The Psychology of a Point Guard: The Trilogy

Part I: The Personality of a Point Guard

July 4th, 2008

In the lead-up to the 2008 NBA Draft, experts projected the ability of combo guards like O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon to play point guard. After Baron Davis joined the Los Angeles Clippers, people in the Bay Area discussed Monta Ellis’ ability to play point guard.

Most people analyze the position skills (ball handling, shooting, passing and defending penetration) or statistics (assists, assists to turnover ratio). One writer argued that Ellis could not be an NBA point guard because of his low assist to turnover ratio last season. The commentary illustrates a gross misunderstanding of point guards and talent in general.

We compare point guards to quarterbacks because each initiates the play. Like a quarterback, the point guard is the “coach on the floor” and the team’s leader. A quarterback and a point guard may possess a similar personality, but not necessarily: in high school, our quarterback was a shoot-first, pass-third forward. A quarterback’s personality easily matches a scorer or a shooter. The more consistent similarity is between a point guard and an attacking midfielder.

An attacking midfielder typically has the same personality as a point guard. If a player plays both sports, a point guard almost always plays midfield, while the scorer/shooter plays striker, and the role player/defender plays fullback. Goalies are the exception.

Coaches rarely consider personality. I train a player whose coach will not play him at point guard because he is one of the taller players and probably the best outside shooter. I tell college coaches that he is a point guard, but when they watch him, he almost never plays the position, so they are unsure. They wonder if he handles the ball well enough.

This is the problem. Ball handling is a skill. A player can improve a skill. Playing the point guard position requires the right personality, and one cannot change his personality according to many psychologists, talent development experts and management texts.

When a coach selects his point guard, he looks for a small player who dribbles well. This is a terribly ineffective way to pick a point guard. Monta Ellis possesses the requisite skills – he is quick, handles well, shoots well, attacks the basket, penetrates, etc. – but he is not a point guard, and he never will be. He is a scorer. To cast Ellis as a point guard is to misuse his skills and strengths.

On the other hand, Boris Diaw is clearly a facilitator. He may be too tall or slow to defend the point guard position, but he is clearly a playmaker and a facilitator, not a scorer. Trying to turn Diaw into a scorer is a misuse of his talents. In a perfect world, Diaw would team with a guard like Ellis, enabling Diaw to facilitate and Ellis to score, while Ellis could defend the opponent’s small guard. Playing Diaw with Steve Nash, clearly a point guard, does not enable Diaw to maximize his greatest skills because Nash is the playmaker.

Though a player possesses the personality to play a position, he may not possess the skill. If Ellis was a terrible shooter and finisher, he would lack the tools to be a good scorer despite his personality. To maximize a player’s talents, coaches must be aware of and utilize his personality rather than changing the player. Often, when a player moves to a new team, he flourishes. More often than not, the change put the player in a position to use his talents and maximize his personality.

Westbrook was the right pick at #4 because he has the personality of a point guard more than Gordon or Bayless. At UCLA, playing alongside Darren Collison, he was in between roles, but he illustrated his personality. He has the tools to score and get to the rim, especially in transition, but he is a facilitator. A player like Baron Davis, Chris Paul or Deron Williams has the tools to score and get to the rim, but he also possesses the playmaking personality.

When evaluating a player, the personality is important, especially for a prospective point guard. The point guard must enjoy setting up his teammates more than scoring himself. He is the person who likes others around him to look good. The Bengals’ Chad Johnson, for instance, would not be a point guard regardless of how well he can dribble, pass and shoot. Point guards cannot worry about statistics.

Point guards need to understand the personalities of their teammates and relate to teammates so they know when a teammate is frustrated because he is working hard and not getting the ball or when a teammate is scared to shoot in a big moment. A point guard’s role is to make his teammates look good and to make their jobs easier, which takes a certain type of personality.

Being a point guard is more than being the team’s leader – Kevin Garnett is the Celtics’ leader, but he is not a point guard; Michael Jordan led his team, but he was not a point guard.

Being a point guard is more than dribbling ability. Hot Sauce and AO handle the ball better than anyone in the NBA, but they are not point guards. Ellis has the tools to be a point guard, but he isn’t.

Being a point guard – or more specifically being a playmaker or facilitator as point guard is an often misused position-designation – requires a certain personality and emotional intelligence. The best point guards maximize their personality by developing the requisite skills to play the role. However, the skills without the personality are insufficient. Those with the skills and size of a point guard, without the point guard’s personality, are “combo guards,” who coaches hope can learn to play the role, even if it is unnatural.

A more effective strategy is to find players who possess the skills to match their personality and put these players in a position to succeed. Golden State did this with Ellis, allowing him to be a scorer, while the Kings allowed Chris Webber and Vlade Divac to be facilitators from the high post rather than asking them to be back-to-the-basket scorers.

Part II: Point Guard Play and Perceptual and Cognitive Skill Development

July 9th, 2008

Part I argued that playing the point guard position requires a certain personality and elicited feedback from a reader who argued that I ignored the importance of vision:

I agree that ball handling is a skill, and that you have to have the right make-up, but having the ability to see things unfold before it happens is a talent that cannot be taught. Stockton, Kidd, all the great point guards had the ability to make the game look easy because they knew what was going to happen before it did. This is the reason that Vlade and Webber were great at the high post. This is how a player gets a high assist to turnover ratio. It is the ability to make the “right” pass.

Experts do not possess superior visual function. In “Perceptual and Cognitive Skill Development in Soccer: The Multidimensional Nature of Expert Performance,” Paul Ward and A. Mark Williams write:

“This research suggests that expert performers are not endowed with superior visual function, and that perceptual and cognitive factors are better discriminators of skilled performance in adults…Experts typically exhibit more effective search strategies…and are faster and more accurate at recognizing and recalling patterns of play from memory.”

Steve Nash and Jason Kidd separate themselves from average point guards because of perceptual and cognitive factors, not vision. Expert point guards make decisions quicker than their peers because they recognize cues quicker and more accurately. When Nash drives the middle and draws defenders, he recalls Stoudemire’s cuts. When Kidd sprints down court, he reads a defender’s slightest movement and exploits this movement. Average players, and lay people, do not notice a defender standing with his weight on his left foot which Kidd exploits by attacking to the defender’s left. Kidd probably cannot explain his choice, but he reads the slightest lean and weight shift and reacts, while average players miss these cues and guess.

There is a visual aspect to successful skill execution, but it starts with the technical skill. In “Conditioning the Visual System: A Practical Perspective on Visual Conditioning in Rugby Football,”  published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal: Vol. 27, No. 4, Rudi Meir writes:

“As a simple rule, the more complex and demanding the centrally performed task or the more stressed the athlete, the narrower will be the functional visual field size, resulting in errors that coaches often describe as tunnel vision, (Meir).”

Therefore, vision increases as skill and confidence increase, as the player concentrates less on his technical skill (dribbling the basketball), which allows him to concentrate on finding an open teammate or making the right decision. Kidd is an expert ball handler, which leaves all of his concentration to read his defender rather than concentrating on protecting the dribble. As one improves his ball handling, his visual skills improve.

For the most part, however, the reader confused vision with perceptual and cognitive abilities. A great point guard’s ability to “make the game look easy” and “know what is going to happen before it does” is not visual, but cognitive. “Making the right pass” has to do with anticipation and game awareness. He reads cues and anticipates actions faster than average players.  The reader disagreed:

Call it awareness or call it court vision, I find it difficult to believe that this is a taught ability. If this were something that is taught, why don’t we have more great point guards or passers?

Ward and Williams write:

These studies suggest that the knowledge bases and cognitive strategies underlying effective performance develop gradually and as a result of extensive task-specific practice.

If these skills require practice, they are not innate – in fact, they can be taught. However, what limits their development? Why are there so few point guards?

How many coaches use extensive task-specific practice with the appropriate feedback to develop these specific skills, especially early in a player’s development? The Ward and Williams’ study indicates that limited practice and high quality coaching can have a significant impact on the acquisition of perceptual and cognitive skills at an early age. However, if coaches do not practice these skills extensively, they may go undeveloped.

Next, we often cut players with the right personality because youth coaches favor the stronger, faster, more aggressive scorers. Dominant, aggressive personalities capture a coach’s attention, not the point guard who involves everyone.

In 8th grade, four guys from my team tried out for the BCI team (an area all-star team and precursor to AAU). I played point guard, and we won the city championship. However, when we tried out for BCI, my friend made the team as a point guard, and I did not. His dad was our school coach and played him at power forward (he was a fullback in soccer, too). Who understood our relative talents better, the coaches picking teams after a three-day try-out or our school coaches who coached us to two championships over four years?

In a try-out, my friend stood out as an aggressive player who made things happen – good or bad – while my steady play was overlooked. The situation happens every year: the bigger, stronger, more athletic, more aggressive players advance. Coaches believe they can make a fast, good ball handling player into a point guard. However, if he lacks the personality, he will be an in-between player or combo guard, regardless of his technical skills.

In “Deliberate Practice and the Modifiability of Body and Mind: Toward a Science of the Structure and Acquisition of Expert and Elite Performance,” K. Anders Ericsson writes:

When superior performers in sport are presented representative tasks, verbal reports reveal how advanced preparation, planning, reasoning, and evaluation mediate their superior performance…even the superior speed of expert performers appears to depend primarily on acquired cognitive representations that allow performers to be prepared for execution of appropriate actions rather than better basic acuity of their sensory perceptual systems and/or faster basic speed of their motor systems…more skilled athletes use anticipatory cues to guide their motor responses.

Coaches must look beyond height and speed when selecting players, especially at young ages where some children have obvious advantages as early bloomers. Coaches must devise strategies to train cognitive skills to develop expert performers. When coaches only run set plays, and never explain the why or the how to a player, he does not develop cognitive recognition of patterns. Instead, he follows directions. Even if coaches run set plays or continuity offenses, they must teach players how to read and react to defenders in different situations in order to maximize the players’ ability. When the competitive stream gets near the top (college and pro basketball), every player is big, strong, athletic and skilled. The difference, especially for point guards, is their ability to read slight cues and anticipate plays. Those who process the information and react to it more quickly make better decisions and more plays than those who miss subtle cues or process information more slowly.

Part III: Experts, Vision and Perceptual Skills

July 16th, 2008

In an article written by ESPN the Magazine’s Tom Farrey, former NBA star and current radio show host Rick Barry said:

“I don’t know where it comes from but either a player has it or a player doesn’t have it,” Rick Barry said. “I can teach you how to pass but I can’t teach you how to see. If I throw you a pass into that little hole in the defense – that to me is the one telling thing that determines whether you’re a natural player. And every one of my boys has that.”

Barry confuses some important concepts. We use the term “vision” colloquially to combine many things. However, indefinite language makes instruction more difficult.

The Barry children have similar eye sight to average players. However, they possess better perceptual and cognitive skills which allow them to read cues quicker and anticipate movements because they recall previous experiences more quickly and more accurately than average players. “Vision” is not eyesight, but perception and cognition (However, I would argue that Brent Barry has far above-average visual acuity, as his ability to move from a soft-centered focus to see the floor to a fine-centered focus to shoot, is superior to most players, including his brother John).

Barry believes “vision,” cannot be taught. However, research suggests otherwise. From the Ward and Williams’ paper:

“These studies suggest that the knowledge bases and cognitive strategies underlying effective performance develop gradually and as a result of extensive task-specific practice.”

I attended the NBA Summer League and watched Jerryd Bayless, the quintessential combo guard, because of my interview with Blazer’s Edge. Bayless played very well, but proved that he is not a point guard. Combo guards possess the skills to play the point guard position – Bayless has a great crossover, got to the basket at-will, has an in-between game, etc. However, combo guards cannot make the adjustment to the point guard position. I believe that there is something inherent in one’s personality that leads a player to a facilitator role or an aggressive, scorer role. However, others argue that combo guards lack the same perceptual and cognitive skills of a point guard. Somehow, I think the answer is a combination.

When Bayless turned the corner, he attacked to score. Several times, I caught myself saying “dish it” but he did not see the open player or he chose to attack on his own and ignore his open teammate. Because he dribbles well, I do not believe that his field of vision narrowed from a lack of technical skill (Meir). Instead, the decision to attack was rooted in his personality, in limited perceptual skills or both.

If he did not “see” these options, the issue is not visual. Instead, he does not process information based on visual cues as quickly as a point guard like Steve Nash. When we watch Nash, we marvel at his vision. However, his talent is quicker processing. He anticipates; he “sees the play before it happens.”

Through experience, Nash anticipates the play because he sees the play develop in his mind. This is not a visual skill but a perceptual skill. He reads the play based on the visual cues and makes the decision quicker than someone without the same perceptual skills. When Bayless drives, he does not pick up on the same cues and therefore he does not “see” the play developing ahead of time. Therefore, Nash’s anticipation allows him to make the perfect pass at the perfect time, while a combo guard either passes too late or not at all. While we call this “vision” it is a mental skill.

The question is how to teach these skills. Dan Peterson introduces the “Sports Cognition Framework,” three elements needed for sports success:

  • Decision-making ability (knowing what to do)
  • Motor skill competence (being physically able to do it)
  • Positive mental state (being motivated and confident to do it)

Most of the time, a mental mistake is thought of as a breakdown of decision-making ability. The center fielder throws to the wrong base, the tight end runs the wrong route, or the defender forgets to mark his man, etc. These scenarios describe poor decisions or even memory lapses during the stress of the game. They are not necessarily the lack of skill to execute a play or the lack of confidence or motivation to want to do the right thing. It is recognition, in hindsight, that the best option was not chosen. In addition to glaring negative plays, there are also missed opportunities on the field (i.e. taking a contested shot on goal instead of passing to the open teammate).

From my vantage point, Bayless rarely chose the best option. Often his decision worked out, as he drew many fouls, but the best option was to pass to a teammate for a dunk when the help defense rotated to the ball rather than trying to force a shot between two taller defenders. My argument is that Bayless has the motor skill competence to make the pass, but his personality or slow recognition and processing of the relevant cues (help defender’s rotation) led to his decision to attack and shoot.

If these perceptual and cognitive skills are learned skills, and not innate as barry believes, why has a player with Bayless’ talents failed to develop them? How can a young guard starting is youth playing career develop these skills?

Dr. Joan Vickers, a professor at the University of Calgary, suggests that a player has to play to develop the full skill – a drill eliminates the decision-making, which is the essential aspect of the skill. In a series of responses to questions on the PBS web site, Vickers describes the process of developing these skills:

Behavioral training features blocked practice drills where the following characteristics exist: the same skills are practiced to perfection; high levels of feedback are given constantly; instruction is delivered using simple to complex progression; and where there is limited simulation of what really happens in games. When behavioral methods are used extensively, performance is often impressive in the short term (so both the athletes and coaches think they are doing the best thing), but athletes trained too much in this way are unable to maintain or improve their performance in the long term. They lack the ability to perform consistently. Skills and tactics mastered early in training and performed well are not maintained as the season progresses. There is also a limited ability to perform in new and unusual settings.

What is being advocated today is the use of random and/or variable practice drills, delayed and/or reduced feedback as skill develops, the use of whole instruction, questioning, video feedback and video modeling. Collectively, these new methods completely change the practice environment where the athlete learns to deal with the realities of the game and where they become more self-sufficient.

The Behavioral Training Method is the Peak by Friday approach where immediate results supersede development. Coaches control players through their instruction and plays. Teams appear organized, but players fail to develop the necessary skills. Only one player – the primary ball handler – if any, makes decisions. Coaches often ignore point guards and favor more aggressive, bigger, stronger players and use these players as the primary ball handler (Bayless). As players progress, they improve because they always have the ball, while others struggle to improve with limited touches. They do not necessarily develop into a point guard, though coaches often play them at the position because of their aggressiveness and speed – think Monta Ellis, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jason Terry, etc. They played the position for most of their career, yet they never developed a point guard mentality. Why?

My argument is personality. Vickers’ argument, and I think K. Anders Ericsson would agree, is that the players developed in Behavioral Training styles. If games offer the best environment for random plays and reduced feedback, why is the current system of hundreds of games failing to develop these perceptual skills?

When an opponent is present and scouts are in the stands, players do what they can do, and coaches coach to win. This makes variable drills and small-sided practice games the best teaching methods. The practice environment is, by nature, a learning environment where players should feel safe to make mistakes. There is no performance pressure. The drills and small-sided games give all players multiple repetitions, while only 1-2 players get multiple repetitions in a game. How many coaches choose a primary ball handler and only allow that one player to dribble the ball? How do the others develop their perceptual skills?

The solution, as Vickers suggests, is a change to our coaching approach. We need to move away from the more common Behavioral Training methods and incorporate more random training with task-specific practice. Basically, if we want to develop players’ cognitive and perceptual skills, we ned to practice them, just as we practice shooting to develop better shooting technique.

We also must be more specific about the skills to develop before we can develop these skills. If the “experts” believe “vision” is an innate skill, how do we convince non-expert coaches to attempt to develop the skill, especially if they lose early season games pursuing a new practice style?

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

Update: For more information on behavioral training and random/variable practice, check out The 21st Century Basketball Practice on Kindle, e-book, or paperback.


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