Two Ways to View Basketball: Clocks and Clouds

In the May 2010 Wired, Jonah Lehrer writes about problems with MRIs in an article titled “Lost in the Details.” At the end of the article, he quotes Karl Popper, a philosopher of science who divided the world into clocks and clouds.

“Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, ‘highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.'”

Some basketball coaches choose to view basketball as a clock, while others see basketball as a cloud. The way that you view basketball determines the systems that you run and your method of teaching.

I see basketball as a cloud, as I see a lot of ambiguity. I feel my job is to prepare players as best as possible and then trust them to make the best play or best decision in the heat of the moment. Coaches who see basketball as a clock try to control the decision-making through set plays and set rotations, attempting to create order out of a chaotic game.

When I coach, I ask a lot of questions, and I often answer questions with “It depends.” Sometimes this can be seen as a negative. However, I do not want players to be too caught up in making the “perfect decision.” I don’t want players thinking on the court; I want them to rely on their instincts to make the best play possible.

When a player asks if he should stop the ball in transition or protect the basket, it depends. Who is handling the ball? Where is your help on defense? Who is the other offensive player? Is the ball handler attacking with his strong hand? Is he under control?

There is not a black-and-white answer in my opinion. In some cases, the player should stop the ball; in others, he should protect the basket. As a coach, it is impossible to cover every single instance. Therefore, I want to practice different situations, go over different ways to look at the situations and then trust the players to make the best decision in their opinion at that time.

If the decision looks like the wrong decision to me, it becomes a teaching point at the next practice. I try not to criticize; instead, I want to know what the player was thinking. Why did he choose A over B? Maybe he saw something or felt something that I missed. Maybe his decision was the best decision when looking at it based on what he saw. For instance, maybe he did not see that he had a second defender back close enough to contest the pass – is that the original defender’s fault for not seeing his teammate or is it the trailing defender’s fault for not talking and helping the first defender?

Because there are so many situations that are possible in a game, I do not believe that a coach can treat it as a clock and expect precision. It makes it easier to teach some skills and decision-making in certain situations, but the ease of instruction often breaks down in a live situation because the decisions depend so heavily on the particular situation.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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