Chapter 1: Complex Systems

1.1 Basketball Team as a Complex System: 

Complexity science is “an interdisciplinary field” where the methods are drawn from a variety of fields. [Downey 2018] Since it is not defined by its methods, it’s defined by its objects: complex systems. [Davis and Sumara 2005] 

So, we can apply complexity science to basketball coaching if – and only if – what we coach is a complex system.

What actually is the entity that we coach when we coach basketball?

In the FIBA rules, article 1.1 says: “The aim of each team is to score in the opponents’ basket and to prevent the other team from scoring.” [FIBA 2018] So, the entity we coach is the team.

Is a basketball team a complex system? To answer this, we must answer two question.

First, is a basketball team a system? 

A system is defined as “an entity of interacting parts functioning as a persistent whole distinguished from the environment by recognizable boundaries”. [Lebed 2006]

Given this definition, a basketball team – for example, fictional Alligators – is a system. Its parts or the players interact, and the whole is distinguished from the environment.

Second, is the system of a basketball team a complex one?

For a system to be complex, it must have these additional properties [Poli 2013]:

  • It is a part of hierarchies of complex systems. Consequently, 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.
  • The interaction of its autonomous parts produces emergence. So, based on the input, one can not exactly know what the output will be.

A basketball team does have these properties. Players are autonomous, and it is impossible to know exactly how the Alligators will play in a game. And there is top-down causation: how the Alligators play as a team affects how its players play.

So, a basketball team is a complex system. That conclusion is not controversial. In the contemporary research, invasion team sports teams are routinely viewed as complex systems. [Garcia Rubio et al 2013]

Besides basketball, invasion team sports include American football, ice hockey, soccer, water polo. In invasion team sports [Mannonen 2014]:

  1. There is a playing area of two halves and each team has its own half.
  2. Each team defends its own half and attacks the other team’s half.
  3. Players of both teams occupy common ground.

Even if basketball teams are complex systems, a basketball game is not. That’s because it says in the definition that a system is “a persistent whole”. And a game is not persistent but quite temporary.

Rather, a game is “a conflict of ––– two complex dynamical systems”. [Lebed 2006] That – to be precise – is what we mean when se say that basketball complex.

1.2 Team in a Hierarchy of Complex Systems

Complex systems are nested in other complex systems. Since basketball teams are complex systems, they must be nested. But where?

Perhaps most obviously, a team is a part of the league where it plays. Thus in the hierarchy of complex systems, the team is one scale down from the league.

In turn, the league is a complex system nested in other complex systems – often the competition system of the national basketball federation. 

A team is a part of complex systems other than the league, too. For example, it is a part of the club that may have multiple other teams as well. Or if it’s a school team, it’s a part of the school sports team system. 

All entities relevant here are parts of multiple complex systems. So, an Alligator is not just a part of the Alligators but also a part of her immediate family. 

Hierarchies of complex systems are a matter of the context. They can be very different for players who are of different age and play on different teams.

Even for the same team different hierarchies can be conducted, depending on what we want to analyse. Table 1 shows one example of such a composition.

Table 1 highlights the Alligator team: it is placed at the scale right in the middle. The entities where the team is a part are located at the next scale upwards. The league and the Alligator club are the examples here.

The team’s parts – or the players – are shown at the next scale downwards.

1.3 Definitions of Key Terms

In this book, we define key terms. That is because many basketball terms are ambiguous, and we want to be clear. We want to have solid ground under our feet.

Our definitions are written from the viewpoint of complex systems thinking. Viewed from different viewpoints, the entities could be defined differently.

Our definitions serve their purpose if they are comprehensible to you, the readers. Then we can base an intelligent joint discussion on these definitions. If we disagree, we know what we disagree about.

First up: how do we define basketball?

Generally, “a formal definition corresponds to the formula an X is a Y + distinguishing characteristic, where Y is a class word or superordinate term”. [Pearson 1998] So, we start by saying that basketball is an invasion team sport.

What then distinguishes basketball from other invasion team sports? In basketball, the basketball rules are followed. Our definition comes to be:

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

Consequently, any invasion team sport can be defined using the same formula:

  • “X is an invasion team sport where the conflict between the two teams is confined by the X rules.”

What then is basketball 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”. [Lexico no date practice]

In a game, the aim of a basketball team is “to score in the opponents’ basket and to prevent the other team from scoring”. Eventually, the team aims to have “scored the greater number of points at the end of playing time” and to “be the winner.” [FIBA 2018]

In other words, the goal of the teams is to manipulate the conflict so that they beat the other team. To enhance their chances, teams practice. 

Given this, we formulate this definition:

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

In the context of sports, coaching refers to training, instructing, and teaching an individual or a team. [Lexico no date]

So, we may formulate this definition of coaching:

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

A basketball coach can be defined simply as: 

  • “Someone who does basketball coaching.”

This is the first chapter of the e-book Complex Basketball Coaching.

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