just a TV analyst?

When a high school or college coach takes the same approach as Kerr, they often are criticized (because few have the immediate success of Kerr, and because HS and NCAA players rarely look as polished as NBA players). Coaching, it seems, is not allowing players to thrive in disorganization; coaching is creating organization. As Larry Paul wrote in Playing Better Soccer is More Fun:

“Get some cones, a whistle and a clipboard. Put the kids in organized lines while they wait patiently to take their turn running drills….It’s controlled and methodical….

Soccer players, on the other hand, play in a world marked by a chaotic and rapidly changing environment.”

We are biased toward the organized approach because we can see what the coach has been doing at practice: Working on plays. With my team or my friend’s team, it is hard to tell what we practiced (well, shooting, because I had four starters and five players above 38% from three-point range). If we were practicing our plays like other teams, the practice must have been poor!

That is my goal as a coach. I’m unconcerned with how well we can run a specific play. I am concerned with whether or not we can adjust and adapt if we run it incorrectly or if it breaks down because of the defense. Three times (that I remember) we hit shots out of a timeout to win the game or send the game to overtime. Great play design, right? Nope. In these three instances, we actually got the desired shot for the desired player, but we did not execute the play as I designed it at the timeout. Whether they adjusted to the defense or they forgot what to do and improvised, it worked. One reason, I believe, is that we spent more time on end-game situations than any coach I know, and they coached themselves during these situational games. We may not have executed correctly, and we may not have looked organized, but we accomplished in the game the very things that we practiced: Making plays, adjusting and adapting, playing through a teammate’s mistake, etc.

What do we value in sports? Order? From listening to fans in the stands, unless you win like Steve Kerr, it sounds like being orderly is a better way to keep one’s job than to encourage playmaking and decision-making in chaos. However, developmentally, is that what we want from sports?

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

3 thoughts on “Chaos and Order: Our bias toward organization

  • I think part of the reason for this, at least in the U.S., are the perceptions of football and basketball (as well as other sports). Football is seen as a coach driven sport where the coach,as authority figure, moves his players around the field like chess pieces. Basketball is seen as a player driven sport where the team with the most talent wins regardless of coaching. As football has the most coverage and is the most popular sport, people assume that is how sports should be coached.

    As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The best coaches in football allow their players a great deal of autonomy on the field because they realize that is how you have the best chance for success. The two teams in the Super Bowl demonstrate this in very different ways. Pete Carroll embraces many new ways of training and runs a very player friendly team. Belichick expects his players to make adjustments on the field and adapt to the situation. In fact he has often spoken about something I believe you wrote about before. Being adaptable rather than adapted. He wants players and teams that can take advantage of any opportunity presented be able to react on the fly.

    Other sports have good coaches who don’t just ‘roll the balls out’ (Poppovich, Boche, Maddon, Van Gundy). They operate under a set of principles that give players a great deal of latitude to adjust and make decisions on their own but it doesn’t mean they don’t have discipline and organization.

    Giving up authority makes people uncomfortable, whether it be calling plays or allowing co-workers or subordinates to take part in the decision making or even make decisions without consulting you. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and have only recently started giving my students more say in the day to day running of my classroom. I felt that I was giving up authority and worried about what my class would look like to an outsider when in reality since making this decision have had almost no discipline issues and feel that students are having a better experience in my classes because they are helping make decisions on things such as grading, rules and even content. There are days where it definitely would look like chaos to someone walking by but I’ve learned to accept that.

    Sorry for rambling. I enjoy reading your work and have found many useful pieces of information that have helped me in the classroom as well as with coaching.

  • Kerr might not call plays, but they’re organized. After rebounds, perimeter always fill corners and wings, post players fill post and trail spots. Ball reversals are followed by screen to or away from the ball. If they deny ball reversal—dribble hand-off in the opposite direction. If they deny the trailer, he immediately screens or slips, at which point the ball handlers dribbles to the top of the key. They look to post, kick out, open up lanes for penetration. Freedom within organization. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

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