Why Are Set Plays Dangerous for Young Players?

I attended a university lecture on decision-making and the presenter showed a version of this video (There are many versions of this online). Please watch this video before reading the article below.

Why do people miss the moonwalking bear? When people focus on one task – counting the passes made by the white team – they attempt to ignore all irrelevant stimuli. To some people, noticing the moonwalking bear could be seen as a weakness, as it illustrates an inability to stay focused on a task. However, what happens if you focus so intently on your task that you miss something as obvious as a moonwalking bear?

Young, inexperienced players must deal with new and different stimuli when playing basketball. They have not mastered the basic basketball skills of passing, catching, shooting and dribbling, and now they must execute these skills under defensive pressure. Then, coaches teach set plays for players in an effort to make the game easier or to create a good shot for the best shooter.

The problem is that as players try to run the play, they miss the moonwalking bear. I watched a high school AAU game at a recruiting evaluation tournament a couple summers ago. The team had a player who had peaked the interest of Big 12, WCC and Big West coaches in attendance, so the team was not devoid of talent. The team ran the same play every time down the court. After several possessions, the defense caught on to to the play. The play started with a down screen and a wing entry pass. By the fourth possession, two defenders were running with the cutter coming off the down screen and nobody guarded the screener. The team threw the pass to the wing anyway, which resulted in several steals before the coach called timeout.

Why did the guard fail to see the screener who was open? There are probably several explanations, but this video explains one: she was trying so hard to run the play (count the white team’s passes) that she did not see the open player (moonwalking bear). The play was designed to go to one area of the court (wing entry), and she devoted all her attention to protecting the ball and making that pass.  She focused more on running the play than trying to score.

Set plays or continuity offenses have a role in offensive basketball. However, the objective is always to create a good shot and score, not just to run the play. I hear coach after coach screaming at players to run the play, and then the player completely ignores an open lane, shot or teammate.

Before teaching plays, we need to teach young and inexperienced players our general goals. At my first practice this season, I asked the players for the best possible possession. They threw out some answers, but none gave me my number one answer: a possession that ends with a made basket with a defensive foul that puts us on the free throw where we score a third point. To me, that is the best possible possession because we get three points, our opponent gets a foul and we can set our defense. This type of thinking may be over the heads of eight-year-olds, but if that does not make sense to them, what is the objective of the set play?

After discussing the best possible possession, we discussed the worst: a steal or long rebound that leads directly to a fast break lay-up for our opponent. Not only do we not score, but our offensive possession leads straight to their basket.

Then, we went through other scenarios that fit between the best and worst. We prioritized shots. A wide open, catch-and-shoot three-pointer: great shot. An off-the-dribble, fade away 17-footer: terrible shot.

After we had the general idea of the types of shots that we wanted to take, we instituted a basic set: a four-out offense predicated on a high on-ball screen: think the Orlando Magic (without Dwight Howard or nearly as many shooters).

More often than not, while we started in the basic four-out set, we rarely ran the play. In fact, after a fellow coach had watched us play four times, she had no idea that our offense was designed for a high pick-and-roll as she had only seen us run it once or twice in four games. Instead, players took advantage of lanes to the basket or passed to cutters cutting to the basket.

Occasionally this freelancing led to bad offensive possessions or one player got in another’s way because she cut too early or stood in one spot too long, but generally the freedom to make plays within one set worked very well. We rarely missed the moonwalking bear under the basket, and the varsity coach was amazed at the points that we scored, as we well out-scored the varsity.

This isn’t to say that the Orlando offense is the perfect offense or that you should only shoot three-pointers. Instead, the point is that we cannot teach in a way that makes our players miss the moonwalking bear. Players need to be aware on the court and play the game, rather than run the play. The objective is to score. The best process is to take good shots – often, this means running a play or a continuity offense. However, the offense is only as good as the players, and when players focus more on the play than on scoring, mistakes are bound to happen because their awareness of the court decreases and bad decisions follow.

To enhance the decision-making of your players, create awareness of possible options rather than limiting the focus to one entry into a set play.

By Brian McCormick
Author of Cross Over: The Model of Youth Basketball Development, Developing Basketball Intelligence and several other books for coaches.

4 thoughts on “Why Are Set Plays Dangerous for Young Players?

  • Couldn’t agree more. We are doing some research into this phenomenon (also known as “inattentional blindness”) for Australian Football. My experiences in coaching that sport suggest a similar approach to what you are advocating is best. I started out coaching a rigid system but now look to implement “principles of play” and create training activities that let players explore the solution using the principles as a guide for decision making.

    Keep up these sort of articles – I find them great for challenging coaches to think about their processes.


  • This is why I think I was a great player. I got the foul, made the basket and also made the free throw. That was 30 yrs+ ago and I still se so little of this mentality of what is the best offensive possession.

    Butch Lee, Marquette NCAA Champs 1977, Lakers NBA 1980

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