My thinking differs from most coaches on most aspects of coaching, and these differences often get me in trouble. This weekend, I argued the merits of zone defenses and realized that our difference of opinion had nothing to do with zones specifically, but instead the way that we view the game and approach skill development.
Most coaches view basketball as two elements: skills and strategy. For these coaches, skills represent the technical skills that differentiate basketball: shooting, specific passes, footwork, dribbling and more. Strategy, then, is everything else, typically centering on defenses, plays, press breaks, out of bounds plays and more.
To me, there are four types of skills: athletic, psychological, tactical and technical. When I talk about skill development, I mean more than an individual workout focuses on shooting and ball handling; I believe skill development includes tactical skills like give-and-gos, pick-and-rolls, handling a trap, and more.
The difference between these two viewpoints, I learned, defines one’s coaching philosophy. The more traditional viewpoint favors a block practice environment which combines technical skill practice, typically in individual drills, with strategic practice encompassing the team’s offensive and defensive systems.
For these coaches, plays or offensive systems are specific, and players memorize movements: for instance, the team runs the Flex and players learn to use a screen only in the context of the Flex offense or the team runs the dribble-drive-motion and players learn to move in relation to dribble penetration only in the context of the DDM.
With my viewpoint, players learn these tactical skills generally first and then incorporate different general skills into team offense or the team’s system. In the traditional viewpoint, players learn skills like dribbling and shooting outside the context of the offensive system and then use these skills within the offense. In my approach, not only do players practice technical skills in skill development sessions, but they learn the tactical skills generally.
Before a team runs the Flex, for instance, players learn to use a screen outside the context of the Flex offense. Players learn to read the defense and the screen to make the appropriate cut; for instance, if the defender tries to fight through the screen, the cutter back cuts to the basket. Then, the offensive players apply these lessons to their coach’s system or plays.
The same occurs defensively. Most teams have a primary defense with their specific rules: for instance, force everything sideline-baseline, 3/4 front the post, help defense on the midline. If their primary defense does not work or does not fit against their opponent, they switch defenses: they play a secondary defense, like a 2-3 zone or 3-2 zone.
If players learn to play defense generally first, rather than with specific rules, a team can change its base defense to fit an opponent or situation. This season, we played man-to-man defense; however, against some teams, we denied the wing entry pass while against others, we played more help defense. When we played against a team that relied on dribble penetration, we did not move to a zone; we simply recognized their strength and adjusted slightly.
These adjustments constitute my strategy. From my viewpoint, we develop skills and strategy are the adjustments or game-specific tactics. For instance, how do you defend an opponent with a three-point lead and under 10 seconds to play? Do you foul before they can shoot a three-pointer? Decisions like these are the team’s or coach’s strategy. However, these strategic decisions are not important until players develop their skills generally. If players do not understand how to defend or how to use a screen or how to read the defense, a coach cannot change or employ different strategies. A coach cannot call a timeout to draw up a new play if the players lack the awareness or understanding to implement the strategy.
A narrow definition of skills (essentially technical skills) leads to one way of coaching and teaching, while a broader definition, which I favor, that encompasses four areas of skills leads to a much different approach to coaching.
At the youth level, the broader approach to skill development benefits players because the players learn skills which transfer from season to season, while coaches with a narrow definition may employ different strategies which do not transfer from season to season unless a player happens to play for a coach who runs the same system.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League