Complexity, Creativity, and Everything

“Basketball is interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball.”

That was my definition of basketball I wrote in a previous blog. In this blog, I tried to justify the aforementioned definition. Then I discussed what it implied regarding coaching, practicing, and playing basketball.

Questions about complexity, collectivism, creativity, variability, and mindfulness emerged. All the way through, I drew practical conclusions from the theoretical musings.

As James C. Maxwell remarked: “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

I wrote this piece by piece. The last addition was made on Monday May 1. The update starts with the subheading Practical Conclusions, Part 5: Always Consider the Context.

Complexity and Interaction

Complex systems are a hot topic nowadays, even though researchers have not reached an agreement about how to define a complex system. However, “there is wide consensus on the properties that can make systems complex”. These properties include:

  • Many heterogeneous interacting parts.
  • Multiple scales.
  • Complicated transition laws.
  • Unexpected or unpredicted emergence.
  • Interaction of autonomous agents.
  • Self organisation.
  • Adaptivity to changing environments.

In the contemporary research, invasion team sports such as basketball are often viewed as complex systems. The view is well justified, because “the simultaneous struggle by both sides for a play thing makes the play of each athlete an emergent, uncertain, and unpredictable behaviour”.

Even though complex systems have different properties, interaction between the system parts seems to be a most elementary property. If there was not interaction, other properties could not emerge. In other words, “the basic premise of a complex system is that its function (behaviour) is the result of self-organizing interactions among the system parts.”

This is where my definition of basketball is drawn from. Because complex systems are foremost interaction and basketball is a complex system, then basketball is foremost interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball.

Complexity and Collectivism

According to the definition presented above, basketball is interaction between not only the two teams but also the rules. The most important clause is this: “The team that has scored the greater number of points at the end of playing time shall be the winner.”

In other words, the sole goal of both teams is to manipulate their interaction so that they beat the other team. This makes basketball by definition a collectivistic sport, because collectivism means that the emphasis is “on collective rather than individual action or identity”.

This leads us to formulate a heuristic: the value of an individual player can be measured only by how much he enhances the team’s chances of winning.

This may sound so self-evident that it is unnecessary to point it out. However, often in basketball-related discussions the underlying assumptions – that are never stated explicitly – are quite different. Players are often assessed based mainly on their individual statistics, especially scoring average.

For example, Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins is considered a superstar, “perhaps the best center in the game“. Given his individual stats – 27 points and 12 rebounds per game in 2015-16 – it may sound justified.

But during Cousins’s six NBA seasons, the Kings win-loss record has been 164-312 for a winning percentage of 34%. Has he established himself as a superstar in the sense of superbly enhancing Kings’ chances of winning? It does not seem justified to say so. Then why should he called a superstar?

Complex Systems of Different Scales

As mentioned above, there are multiple scales involved in complex systems. They are not separate from each other, but rather “every complex system comprises interdependence between different scales”.

Given the definition of basketball presented above, when we analyze a basketball game, the primary scale of analysis is the two teams and the interaction between them. But because of synergetic interaction between different scales, this scale – or any other scale, for that matter – can not be analyzed in a isolated fashion.

Regarding a basketball game, a hierarchy of scales could look like this:

  • Individual players (e.g. Stephen Curry)
  • Teams (e.g. Golden State Warriors)
  • Game (e.g. Warriors vs. Cavaliers)
  • League (e.g. NBA)

Bottom-up and Top-down

This synergetic interaction between scales works both ways – bottom-up and top-down. The bottom-up direction is probably the easier one to spot. It is obvious that:

  • Individual player (Stephen Curry) will influence the performance of the team (Warriors).
  • A team (Warriors) will influence what happens in a game (Warriors vs. Cavaliers).
  • A game (Warriors vs. Cavaliers) will influence the complex system of the league (NBA).

What may be less obvious is the top-down influence between the scales.

  • The complex system of a league (NBA) will influence what happens in any given game (Warriors vs. Cavaliers).
  • The interaction between the teams in a game (Warriors vs. Cavaliers) will influence the interaction within a team (Warriors).
  • The interaction within a team (Warriors) will influence all individual players (Stephen Curry included).

In case you are wondering, I have not forgotten what I wrote in the the beginning of this blog. The emphasis really is practical here. We are still trying to see what our definition of basketball (“Interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball”) implies regarding coaching, practicing, and playing.

However, if we are to come up with new, improved ideas regarding coaching and practicing, we must start by examining their theoretical framework. That is because  “if you use high abstract, symbolic scenarios, things will associate in completely novel ways.”

Complexity and Player Development

From the point of view of the the complex system theory, a player does not affect the outcome of a game directly but indirectly, by contributing to the interaction among his team and with the other team. So, the goal of player development is providing players capabilities to take part in and manipulate these interactions in favour of their own team – in other words, capabilities to effectively enhance the team’s chances of winning.

The question then becomes how to optimally learn those capabilities. The specificity of practice principle provides one answer, claiming that you improve the most at what you practice. In the specificity principle, the specificity regards not only the movements but also “the environmental conditions”. Sport-specific practice may take place where the conditions “closely approximate” those of actual competitions.

Given the above, for players to optimally improve at basketball, they should do basketball-specific practice. And for a player’s practice to be basketball-specific, it is to include interaction with teammates and opponents. That is simply because this interaction is by definition what playing basketball is. So, playing 5-on-5 is the most specific form of practice and thus certainly effective.

Limits of Specificity

Besides the specificity principle, another basic training principle is the power law. It says that “the more you practice the more you learn, yet eventually the rate of learning will slow down”.

Let us now consider these three guidelines mentioned above:

  1. Specificity principle.
  2. Power law.
  3. Playing 5-on-5 is the most basketball-specific practice there is.

When put together, they seem to suggest that teams should do nothing but scrimmage in their practices, and practice as much as they can. However, once we add the law of diminishing returns into the mix, things appear more complicated.

The law of diminishing returns says that “if one factor of production — is increased while other factors — are held constant, the output per unit of the variable factor will eventually diminish”. Put in another way, the rate of learning will slow down if you keep doing the same type of practice.

So, the fact that scrimmaging is the most basketball-specific and effective method of training, does not imply that a team should necessarily scrimmage the whole time. That is because if one factor of production (i.e. the weekly practice time) is increased while other factors (i.e. scrimmaging as the content of practice) are held constant, the output (i.e. learning) per unit (i.e. minute of practice) will diminish.

In other words, in basketball practice specificity is a desirable quality but only up to a point. As the returns of scrimmaging diminish, it may become more effective to also do less specific types of practice.

Specific and General Practice as a Complementary Pair

In a previous blog I defined basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games.” Given the specificity principle presented above, the more the practice approximates “the movements of the target skill and the environmental conditions” of basketball games, the more basketball-specific the practice becomes.

Often coaches classify types of practice as either basketball-specific or non-specific i.e. general. This type of dichotomy is common in all walks of life because “human experience teems with perceived contraries”. We tend to see some pairs as “mutually exclusive”. “If something is black, then it’s not white.” “The mind is separate from the body.” “If I love someone, then I do not hate him.”

This type of dichotomic thinking has been challenged by the theory of complementary pairs created by Kelso and Engstrom. One of their insights is that contraries should not be interpreted as “mutually exclusive, either/or dichotomies” but rather as “mutually related and inextricably connected”. The theory of complementary pairs is explained in detail for example in this article and in this book.

The theory of complementary pairs may sound like theoretical wordplay, but at its core it is very common sense. It says that contraries may co-exist: we may love and hate someone at the same time. And it says that there is a continuum between contraries: most often things are not completely black or white, but rather some shade of grey.

Given this, basketball-specific and general practice should be viewed as a complementary pair. In other words, a coach should recognize that practice is both basketball-specific and general at the same time. It is just that different types of practice lie at different spots on the continuum between the  contraries.

The following types of practice exemplify the gradual slide from basketball-specificity towards general practice.

  1. Playing 5-on-5.
  2. Playing 3-on-3.
  3. Playing 2-on-2.
  4. 2-on-2 defensive drill with two dummy offensive players.
  5. 1-on-1 defensive drill with a dummy offensive player.
  6. Doing defensive slides according to Coach’s hand signals.
  7. Doing defensive slides on your own on the basketball floor.
  8. Running on your own on the basketball floor.
  9. Running on your own in the woods.
  10. Rowing.

Adding to the Basketball-specificity of Practice

Let us now re-consider these three things stated above:

  1. By definition, “basketball is interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball”.
  2. The specificity principle says that basketball-specificity improves the effectiveness of practice.
  3. Basketball-specific and general practice are a complementary pair, and different types of practice lie at different spots on the continuum between the contraries.

What do these things imply when viewed together? It seems that these two conclusions may be drawn:

  1. Coach should improve the effectiveness of practice by changing the content type towards the basketball-specific end on the continuum between basketball-specific and general type of practice.
  2. This can be done by adding the amount of game-like interaction that place between the players. In other words, players should play in teams against other teams.

The practical implication is that instead of being isolated, players should continuously co-operate with and compete against others because that is how basketball is played.

In other words, exercises used should involve both offense and defense, and two teams of at least two players. To make interaction game-like, actions should not be pre-determined but rather decision-making should be required the whole time. Considering this and the fact that previously we ruled out the exclusive usage of scrimmaging, small-sided games appear as an effective method of basketball training.

On Advantages of Variability

Let us consider three things.

  1. In a previous blog, I defined basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games.”
  2. Above in this blog, it was implied that this effectiveness refers to the team’s ability to manipulate the game interaction with the other team so the team manages to beat them.
  3. Because basketball game is a complex system, it can be assumed that in a game “unexpected or unpredicted” things emerge. This conclusion is based on the above list of complex systems’ properties.

Based on these three things, it seems that if basketball practice is to be effective, it should help the team successfully deal with unexpected and unpredicted happenings.

The question then becomes: what types of practice methods are effective when preparing the team for the unpredicted? Given the specificity of learning principle and what was just said, the answer seems to be constantly exposing full-size or small-sided teams to novel, unpredicted situations.

In other words, variability should constantly be added to practice. The variability of practice has been defined by Magill and Anderson as “the variety of movement and context characteristics a person experiences when learning a skill”.

The variability of practice hypothesis is a well-established principle of training. It and the specificity of practice principle have been called “two general and contrasting hypotheses that are applicable to motor learning”.

Yes, the variability hypothesis and the specificity principle may contrast each other in sports where there is little variety in competition performance – as in rifle shooting or shot put. In basketball and other team sports, however, variability and specificity go together quite well, because the variety of movement is a very sport-specific feature.

Adding Variability to Practice

How then should you go about adding variability to practice? In other words, how should you add “the variety of movement and context characteristics a person experiences when learning” basketball skills? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Play live. As mentioned above, playing live is a way of adding to the basketball-specificity of practice. Playing live instead of running a drill with predetermined actions, also adds to the variety of movement that takes place. Playing live does not here refer to just scrimmaging but also to setting up small-sided games and even one-on-one contests with different types of constraints.
  2. Use multiple tactics. If you stick to the same tactics day in and day out, even playing live may become a repetitive routine where one team repeats the same offensive choreography and the other team replies with the same defensive choreography. Instead, various tactics should be used.
  3. Keep modifying your drills. Drills with predetermined actions do not need to stay the same, but you may add variability by little modifications. This can be done with any drill. For example, in a lay-up drill from the right-hand side you may tell the players not to touch the ball with their left hand. The possibilities are limitless. Here are some ideas for shooting drills and how to modify them.
  4. Use different drills. Two drills with the very same predetermined actions offer more variability than one drill alone does. That is because the amount of variability has to do not just with “the variety of movement” but also with “context characteristics”.
  5. Visit and be visited. Have players and/or coaches from other teams take part in your practices. And the other way around: visit and have your players visit other teams’ sessions.
  6. Use methods of differential learning. This approach to motor learning was conceptualized by Wolfgang Schöllhorn. Differential learning “can be characterized by adding random variable elements to a movement pattern”. In other words, by giving instructions or setting constraints, movement patterns are being continuously changed in ways that would not otherwise emerge in practices. Here Brian McCormick discusses differential learning in basketball. Here you see a classic video on differential learning in shot put training.

Limits of Variability

At this point, it has hopefully become apparent that there must plenty of variability in basketball practices. And also that adding variability can definitely be done. In fact, the methods are quite simple.

This does not, however, imply that the amount of variability should be maximized. There are limits to how much variability is still beneficial. There are at least three reasons for that.

First, even though specificity and variability are a complementary pair, they are still opposites. And because specificity is an elementary feature of basketball training, there can only be so much variability.

Secondly, adding variability often takes time and effort. For example, teaching players new drills takes time. Using methods of differential learning takes time. Thus there tends to be a trade-off between the power law and the variability of practice.

Thirdly, the variability of practice is limited by the abilities of the participating athletes. Note that previously the variability of practice was defined as “the variety of movement and context characteristics a person experiences when learning a skill”. Even if Coach varies the context characteristics, athletes may keep using the very same movement patterns they have used before. So, even though there is variability in the context, there may not be variability in the movement.

In the previous chapter, six suggestions on how to add variability were presented. Juxtaposing those suggestions with the three factors that limit variability shows an important thing: as many different methods as possible should be used to add variability because the efficiency of different methods is limited by different factors.

For example, playing live is a time-efficient and sport-specific method of adding to variability. However, its efficiency is limited by the fact that when playing live, players may keep repeating the same old movement patterns.

On the contrary, differential learning is designed to help athletes add variability to their movement patterns – it actually forces them to do so . But the efficiency of differential learning is limited, too: it is relatively time-consuming a method, and not quite as sport-specific as some other methods, e.g. playing live.

Variability and Perception

Given the benefits and the limits of the variability of practice as presented, the question becomes: How can we keep adding variability to the practice without being bothered by the aforementioned factors that tend to limit the efficiency of additional variability?

To answer this, let us first look closely at the definition of the variability of practice, or “the variety of movement and context characteristics a person experiences when learning a skill”.

The bit about the variety of movement is straight-forward: there must be variety in the movements the athlete makes. This variety may be observed and measured objectively.

On the other part of the definition, “the variety of context characteristics” is something that a person must experience. Thus, this part of the definition is difficult to observe or to measure. That is because in the end, the variety of the experience is not about the variety of context characteristics per se, but rather about how players experience or perceive the those characteristics.

This leads us to make two remarks:

  1. Changing the context characteristics adds to the variability of practice only if the players perceive the changes and consider them relevant.
  2. Even if the context characteristics remain the same, the variability of the practice is enhanced if there is change in the way the players perceive those characteristics.

Both of these remarks point towards the same conclusion: when attempting to add variability to the practice, it is essential to consider the players’ perception of the context characteristics. This provides us with an answer to the question stated at the beginning of this chapter: enriching the players’ perception of the context characteristics is another useful method of adding variability to the practice.

The importance of the players’ perception has important implications regarding the basketball praxis. To illustrate this importance: previously in this blog, different types of practice were presented to exemplify the gradual slide from basketball-specificity towards general practice. There it was stated that playing 3-on-3 is more basketball-specific practice than playing 2-on-2. However, occasionally this order may be reversed by influencing the players’ perception.

Say you play high middle pick-and-roll 2-on-2. If you make it 3-on-3 by adding a third offensive player and his defender to the ball side corner, both the variability and the basketball-specificity are presumably enhanced. That is because when making decisions, all players involved now have more different factors to consider and thus more options available. Also, all those different factors and options are quite game-like.

However, this additional variability is only potential by nature. It is realized only if the players perceive the additional options available. For example, the ball handler must be able to see and consider what the third offensive player and his defender do. But he may be unable to do that. In that case, going from 2-on-2 to 3-on-3 has not actually improved the variability and the basketball-specificity of the play.

On the contrary, the team may continue to use the very same high middle pick-and-roll 2-on-2 drill and actually enhance its variability and basketball-specificity. This can be done for example by enriching the ball handler’s perception of the actions by his own defender, the screener, and the screener’s defender. The ball handler may learn to pay attention to e.g. where the defenders’ hands are and thus be able to throw better passes to the screener rolling to the basket.

Enriching the Players’ Perception of the Context

Above it was found out that:

  1. Variability enhances the efficiency of practice.
  2. Changing the context – i.e. what happens in play – adds to the variability of practice but only if changes are perceived by the players.

Because of these two things it is essential to consider how the players can be helped to perceive the context more precisely and in a more fine-grained way. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Changing the context is the most obvious way to add variability. The more radical the changes are, the more probably they are perceived by the players.
  2. Mindfulness induction can help to control and direct attention, and that in turn may help to enhance the level of perception. I.e. in a mindful state of mind players will more probably notice even subtle changes in the context.
  3. A team’s tactical training can take many forms and be designed to affect a lot of things – e.g. the type of situations that players face and to optimize their decision-making in those situations. The latter implies changing the players’ perception of the context.
  4. Improving technical skills helps to perceive the context in two ways. First, when a player becomes able to execute skills without conscious control, more cognitive resources become available for perception. Secondly, learning new technical skills per se changes the player’s perception of the context as he begins to see opportunities to use his new-learned skills. For example, learning to pass behind the back helps to perceive opportunities to pass behind the back.
  5. Improving physical characteristics helps to perceive the context in two ways, too. First, it helps to avoid fatigue. That is relevant because fatigue hinders a player’s perception abilities. Secondly, it per se changes the player’s perception of the context as he begins to see new kinds of opportunities emerge. For example, improving the jumping ability so that you can dunk helps you better perceive the situations where dunking is a good way to finish a play.

Defining the Context More Precisely, Part 1

Above basketball practice was defined “activity that aims to optimize the effectiveness of a team – or of an individual as a part of a team – in basketball games.” This process always happens in a context. That is why in the end, the effectiveness of practice – and game performance – depends on the player’s understanding of the context. The more thoroughly a player understands the context, the more effectively he will likely be able to operate in that context.

In the previous chapter, five ways to enrich players’ perception of the context were listed. Also, the context was defined as “what happens in a play”. So, the better a player understands what happens, the more effective his practice is. This brings us to an important question: what aspects should be considered when analyzing what happens in a play? Or in other words, what does a basketball player’s decision-making context consists of?

The most obvious part of the context is the continuum of a play – in other words, the spacing and momentum of the ten players and the ball. This continuum seems to be sometimes considered the whole context, e.g. when studying athletes’ decision-making skills. A lot of people seem to assume that given a certain continuum, it can be objectively defined what the optimal decision for a player is.

Because of this, it is in place to list factors that may affect players’ decision making, in addition to the current game situation per se. In other words, these factors contribute to and change the decision-making context.

  1. The players’ characteristics. Taking a transition three may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether the shooter is a .36 or a .20 per cent three-point shooter.
  2. The teams’ tactics. For a .30 per cent three-point shooter, taking a transition three may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether the team’s tactics have teammates expecting that shot and crashing the offensive boards or not.
  3. Shot clock. For a .20 per cent three-point shooter, taking a contested  three may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether there are 2 or 20 seconds on the shot clock.
  4. Game clock and score. For a .30 per cent three-point shooter, taking a three with the score at 76-70 and with 15 seconds to go in the game may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether his team is losing or winning.
  5. Foul situation. For a .32 per cent three-point shooter, skipping the three and driving to the basket may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether his defender is in foul trouble or not.
  6. Referees. For a .32 per cent three-point shooter, skipping the three and driving to the basket may be a good decision or a bad one – depending on whether the referees are calling the game tightly or loosely.

Defining the Context More Precisely, Part 2

This blog entry is based on the idea of a basketball game being a complex system. And given the previous chapter, it is quite clear that interpreting the context in a basketball game is not a simple task. However, one might still be willing to claim that instead of a complex system, a basketball game is a complicated system.

The difference between a complex system and a complicated one is elementary and crucial.

In a complicated system “one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions”. If this were true regarding a basketball game situation, one could analyze all relevant factors – e.g. score, game clock, shot clock, and the players’ productivity on different types of shots –  and then calculate which decision for example the ball handler should make.

In a complex system, in contrast, the future is not only unknown but also unknowable. That is because “almost indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force.”

These next four features of the decision-making context in basketball games demonstrate a basketball game’s being a complex system.

1) The number of possible situations is infinite. Drawing X’s and O’s on the board may give you a different impression, but actually all situations on the basketball court are different. It’s ten different players in different positions in different stances with arms and hands and legs and feet in different positions  moving and looking into different directions – and so on.

2) The number of possible decisions in infinite. It may first appear that a player only has a limited number of options. For example, the ball handler may be said to have six options: pass to any of the four teammates, shoot, or drive to the basket. However, on second thought it becomes apparent that the number of possible decisions is infinite. That is because any of the basic decisions listed – e.g. pass to any of the teammates – can be executed in an infinite number of ways.

3) There is no way of exactly knowing the players’ current characteristics or skills. Big data and performance analysis have created an impression that it can be known how players will fare in certain situations. For example, by today or December 26th 2016, Kyle Korver has hit .41 per cent of his three point shots for the season. It seems reasonable to assume that the next time Korver shoots a three, the shot has a .41 per cent probability of going in.

However, this line of reasoning is doomed to fail for two reasons.

First, the sample size of the past performances will always be too small. That is because all situations in basketball are different, and because “the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force.” In other words, Korver has taken each of his threes in a unique situation and we can not know which variables – or combinations of variables – have affected and will affect his shot in which ways.

This becomes apparent quickly when using the shot tracker at Korver is 53/128 (.41%) for all threes; 13/24 (.54%) for corner threes, 5/10 (.50%) for threes from the left corner, and 0/1 (.00% for pull-up bank threes from the left corner.

Second, players’ future performance will be different from his past performance. How much different and different in which way, remains to be seen. Players skills and physical capabilities are continuously changing – declining or improving.

4) The other players’ cognition is a part of the context. Regarding decision-making, you can not isolate one possession from the rest of the game – or even from the rest of the season. You are up against a thinking enemy. And you are their thinking enemy. So, as the game is unfolding, both teams are trying to figure out ways to beat each other.

The previous events affect the opponents’ cognition. Say for example that in the previous play you made the entry pass to the wing and scored off a side pick-and-roll. So, now they may try to overplay the entry pass, so you might want to fake the entry pass and have the wing go back-door. But since you used that counter in the previous game against them, so they might expect that, too…

Creativity in Basketball

What is the role of creativity in invasion team sports such as basketball? That is a question that comes up again and again in discussions regarding coaching. It is now time to answer that question from one angle and based on two claims:

  1. In the previous chapter, it was stated that in basketball, the number of possible situations is infinite, and so is the number of possible decisions in each situation.
  2. Creativity has been defined as “the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context”.

Put together, these claims imply that creativity is inevitably a constant element in basketball and other invasion team sports. In basketball, the decision making process always produces a perceptible product (e.g. a shot or a pass). This product is by definition novel, because the situation in which it appears is unique, or novel.

Also, the product is more or less useful given its social context – i.e. a basketball game. The usefulness of the product may be assessed by looking into how well it optimizes the effectiveness of the decision-maker’s team – in other words, how it affects their chances of beating the other team.

I believe that keeping this in mind is the key if one wants to have a relevant discussion on creativity in sports. Creativity in sports is wholly different than say creativity in music because the social context is wholly different.

Conscious and Unconscious Control

In sports science, it is commonly claimed that the goal of motor learning is to learn to execute it without conscious control.  Some call this “automatizing” a skill. This type of leaning is what enables to go about out daily lives as we do. Usually, we do not need to consciously control how we walk, or how we tie our shoes.

This common claim seems to contradict the claim made above: that playing basketball is an inherently creative activity. The apparent contradiction lies here: by definition, the outcome of creativity is a novel and useful product. And if a person wants  to constantly produce such “products” – i.e. passes -, it needs to happen under conscious control. That is because under unconscious control we will do things the way we are used to doing them.

For this very reason some call them automatized skills. However, the terms that refer to the automatization of skills are misleading. That is simply because unconscious control is not automatic – it is unconscious.

To resolve the apparent contradiction mentioned above, we need to go back to the concept of complementary pairs, or to the idea that contraries may co-exist. In other words, there must simultaneously be both unconscious and conscious control.

If there was no unconscious control, the player would have to consciously control every movement of his joints. That would make it impossible for him to play efficiently. On the other hand, if there was no conscious control, the player would keep repeating the same movement patterns he has executed before, without effectively adjusting them to emerging, unique game situations. That would be inefficient, too.

Therefore, in basketball the goal is not to play under unconscious control. Rather players should use unconscious control where conscious control is not required and apply conscious control where it is needed.

On Tactical Periodization

What has been said above brings us directly to this question: When should a player need to use conscious control?

To set up an answer, we will first look at some concepts drawn from the tactical periodization approach. It was originally developed for soccer but it is quite useful a theoretical framework for other invasion team sports as well.

According to the tactical periodization approach, “every game action — involves a decision (tactical dimension) an action or motor skill (technical dimension) that required a particular movement (physiological dimension) and is directed by volitional and emotional states (psychological dimension).”

In the complex system of any invasion team sport, the tactical dimension is the one most directly connected to the outcome of the game. That is because “basketball is interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball”, and it is elementary how a player decides to try to manipulate this interaction in favor of his team.

The technical dimension is subordinate to the tactical dimension because a motor skill only becomes directly relevant after a tactical decision has been made to execute it. For example, a player’s three-point shooting skills are relevant only if his team’s tactics allow for him to do some three-point shooting.

Accordingly, the physiological dimension is subordinate to the technical dimension. That is because of this: a player’s physiological capabilities are relevant only to the degree that they are used to execute motor skills that the player decides upon (in order to execute certain tactical actions). For example, jumping ability has been found to be important in basketball. However, it is not important per se,  but as a prerequisite for certain motor actions, such as blocking shots or getting up to grab rebounds.

At least Delgado-Bordonau and Mendez-Villanueva (2012) discuss the psychological dimension of the tactical priodization approach as if it were a phenomenon of the same scale as the other three dimensions. To me this seems misleading.

That is because the tactical, technical, and physiological dimensions affect the teams’ interaction directly – in concrete ways touched upon above. Conversely, the effects of the psychological factors are indirect. In other words, the psychological dimension affects the interaction by affecting the other three dimensions.

This does not imply that the psychological dimension was less important than the other dimension. Quite the contrary: one could argue that the psychological dimension was the most important one. That is e.g. because motivational factors are a part of the psychological dimension. And if the player had no motivation to play basketball, the other three dimensions would immediately lose all their meaning.

However, the aforementioned essential difference does make the psychological dimension irrelevant at this point of this analysis. Namely, we are now concentrating on what directly affects the interaction between the two teams – i.e. the other three dimensions of the tactical periodization approach.

In the beginning of this chapter it was asked “When should a player need to use conscious control?” In the next chapter an answer is looked for.

When to Apply Conscious Control in Games

Above it was found out  that both conscious and unconscious are to be used in basketball. It was also found out that conscious control should only be applied when necessary. Now that have also drawn some key concepts from the tactical periodization approach, we are ready to answer the question of when to use conscious control.

First the question must be split into two parts: when to use conscious control on one hand in games and on the other hand in practices. As you will see, the answers will be different. We start with the game-related answer because it is more straight-forward.

Above it was defined that “basketball is interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball”. Out of the tactical, technical, and physiological dimensions, it is the tactical one that affects the outcome of the game the most directly. Because of this, in games the limited cognitive resources should be used mainly to manage the tactical dimension.

Most coaches act accordingly in an intuitive fashion, without thinking about it. For example right before a game, Coach will more probably give instructions on pick-and-roll defense tactics than on how to execute defensive footwork.

However, there are exceptions. Sometimes it is in place to encourage the players to consciously control the technical dimension. Here three examples:

  1. The aforementioned emphasis on the tactical dimension is based on the underlying assumptions that A) The players already have a variety of technical skills that can be applied according to the game situation, and that B) The degree of success may be best affected by making appropriate tactical decisions. However, these underlying assumptions may not apply if the players are novices, or for some other reason short on technical skills. Then it may be best for them to consciously control the execution of their deficient technical skills.
  2. As mentioned, the chosen tactics are realized through the technical dimension. Often there will be a crucial technical particular that must be executed correctly in order to make these tactics work. It may be that under unconscious control the players will not execute this particular consistently. Then it may appropriate use some of the cognitive resources to consciously control the execution of this crucial technical particular. For example, in pick-and-roll defense Coach may have his center switch onto the opponents’ point guard. Then it may be necessary to have the center consciously control his actions so that he is guarding the ball handler with his left hand raised in order to contest a quick pull-up three-pointer.
  3. Regardless of the current tactics, some players may need to consciously control a technical particular. For example, sometimes a player will try to enhance his free-throw shooting by lengthening the quiet eye period. In this case, it may be a good idea that he consciously controls the length of the period even in game situations.

How to Apply Conscious Control in While Practicing

Up next is the question of how to use conscious control in basketball practices. Let us first consider five things:

  1. As noted above, practice should be made as basketball-specific as possible – i.e. the amount of interaction with teammates and opponents should be optimized.
  2. According to the tactical periodization approach, the tactical, technical, and physiological dimensions should be simultaneously present in the practice.
  3. However, the emphasis should be shifted between different dimensions depending on the goal of the current activity.
  4. Overall the tactical dimension “should be the dominant training component” because it is the one most directly connected to the outcome of the game – in other words, it is the most basketball-specific one.
  5. As noted above, playing basketball is a creative activity, and creativity calls for conscious control.

Put together, these claims imply that for the most of the practice time, the cognitive resources should be used to consciously control the tactical dimension. However, because the emphasis of the practice gets shifted, so does the object of the conscious control. Sometimes it may be the technical dimension, sometimes the physiological one.

So in practice, most of the time it is the decision making that is being consciously controlled. For example, the ball handler may work on recognizing the pick-and-roll offense. The decision he needs to make may be whether to split the pick-and-roll defense or to dribble around the hedge – or to do something else.

Often, the emphasis of the practice is on the technical dimension. For example, the  ball handler might be put in a position where he will split the pick-and-roll defense. In that case the emphasis is on refining the technical details of splitting the defense.

Traditionally in invasion team sports, the physiologically orientated practice tends to be separated from the tactically and technically orientated practice. This is reflected even by the locations: instead of a basketball gym, the physiologically orientated practice is often done someplace else, as in a weight room or on a running track. Integrating the physiologically orientated practice optimally with the more basketball-specific dimensions of practice remains an open question.

Defining Technical Skill in Basketball

Given what was said above, it seems appropriate to apply conscious control in basketball games and practices. But above it was also said that ”it is commonly claimed that the goal of motor learning is to learn to execute motor skills without conscious control”. Where does this contradiction stem from?

To me it seems to stem from the differences in how technical skill is defined in the two different approaches towards basketball. These approaches have been discussed above: complicated systems approach and complex systems approach. Most often the definitions of technical skill are not stated explicitly but become apparent by implication.

Generally speaking, skill may be defined as ”the ability to do something well”. Then the question becomes what this ”something” is when referring to technical skill.

In the complicated systems approach the implied definition of technical skill is that it is the ability to execute well a collection of sport-specific movement patterns. Often those patterns are first learned and only then used in appropriate game situations.

For example, a player practices jump shot trying to imitate a certain pre-determined movement pattern – i.e. ”text-book jump shot” – and then takes the same type of shots in games when opportunities arise.

From the point of view of complicated systems this definition mentioned makes sense because in complicated systems “one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions”. In other words, it can be predicted which movement patterns will be useful once learned properly.

In some sports the complicated systems approach works. For example, a figure skater must jump a triple Lutz in a certain fashion strictly determined by the rules. And if he learns to do the Lutz, he will probably be able to install into his program.

But as noted above, invasion team sports such as basketball are definitely not complicated systems but rather complex ones. Therefore the definition of technical skill developed within the complicated systems approach is not valid in basketball. That is for two reasons, both discussed above:

  • In complex systems, the future is unpredictable.
  • In basketball the technical dimension is subordinate to the tactical dimension.

In other words, a player’s motor behavior is a series of attempts to execute tactical tasks set up by tactical decisions relevant to the present game situations. What those tasks will be is unpredictable because game situations are unpredictable.

For example, even if a player can consistently hit his text-book jump shot from a certain distance, it may not be all that useful for him in game situations. That is e.g. because the opponents will do their best to stop him from using his text-book jump shot.

Additionally, for each tactical task, there is an infinite number of solutions. For example, the ball can be shot into the basket in an infinite number of ways from any position on the floor.

For these reasons it is not necessary for a basketball player to learn certain pre-determined motor patterns (e.g. ”text-book” jump shot). Rather, in basketball technical skill can be defined as the ability to find well viable motor behavior solutions to relevant game situations.

The number of possible solutions is infinite. For example in a jump shot the rules allow any movement pattern for as long as the ball is not punched. Thus the solutions to tactical tasks may turn out to be may be quite individual.

Practical Conclusions, Part 1:

Adopt The Struggle Viewpoint

I started the blog with a definition of basketball: “interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball.” The definition made us view basketball as a complex system. Now it is time to summarize what the definition implies “regarding coaching, practicing, and playing basketball” in praxis.

First of all, let us take another look at the citation I used above to justify viewing basketball as a complex system: “The simultaneous struggle by both sides for a play thing makes the play of each athlete an emergent, uncertain, and unpredictable behaviour.”

The emphasis here should be on the word “struggle“. In basketball teams are constantly struggling to gain advantage over the other team. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the goal of the interaction. And the goal of practice is to enhance the team’s chances of beating the other teams. That is not a goal, but the goal – the sole rationale for practicing.

Thus, Coach should adopt the struggle viewpoint. In other words, all his actions should aim to help his team beat the other teams. Coach should continuously assess his actions – i.e. the tactics he employs and the drills he runs – from this viewpoint: “Is this helping us in an optimal way to beat the other teams?”

This may sound obvious when stated explicitly. But in praxis coaches often use quite different implicit criteria. This contradiction is a reason why theoretical musings may prove to be practically useful: they show some underlying assumptions of certain customary procedures to be invalid.

For example, a lot of basketball coaches have their team do core strength training. The idea is that:

  • Core strength training enhances the athletes’ core strength
  • Enhancing their core strength enhances their general athletic capabilities (such as sprinting speed).
  • Enhancing their general athletic capabilities enhances their individual basketball-specific performance.
  • Enhancing the athletes’ individual basketball-specific performance enhances the team’s collective game performance.

In a way, this line of thinking makes sense. But if you ask “Is doing core strength exercises helping us in an optimal way to beat the other teams?” the answer is no.

That is because it is suspicious if enhancing one’s core strength enhances his general athletic capabilities. Also, the relationship between a player’s physical capabilities and his effectiveness as a basketball player is anything but linear. And finally, the relationship between the sum of the players’ individual performance and the team’s effectiveness is non-linear as well.

So, for core strength training to enhance a team’s basketball performance, a lot of unsure transferences must take place. And even if they do take place, it does not prove that the core strength training has been worth the time and effort.

That is because we are asking  “Is core strength training helping us in an optimal way to beat the other teams?” Even if there are gains from core strength training, they are so small that the team should have been doing something useful and more sport-specific instead.

Practical Conclusions, Part 2.

Use Variable Methods

In the complex system of basketball all situations are unique, and they call for novel and useful actions by the players. In other words, players are continuously adapting to new situations and manipulating them in favor of their team.

Because of this, practice should be all about learning to adapt to new situations and to manipulate them. Since there is constant variability in game situations, there should be constant variability in the practice, too.

The variability of practice hypothesis helps to explain a lot of research results in sports science:

It should be noted that the variability of practice hypothesis applies to all levels of coaching. In other words, paradoxically, we should not exclusively use the method that provides the most variability. Rather, we should use a multitude of methods because when combined, they provide more variability than any single method on its own.

Regarding this issue, we should be careful when interpreting research findings. They should never be taken at face value. Research findings should be used to improve coaching procedures but not to directly determine how you coach and how your players practice. E.g. even if research claims that random practice is more effective than blocked practice, we should not ditch blocked practice altogether.  This is because of e.g. the following four things:

1) Research findings are usually based on short-term interventions (like six weeks). Long-term effects of the training methods may be different. That is because of the variability of practice hypothesis and the power law: using any type of method, the rate of learning will eventually slow down.

2) In science, researchers often want to find out how one independent variable affects one dependent variable. Hence, they try to isolate the effects of an independent variable (e.g. training method). This may be done by having group A use exclusively method A (e.g. blocked practice) and group B method B (random practice).

In real-life coaching, there is no need for this kind of purity. On the contrary, because of the variability of practice hypothesis and the power law, it is justified to assume that a mixture of A and B should work better than either one alone.

3) The generalizability of research findings is limited. For example, the efficiency of training methods may vary depending on the participants’ characteristics or on the nature of the task to be learned.

4) Because basketball is a complex system, everything that happens within it is unique: your team is unique, all emerging game situations are unique, and so on. This uniqueness of it all and the unpredictability of the future makes it questionable whether past research findings apply to the forthcoming situations.

Practical Conclusions, Part 3.

Emphasize the Intensity

What has been said above probably raises at least one question: how come a lot of coaches who stick to seemingly simple and out-dated coaching methods have constant success?

A partial answer to the good question is this: those coaches probably have their means to get their team to practice and play intensely.

Practices will not become game-like by simply adopting the struggle viewpoint and using variable methods. Much more importantly: because games are intense, practices must be intense, too.

In other words, there must be constantly full speed running and tough physical contacts. If there is, the play will become such that players will surely face variable and game-like tasks. Because of this, intensity is something that a coach can not compensate for in any other way.

Practical Conclusions, Part 4.

Run the Practices Accordingly

I have written this blog since 2012 and one thing has become clear: the more practical issue on hand is, the more readers the entry has. I interpret this as a sign that generally speaking, coaches want to receive concrete, clear-cut ideas – even advice – on how to coach.

The same trend has become apparent when I’ve run some coach education sessions. Participants tend to be more interested in specific drills than in principles underlying the coaching procedures. 

Because of this, the complex system approach may be a letdown to some. After all, the approach basically says the opposite of what many want to hear. As you see above, the complex system says that it all depends. There are – and what’s worse, there can be – no clear-cut answers as to which drills you should run in your next practice session.

However, the complex system approach does point into a certain direction. It tentatively promises that if you act accordingly, you are probably able to enhance the efficiency of your coaching. Here are seven practical guideline suggestions, three of which were mentioned in the three previous chapters.

1) Adopt the struggle viewpoint. Always have your players  consider beating the other guy, whether it is teammates at practice or opponents in games.

2) Use variable methods. Do not discard any coaching methods right off, but rather consider why different methods have been used and how they can be utilized to complement each other and to add variability.   

3) Emphasize the intensity. The definition of intensity implied here is the “magnitude of a quantity (as force or energy) per unit (as of area, charge, mass, or time)”. In other words, intensity refers to the amount of action per practice minutes. The idea is that if the intensity of practice is high, the players will inevitably face numerous and variable game situations that provide them with learning opportunities.

4) Have your players scrimmage. Basketball-specificity of practice is a virtue, and no form of practice is more basketball-specific than scrimmaging. Thus, you should have your players scrimmage every day.

5) Add players to the drills. Basketball is interaction, and because of that, you should have interaction in your drills, too. This can be made to happen by adding people to drills. It’s more basketball-specific to play 1-on-1 than 1-on-0. And it’s more basketball-specific  to play 2-on-2 than 1-on-1.

6) Balance game-likeness and the number of repetitions. Sometimes playing 1-on-1 is sometimes more beneficial than playing 2-on-2. That is because the primary goal is to provide players with a lot of repetitions on the ball, and 1-on-1 tends to provide more such repetitions than 2-on-2.

7) Utilize different scales of complex systems to enhance the efficiency of practices. As noted above, in complex systems “interaction between scales works both ways – bottom-up and top-down”.

Regarding practices, the bottom-up interaction means that the players’ individual state affects the efficiency of team practices. I.e. Coach should do his best to make sure that the players enter rested, nourished, and in a proper state of mind.

Coach’s possibilities to use the top-down interaction to influence practices will depend a lot on the team’s context. An example of such means is setting up the game schedule. Different schedules will have different effects players’ capability and motivation to practice.

Practical Conclusions, Part 5.

Always Consider the Context

In this blog, basketball has been defined as “interaction between the two teams and the rules of basketball.” Based on the definition, it is misleading to analyze either team’s performance separately. Instead we should always consider the interaction with the other team, even when the emphasis of the analysis is on one of the teams.

The same goes for individual players: any individual’s performance should not be assessed without considering the performances of his teammates and the opponents. In fact, this assumption is valid for the agents in all complex systems.

Therefore this may sound obvious. However, generally speaking, this is not the dominant way that basketball is viewed. Instead, a team’s performance tends to be considered to be the sum of individual players’ performances.

This invalid underlying assumption certainly is common among the general public. It is regrettable because it prevents a lot of people from appreciating the real beauty of the game. The beauty lies in the unpredictable interaction between different people.

The same individualistic assumption also shows in the way some professionals go about their business. Journalists tend to praise individual players too lavishly and to criticize them too harshly. Also, a lot of basketball analysts look to develop ways to assess individual players’ performances as separated from the context.

16 thoughts on “Complexity, Creativity, and Everything

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  8. Pingback: How to Apply Conscious Control in While Practicing | Coach Harri Mannonen

  9. Pingback: Defining Technical Skill in Basketball | Coach Harri Mannonen

  10. Pingback: Adopt The Struggle Viewpoint | Coach Harri Mannonen

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  12. Pingback: Emphasize the Intensity | Coach Harri Mannonen

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