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.

I last edited this blog on Thursday November 8 when I instilled Chapter 14: Basketball-specificity of Complementary Training,

Also, please let me know if you spot loopholes in my thinking or if you want to share some of your ideas. I may implement relevant changes on the spot, if I find it justified.

Some of the ideas and writing presented are from my blog entry Complexity, Creativity, and Everything back in 2016. I took that one out because it needed to be improved and updated.

Chapter 1: How Basketball Is a Complex System

What type of an entity is basketball? Answering this question is important in order to define basketball. That definition will help us to define coaching and practicing basketball. Eventually, those definitions allow us to meaningfully discuss how the efficiency of practicing and coaching the sport may be enhanced.

In the contemporary research, invasion team sports such as basketball are often viewed as complex systems. Let us make that our starting point and see if that point of view is valid.

A system is an entity where:

  • A set of parts are “interconnected so that changes in some [parts] or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system”. That is bottom-up causation: changes at the lower scale of a system cause changes at the higher scale.
  • The whole “exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those of the parts.”

Additionally, complex systems have these properties:

  • They have autonomous parts whose interaction produces emergence. Thus based on the input, one can not exactly know what the output of a complex system will be.
  • They themselves are parts of hierarchies of complex systems. This means that in addition to bottom-up causation, there is top-down causation: changes at the higher scales of the system hierarchy cause changes at the lower scales.

Given these definitions, a basketball team is a complex system. Most of the researchers also treat invasion team sport games as complex systems. This has been questioned. Lebed argues that rather than a system, a game is “a conflict of — two complex dynamical systems”.

However, there is no reason why a conflict like that could not be a complex system, too. Given the definitions above, a basketball game does meet the two conditions of a system and the additional two conditions of a complex system.

  1. The two teams involved in a game are “interconnected so that changes in some [parts] or their relations produce changes” in the game. The defense played by Team A affects the offense by team B. 
  2. A game “exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those” of the teams involved. Team A alone can not play a game but Team B is needed, too.
  3. The teams are autonomous parts whose interaction produces emergence. Thus based on the teams, one can not exactly know what the outcome of the game will be like. Based on information regarding Teams A and B, it is impossible to know in advance how a game between the two teams will unfold. This is the case regardless of the quantity and the quality of the information.
  4. Games are parts of hierarchies of complex systems. Consequently they e.g. adapt to changes in the environment. A game between Team A and Team B is a scale in a hierarchy of complex systems. A scale one step down is the scale of Team A’s individual players. A scale one step up is the scale of the league where the game is played.

Chapter 2: Defining Basketball

Based on the above, we look to next define basketball. Then, based on the definition, we move forward towards the practical applications regarding practicing and coaching.

Generally, “a formal definition corresponds to the formula an X is a Y + distinguishing characteristic, where Y is a class word or superordinate term”. Thus, we may start the definition by stating that basketball is an invasion team sport.

What then distinguishes basketball from other invasion team sports? Put in the terms of complex systems, we can say that the main distinguishing factor is that in basketball, the interaction between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules.

So, our definition comes to be:

  • “Basketball is an invasion team sport where the interaction between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules.”

There are other definitions, perhaps better ones. However, for this definition to serve its purpose it only needs to be acceptable to everyone. In other words, we need to agree that what is says about basketball is true and essential. Given that, we can use the definition as a part of the basis for the current discussion. The same goes for all definitions presented here.

Chapter 3: Definitions of Practicing and Coaching

In our definition of basketball, rules of the sport have an important role: “Basketball is an invasion team sport where the interaction between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules.”

In fact, rules are the only thing mentioned to distinguish basketball from other invasion team sports. Consequently, any invasion team sport can be defined using the same formula: “X is an invasion team sport where the interaction between the two teams is confined by the X rules.”

In the FIBA rules, the most elementary confinements on the team’s interaction are stated in the articles 1.1 and 1.3:

  • “The aim of each team is to score in the opponents’ basket and to prevent the other team from scoring.”
  • “The team that has scored the greater number of points at the end of playing time shall be the winner.”

In other words, the goal of the teams is to manipulate the interaction so that they beat the other team.

To enhance their chances, teams practice. Practice has been defined as “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it”. Given this and the viewpoint of complex systems, we can formulate this definition:

  • “Basketball practice is activity that aims to optimise the proficiency of a team at manipulating the interaction in basketball games in their favour.”

In the context of sports, coaching may refer to training, instructing, and teaching an individual or a team. So, we may formulate this definition:

  • “Basketball coaching is activity where a team is trained, instructed, and taught in order to optimise its proficiency (at manipulating the interaction in basketball games in their favour).”

Then a basketball coach is someone who does basketball coaching.

Remember, we are not yet trying to determine what basketball practice and coaching should be like. Rather, we are defining the terms in the current context. Then based on these definitions, we will later try to draw conclusions about the “should be” part.

Chapter 4: On Underlying Assumptions in Coaching

In the next two chapters we look into two different coaching approaches and some of their underlying assumptions.

Here we use the term “coaching approach” to refer to a set of fundamental principles that underlie and guide the coaching process. This set is to be comprehensive, and the principles are to be related and compatible. They may overlap but they must not contradict each other.

In other words, the coaching approach is not merely a set of coaching methods and exercises. Rather it underlies and guides the selection of those methods and exercises.

Some assumptions of this kind necessarily underlie all actions in coaching. There is always a rationale behind them. Sometimes the assumptions and the rationale get articulated, but most often they are applied implicitly, maybe even unknowingly.

That is because “coaches often see little value in a philosophy as they attempt to cope with more tangible aspects of coaching practice, such as session content and organization”.

Coaches may consider their philosophical assumptions so “common-sense”, “taken-for-granted” and “normal” that there is no need to articulate, let alone examine them.

However, when trying to improve coaching, we are better off if we articulate the underlying assumptions. That makes it possible to assess the assumptions and the methods critically and to correct and improve them.

Say a basketball coach runs exclusively constant and blocked shooting drills. Obviously then he believes that constant and blocked practice is the most efficient method to learn shooting. That belief is there no matter whether the coach himself articulates it or not.

If he does articulate his belief, it becomes possible to have an intelligent and productive discussion on e.g. the pros and cons of constant and blocked practice versus those of varied and random. Without proper articulation, this type of a discussion is not possible.

Chapter 5: On the Positivistic Coaching Approach

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:

As discussed above, 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-related examples.

(Quote is 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.

Chapter 6: On the Holistic Coaching Approach.

The positivistic coaching approach has been challenged by the holistic coaching approach. The latter is based on two principles.

  1. The emphasis is on coaching individual athletes.
  2. Coaching is viewed “as a complex social process, which involves a myriad of interacting variables”.

Holistic coaching is related to athlete-centered coaching and humanistic coaching. Even if the terms are not synonyms, they do share the two principles mentioned. Because of that, the criticism presented here regarding the holistic coaching approach applies to its two relatives as well.

The holistic coaching approach can be viewed as a counterattack against the positivistic coaching approach. The holistic approach is based on complex systems thinking.

Yet, when it is basketball coaching that we view from the complex systems viewpoint, there is a fatal problem with holistic coaching: it puts the emphasis on a wrong scale of the complex system.

This is because of two things:

  • Above, we defined basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimise the proficiency of a team at manipulating the interaction in basketball games in their favour.”
  • The specificity of learning principle says that “improvement is observed only in the trained task, with little to no transfer of learning being observed even for very similar untrained tasks”.

So, to optimally improve the proficiency of a basketball team, the emphasis of practice must be on the interaction with the other team. This contradicts the fact that the holistic approach puts the emphasis on individual athletes.

Chapter 7: Kuhn’s Anomalies

The critique above on the positivistic and holistic coaching approach is coherent and logical. However, it is also mostly a priori or theoretical knowledge whereas practicing and coaching are very practical deeds.

Because of that, the critique above does not suffice to dismiss the two traditional coaching approaches when it comes to coaching basketball. More and different kind of evidence is needed – a posteriori or empirical evidence that is.

The method we will use to look for the evidence is this:

  1. Based on the positivistic and/or holistic coaching approach, we make predictions regarding research results.
  2. We see if there are research results that contradict the predictions.
  3. We assume that if the approaches lead to false predictions, there may be something wrong with the assumptions.
  4. We consider if there are so many anomalies that outlining a novel coaching approach is in place.

The contradictions between the research results and the predictions derived from the traditional coaching approaches are referred to as anomalies. The term comes from Thomas Kuhn: “Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science.”

There will be no – and there can be no – definite point where we can say that we have accumulated enough anomalies and that we can now start outlining a novel coaching approach. That is because by definition complex system will inevitably produce emergent, unexpected output – anomalies, that is.

Instead, what we should look for is a point where there are so many critical anomalies accumulated that it becomes rational to assume that another type of an approach might help to coach basketball more effectively.

The methodological idea applied here was inspired by Richard H. Thaler. In the 1990’s he promoted then-novel behavioral economics “by writing about anomalies in people’s behavior that could not be explained by standard economic theory”.

Chapter 8: Anomalies Unveiled.

The positivistic coaching approach and the holistic one are based on very different assumptions. As mentioned above, the holistic coaching approach can be viewed as “a counterattack against the positivistic coaching approach”.

However, the approaches do share an assumption: the effectiveness of a team depends linearly on how effective its individual player are. This assumption is reached in different ways.

A part of the positivistic approach is the reductionistic belief that “the functioning of a system can be explained and predicted through the functioning of its parts”. This predicts that the more effective the individual players are, the more effective the team will be.

In the holistic coaching approach, the one primary principle is to improve the individual athletes. Now, we have defined basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimise the proficiency of a team”. Improving individual players may be an optimal way to do this only if there a linear correlation between the cumulative effectiveness of the individual players and the effectiveness of the team.

So, if we find research results where the correlation described is not linear, we also find anomalies relative both to the positivistic and the holistic coaching approach. That is why we here concentrate on that type of anomalies. It keeps this analysis compact.

However, it can be assumed that also different types of anomalies could be found regarding the positivistic approach. That is because the approach has multiple underlying assumptions (see the list above).

Importantly, an anomaly here is “a result inconsistent with” the expectations. Or, a result is anomalous if “it is difficult to ‘rationalize,’ or if implausible assumptions are necessary to explain it”.

In other words, in order to be an anomaly the results need not show that there is no correlation between the cumulative effectiveness of the players and the collective effectiveness of the team. Rather, an anomaly is a result where this correlation is inconsistent, i.e. non-linear.

The research referred to here is all NBA-related.

Anomaly 1:  The too-much-talent effect 

Swaab et al (2014): The too-much-talent effect. Team interdependence determines when more talent is too much or not enough.

Results: “First, the actual marginal benefit of more talent decreased at a much faster rate than people believed it would. Second — the relationship between talent and performance eventually turned negative.”

The anomaly: Adding to the cumulative effectiveness of the players may harm the effectiveness of the team.

Anomaly 2: The U-shaped effect of team familiarity

Sieweke and Zhao (2015): The impact of team familiarity and team leader experience on team coordination errors. A panel analysis of professional basketball teams.

Results: “On the one hand, [team] familiarity is important for developing the mutual understanding that helps team members anticipate and adjust to each other s actions, thereby improving coordination. On the other hand, too much familiarity might negatively affect coordination —.”

The anomaly: The effectiveness of the team depends not just on the effectiveness of the individual players but also on how familiar they are with each other. Even if the current players improve their effectiveness, the effectiveness of the team may decrease because of the growing team familiarity.

Anomaly 3: How the players complement each other

Ayer (2011): Big 2’s and big 3’s. Analyzing how a team’s best players complement each other.

Results: “— high-scoring point guards don’t mesh well with high-scoring 2 guards. Talented, high-scoring centers fit well with more limited, defense-oriented power forwards who rebound very well, which also aligns with conventional wisdom. Unexpected results include the degree of fit when teams have two high-scoring 2 guards.”

Anomaly: “Constructing a team that can reach its full potential requires more than just acquiring talented players; these players have to fit well together.”

Anomaly 4: Synergies with the teammates and the opponents

Maymin et al (2013): NBA chemistry. Positive and negative synergies in basketball.

Results: “Because skills have different synergies with other skills, a player’s value depends on the other nine players on the court.”

Anomaly: The effectiveness of individual players will depend on the teammates and the opponents. Thus the players’ effectiveness is not cumulative in nature but rather situational and relative.

Chapter 9: Towards a Complex Coaching Approach.

Since the positivistic and holistic coaching approaches do not seem optimal when it comes to coaching basketball, we need a novel coaching approach. What should it be like?

In philosophy of science, there’s a long line of discussion about how scientific theories and hypotheses are generated. A much-debated issue is the DJ distinction or the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. Without getting into that debate, it seems rational to base the novel coaching approach on:

  1. The definitions of basketball, basketball practice, and basketball coaching.
  2. The critique and anomalies regarding the positivistic and holistic coaching approach.

We defined basketball “as an invasion team sport where the interaction between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules.” And coaching as activity that aims to optimise a team’s proficiency at manipulating that .

According to the specificity of learning principle learning almost exclusively happens in the trained task. So, in basketball practice the primary trained task should be the interaction between the two teams. This is where the positivistic and holistic approaches go wrong, as shown in chapters 5 and 6.

This leads us to the conclusion that in the novel coaching approach, the primary trained task should be the interaction between the two teams. All training, instructing, and teaching will be assessed based on how efficiently it advances that task. We call this approach the complex coaching approach.

Chapter 10: Diminishing Returns of Scrimmaging

Given the above chapter and the previous definition of basketball coaching, the primary principle of the complex coaching approach is to attempt to optimise the team’s proficiency at manipulating the game interaction.

Given this and the specificity of learning principle we may conclude that in order to improve the proficiency at game interaction, the team’s training task should be game interaction. This means 5v5 scrimmage using official basketball rules. In other words, scrimmaging is as basketball-specific as practice action.

Naming scrimmaging as the default practice task is not exceptional. Rather, it complies with recent calls for more game-like practices. And especially at the pro level, some coaches run practices that almost exclusively consist of 5v5 action.

Even if scrimmaging is the default practice action, it does not imply that teams should nothing but scrimmage. That is because of the power law, another well-established principle of sports training.

The Power Law says that the more you train something the more better you become at it, yet eventually the rate of learning will slow down. So, the more a team scrimmages, the better they learn to interact with each other and with the opponents. Yet as scrimmage hours accumulate, less and less learning happens per training hour.

So eventually it becomes more efficient to do other practice actions than scrimmaging. Because of the diminishing returns of scrimmaging, some other practice actions become more efficient. The variability they bring to the practice compensates for their relative lack of basketball-specificity.

Every step away from the maximum basketball-specificity of scrimmaging must be justified, yet eventually such steps must be taken.

Chapter 11: Defining Basketball-specificity

We now know that scrimmaging is as basketball-specific as a practice action can be. Next, we must define basketball-specificity. That is because otherwise it will not be possible to intelligently discuss and justify practice actions other than scrimmaging.

Above we defined basketball practice as “activity that aims to optimise the proficiency of a team at manipulating the interaction in basketball games in their favour”. Thus, a practice action can be called basketball-specific if it is justified to expect that it helps to advance this goal – i.e. to succeed in basketball games.

So, we define basketball-specificity as “a quality of a practice action that makes it justified to expect that executing the action helps the team to optimise their proficiency at manipulating the interaction in basketball games in their favour”.

This definition implies that in order to be basketball-specific, a practice action does not need to include any equipment or even movement patterns used in basketball games, not even the ball. Any practice action – say deadlifting or meditating – can be called basketball-specific for as long as it can be justifiably expected to help the team to optimise their proficiency at manipulating the interaction in basketball games.

This is important to point out because often the term “basketball-specific” seems to be used in more narrow a meaning. It seems to be assumed that in basketball-specific practice actions, some of the same equipment or at least movement patters are to be used as in games.

Often this assumption becomes obvious by implication only since explicit definitions of “basketball-specificity” are rare.

Chapter 12: Three Factors That Contribute to Basketball-specificity

Based on the above it is cleat that basketball-specificity is not an either/or thing, but rather a matter of degree. This brings about an important question: Which factors should we consider when we assess the degree of basketball-specificity of a practice action?

One way to look at this issue is to consider which characteristics make scrimmaging the epitome of basketball-specificity. In other words, what needs to be there for a scrimmage to be a scrimmage?

We can now go back to what was said in Chapter 10:  a scrimmage is played 5v5 using official basketball rules. This implies that there are at least three factors that contribute to the degree of basketball-specificity:

  1. The number of players on the teams. The further away the number moves from five, the less basketball-specific the action becomes. I.e. 5v5 is more basketball-specific than 3v3.
  2. The balance between the numbers of players on the teams. The bigger the advantage the other team has, the less basketball-specific the action becomes. I.e. 5v5 is more basketball-specific than 5v4.
  3. The (other) constraints applied. The closer the other constraints or rules applied are to those of the actual game action, the more basketball-specific the practice action is.

Chapter 13: Manipulating the Basketball-specificity of Practice Actions

The list above helps to see how practice actions can be manipulated. This is useful because in complex basketball coaching, we often want to add to the basketball-specificity of practice actions. In that case, we need to move towards:

  1. Having five players on both sides.
  2. Having the the same number of players on both sides.
  3. Instilling constraints that are closer to the constraints characteristical for games.

Practical examples of adding to the basketball-specificity of practice actions include:

  1. We turn a 1v1 defense-oriented drill into a 2v2 drill.
  2. We turn a 2v0 shooting drill into a 2v1 drill.
  3. Instead of allowing the defenders to foul in a 2v2 drill, we start calling fouls as they are called in games.

In spite of the factor list it is difficult to assess the basketball-specificity order of certain actions if different factors have been manipulated. That is because the assessment may turn out differently depending on how much weight you give to each factor.

For that reason, it is difficult to validly determine the comparative basketball-specificity of the following practice actions.

  1. 3v3 full court scrimmage. The number of players on the teams has been manipulated.
  2. 5v4 full court scrimmage. The balance between the numbers of players has been manipulated.
  3. 5v5 half court play. The constraints have been manipulated.

Chapter 14: Basketball-specificity of Complementary Training

As mentioned above, a basketball-specific practice action does not need to include any equipment or rules used in basketball game. Actions such lifting weights and running sprints are categorised as basketball-specific if they can be justifiably expected to help the team to optimise their proficiency. These actions are often referred to as complementary training.

Also mentioned above was that we can manipulate three factors in order to change the basketball-specificity of practice actions: the number of players, the balance between the numbers of players, and the other constraints.

However, in practice actions when there are no basketball equipment or rules involved, two of the three factors become irrelevant. That is, the number of players and the balance between the numbers of players,

So there is only one factor available for manipulating and discussing the practice actions’ degree of basketball-specificity: the other constraints applied. These constraints are then compared to the basketball rules. The more closely the actions’ constraints follow the game’s rules, the more basketball-specific the action is.

This leads to e.g. following conclusions regarding complementary training.

  1. Running is more basketball-specific than other forms of aerobic conditioning, say riding a stationary bike – because in basketball players run rather than ride any type of a bike.
  2. Running a 100-meter sprint where there are frequent changes-of-direction  is more basketball-specific than sprinting 100 meters in a straight line – because on the basketball floor you can’t run 100 meters in straight line.
  3. Lifting weights standing up is more basketball-specific than lifting weights sitting or lying down – because in basketball players stand up rather than sit or lie down.

To be continued.

2 thoughts on “Complex Basketball Coaching

  1. Pingback: Definitions of Practicing And Coaching Basketball | Coach Harri Mannonen

  2. Pingback: On the Holistic Coaching Approach | Coach Harri Mannonen

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