On the Positivistic Coaching Approach

This entry is also the Chapter 5 of my blog Complex Basketball Coaching. The blog is here.

Historically, the dominant approach in coaching and coaching research has been the positivistic approach. Using that particular adjective in the term is a matter of choice. The same basic approach towards coaching is reflected by these overlapping adjectives:

Often coaches do not articulate or even realise the assumptions that underlie their coaching. Hence, not too many coaches will explicitly acknowledge that their coaching approach is positivistic.

Also, even if a coach’s general approach is to be considered positivistic, he may not subscribe to all positivistic claims. And the terms mentioned here have many definitions – i.e. not all forms of positivism are the same.

However, generally speaking it is justified to call the dominant approach in the coaching field positivistic. The argument here is that this is how most coaches in praxis coach most of the time. This claim grains credence from the following list. It connects underlying assumptions of a positivistic nature, general coaching principles, and basketball specific examples.

(Quote from here.)

The positivistic coaching approach has produced a lot of champions. So in a way, the problem is not that it doesn’t work. It does work – up to a point. But it doesn’t work optimally, or all the way through.

For example, the effectiveness of a team does correlate with the effectiveness of its players. In pick-up basketball, if you put the five best players on one team and the five worst players on the other one, the five best players’ team will win the game. And if you replace your center with a more effective one, you very possibly improve the team effectiveness.

But this correlation is not linear. Sometimes bringing in better players may hamper the effectiveness of the team. And replacing your best player with a lesser one may improve the effectiveness.

So why does the positivistic coaching approach will eventually run short in basketball? Considering that basketball is a complex system, there are at least three explanations.

1) The Specificity of Learning Principle

  • The specificity of learning is a most elementary, well-proven principle of sports training. What it means is that “improvement is observed only in the trained task, with little to no transfer of learning being observed even for very similar untrained tasks”.
  • Previously we have defined basketball as “an invasion team sport where the interaction between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules”. Thus, according to the specificity of learning principle, the interaction between the two teams should the primary trained task in the sport.
  • The positivistic coaching approach fails to comply with this conclusion. In the list above there are several points that imply that the emphasis of training may be put on other tasks than the primary one. The points in question are the ones 4-to-8.

2) Emergence of Interaction

  • In complex systems, the output emerges from the interaction between the parts of the system. Because of this emergence, even if we know the the input, we can not know what the output will be. Hence, we can’t know what the input should be in order for us to get the optimal output.
  • The same in basketball terms: We don’t know exactly what will happen in a game – or how the interaction with the other team will function. Because of this emergence, we don’t know how the team and its individual players should practice or play in order for the team to get the optimal result.
  • This defies points 1-to-4 and 7-to-10 of the list above. That is because enhancing pre-determined tactics and techniques is not the optimal solution when the primary goal is not going to be executing those tactics and techniques. Rather, in a basketball game the primary goal is to adapt to the emerging interaction and to manipulate it the best that you can in any way that you can.

3) Top-down Causation

  • The positivistic coaching approach relies on bottom-up causation. The idea is that through training, positive changes are caused  in parts of a system. Then in turn, those changes will cause positive changes in the functioning of the system.
  • Or in basketball terms, the players practice and develop. This development will help the team to play more effectively.
  • But what is ignored in the positivistic approach is that in complex systems also top-down causation takes place. In other words, changes in functioning of the system will also cause changes in the functioning of its parts.
  • Or in basketball terms:l It’s not just players affecting how the team plays, but also the team affecting how the players play. And as the teams affect how the game unfolds, the game affects how the teams play.
  • This feedback loop defies reductionism, or points 3-to-6 in the list above. Because of the top-down causation, the functioning of a system can not be explained merely through the functioning of its own part.

Complex Basketball Coaching

What kind of an entity is basketball? And based on its essence, how should it be practiced and coached? Based on the analysis, should changes be made to the prevailing procedures? If so, what type of changes?

These are the questions we are dealing with here. In other words, we are trying to build a solid basis for discussing and improving basketball coaching. To do that, we are defining the main concepts and their relationships because that is an elementary prerequisite for a meaningful discussion.

I am writing and posting this piece by piece, chapter by chapter. Also, I am revising the blog whenever I find it necessary. So do not wonder if you revisit the piece and find it different from what you thought it was.

The latest addition I made was Chapter 5: On the Positivistic Coaching Approach on Thursday July 19.

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Under-8-year-olds’ Basketball Training Principles

This writing from 2014 lists principles of organised U8 basketball. References to scientific articles are provided to back up the stated principles. I wrote this originally for Kouvot, club based in Kouvola, Finland.


Basic Principles of U8 Basketball

  • Early engagement in basketball is encouraged in order to enhance a child’s health and psychosocial well-being.
  • Every effort is made to make these enhancements both short-term and long-term.
  • Also, a solid base is put together for the child’s future development as an over-all athlete and a basketball player.

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Utilizing Differential Learning in Basketball Training

Up to a point, variability enhances the efficiency of motor skill practice, and differential learning enhances the variability. Thus the differential learning method should be utilized in basketball training.

However, in praxis you can’t just start doing differential learning even if you wanted to. Rather you need to run drills where the method is utilized. Traditionally, such drills are not a part of a basketball coach’s repertoire.

Another practical problem is that the variability needs to take place day in and day out. Thus, coaches need to plan it daily. That is why differential learning drills should be such that varying them they day to day does not take much time.

Here are two such drills – one with the emphasis on passing, the other with the emphasis on shooting. The key is that the variability in both is achieved by drawing different variations from a list put together beforehand, maybe over several years.

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Ideas on Building a Fast Fast Break Offense

All solid offenses run breaks that are fast up to a point. In this entry I’m trying to see how we could accelerate the offense beyond the point set by conventional wisdom. This is where the title comes from: “fast fast break offense” refers to an offense that is visibly faster than a solid, reasonable offense on the average.

I am writing and posting entry this piece by piece, chapter by chapter. The 14th and last chapter Improve Relevant Techniques was posted on Friday March 9. Please let me know if you spot loopholes in my thinking or if you want to share some of your ideas.

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Let Us Re-imagine Basketball

We should re-imagine basketball.

The current equipment and rules are designed to suit men’s top level. Elite players can go coast-to-coast in a flash, palm the ball, throw end-to-end passes, dunk the ball thunderously, hit threes as if they were lay-ups. You know, do all kinds of cool stuff.

The rest – kids, women, recreational male players – are left with a ball game that’s nice not really suited for them. This could be changed. We could modify the rules so that players of all levels would get to really enjoy the game.

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Improving Andre Drummond’s Free Throw

In a previous blog entry, I wrote about shooting and practicing shooting at a general level. Here I try to show how to implement those ideas into a real-life situation.

To make this concrete and familiar, let’s have a look at a much-publicized dilemma: an NBA player’s free throw shooting technique that is flawed and produces bad results. In other words, let’s look at Andre Drummond’s free throw shooting.

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