Chaos, Creativity, and Right & Wrong in Youth Basketball

I am not anti-set play. I tend toward being a set-play coach as opposed to a motion coach. However, I attempt to teach in a way that does not restrict: Our plays are more like entries into a semi-structured freelance offense as opposed to directions to follow explicitly. 

Many coaches coach in black and white: There is one way to run a play, and any other execution is incorrect. Therefore, they practice their plays five-on-zero until every player knows the plays without making a mistake.

I coach in varying shades of grey. Rather than expecting perfection, and practicing each play until it is perfect, I expect mistakes, adaptations, and modifications. In fact, I encourage them. If we run a play to create an open three-point shot, but the lane is wide open for another player to attack the rim, I do not want the play run to its conclusion: I want the player to attack the rim. As an example, the possession that starts at 1:08 finishes with a drive to the rim rather than running the same zipper into pick-and-roll play:

In this sense, there is no right or wrong execution. The play is a template, and the players make decisions on the best way to use the template on any given possession. This empowers players and improves creativity.

In a study of creativity in the classroom, Dr. Robert Bilder, a psychiatry and psychology professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, found that the children valued the freedom not to have to seek right and wrong answers.

“It was that freedom to explore that led them to be increasingly engaged and allowed them to forge connections that allowed them to be more creative.”

How many times per game does a coach yell, “Run the play!” The implication is that there is a right answer (the play) and a wrong answer (what the player did before the coach yelled). Players are instructed to execute the play or find the right answer.

In terms of developing creative players, this insistence on the right play takes away the players’ freedom and decreases engagement. When the coach yells “Run the play!” or substitutes the player from the game, the player learns that he or she should not deviate from the coach’s directions. However, if players only follow the coach’s directions, how do they develop creativity? How do they learn?

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

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