The Predictability and Perfection Traps: Stifling Creativity

There are two general ways to improve performance: decrease negative plays and increase positive plays. In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight, Gary Klein used the equation:

Performance Improvements = Reduce Errors and Uncertainty + Increase Insights 

Klein’s focus was improving the creativity or insights of organizations, but many of his thoughts apply to basketball players, coaches, and teams. Klein argued that organizations fall into two traps (predictability and perfection) that stifle insights or original thinking. 

I have argued for years that our goal as coaches should be to develop flexible thinkers or adaptable athletes. Rather than memorizing a play with one specific outcome, players should be able to disorganize the defense, maintain spacing, move the ball, and create a good shot. Whereas most coaches agree with the sentiment in the theoretical, in practice, coaches and teams tend to fall into the same traps as organizations.

Klein wrote that “organizations naturally gravitate toward reducing errors. Errors are easy to define, easy to measure, and easy to manage” (Klein, p. 154). Coaches are no different. Coaches tend to focus on turnovers and/or offensive rebounds as the errors and attempt to reduce these. When a player makes one of these errors, he or she is likely to be taken out of the game. When a player throws the ball to the other team, the error is easy to define, and taking out the player is an easy management solution. In essence, the coach is using the bench to teach the player not to throw the ball to the other team.

Klein wrote that “insight [creativity] is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive,” (Klein, p. 153). Disrupting the defense is the most general approach to offense; regardless of the skill or tactic used by the offense, the goal is to disrupt the defense (for instance, set a screen on a defender to free a player for an open shot). Coaches tend to want predictability within their team. They want specific players to take specific shots, and they want specific players to take more shots than other players. To accomplish this goal, they run plays to get designated shots for designated players. Klein wrote that the predictability trap happens when “you are so captured by the lure of predictability that you make it to high a priority” (Klein, p. 153).

In basketball, making predictability too high of a priority would mean running plays for the sake of running plays or taking out a player because he or she deviated from the play. When running the play becomes the goal, the coach has less patience for creativity or flexible thinking. Many coaches are drawn to coaching because they like being in charge or having the feelings of power; when their team is unpredictable, they lose their feelings of control. Also, fans tend to question a coach when his or her team appears less structured or predictable: when I was young, the worst condemnation of a coach was to say that he or she “just let his or her players play.” Therefore, there are multiple reasons for coaches craving control and predictability.

Of course, these traps tend to focus only on one side of the equation: reducing errors (decreasing negative plays). The problem is that too much focus on reducing errors can inhibit creativity or the increase of positive plays. As Klein wrote, “The actions we take to reduce errors and uncertainty can get in the way of insights” (Klein, p. 156). What happens when a coach takes out the player who committed a turnover or missed a shot?

I trained a player named Shaun years ago. He was a good high-school player on a ranked team, and he eventually played D1 basketball. He was athletic, and a good shooter. Today, he would be your perfect 3&D player. Every time that he missed a three-pointer, his coach took him out of the game. Regardless of whether or not it was a good shot or a bad shot, a quick shot or a shot as the shot clock expired, he inevitably came out of the game. As he caught on to his coach’s actions, he stopped shooting. Once he stopped shooting, he played more, as his coach did not have a reason to take him out of the game. In the coach’s attempt to reduce errors, he eliminated any chance for an increase in positive plays.

I had the opposite experience as a player during a summer league between 9th and 10th grades. I handled the ball in transition and passed to a weaker player cutting to the basket. He fumbled the pass for a turnover. When I came out of the game, my coach told me that if I passed up another open shot to pass the ball to a teammate, he was going to bench me. My confidence skyrocketed. Rather than worrying about reducing errors, I tried to make more and more plays. My insights (positive plays) increased. Our team went from the team of leftovers thrown together at the end of the first day  who lost our first four games, to winning the championship without losing another game.

Of course I (and my teammates) made errors during our winning streak. However, we (and our coach) were focused on increasing our positive plays. An error was not a discouragement. We did not fall into the predictability or perfection trap. We played with freedom, and our freedom eventually made us more difficult to defend than a more predictable team. Meanwhile, Shaun’s team underperformed given their talent level probably because they grew too predictable and reliant on one or two players because the role players were scared to make a mistake.

Reducing errors, especially live-ball turnovers, is part of becoming a successful team, especially because a live-ball turnover leads to the highest offensive efficiency from the opponent. Error reduction is only one way to improve performance. Making more positive plays is the other way to improve performance, and when reducing errors gets in the way of increasing positive plays, players and teams will struggle.

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

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