What Complex Coaching Is

The definitions and some other parts of the text are borrowed from my e-book “Complex Basketball Coaching. How to make basketball practices more effective” (2019).

Why bother with coaching paradigms, such as complex basketball coaching? Why not just coach and win games?

Because developing coaching paradigms may help to enhance practical coaching – and to win more games.

We often consider our underlying assumptions so “common-sense”, “taken-for-granted” and “normal” that there is no need to articulate them, let alone examine. Yet our assumptions are not to be taken for granted, but they’re based on a coaching paradigm.

A paradigm is a model that includes “key theories and laws” and “the applications of those theories in the solution of important problems”. So, where there is practical coaching, there is also a coaching paradigm – whether the coach acknowledges her paradigm or not.

For example, when a coach acts as a coach, she acts according to her assumptions about what a coach does. That’s true even if the coach is unable to explicitly state her definition of coaching.

Or say that to improve her team’s shooting skills, a coach runs constant and blocked shooting drills. That speaks volumes about her coaching paradigm: she believes that constant and blocked practice is the most efficient method to learn shooting. The belief is there whether she articulates it or not.

The taken-for-granted approach is not optimal. To improve the effectiveness of our coaching optimally, we must discuss our key theories and laws and their applications critically and change them if need be. Articulating our paradigm serves to accelerate this process.

Definitions and Properties of a Complex System

The complex basketball coaching paradigm is based on for example these definitions and assumptions.

  • Basketball is an invasion team sport where the conflict between the two teams is confined by the basketball rules.
  • A basketball team is a complex system.
  • Basketball practice is activity that aims to optimise the proficiency of a team at manipulating the conflict in basketball games in their favour.
  • 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 system is complex if it has these properties:

  1. The interaction of its autonomous parts produces emergence. So, based on the input, one can not exactly know what the output will be.
  2. 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.

Conclusions Based on the Complex Coaching Paradigm

These assumptions lead to a multitude of conclusions that affect practical coaching.

  1. When we practice, we always practice interaction skills – that is, the ability to co-operate with teammates and skills to together beat the opponents.
  2. The psychological, social, tactical, technical and physical dimensions of training are all interwoven and should be treated as such.
  3. The coach should consider the higher-scale complex systems where her team functions as a part. These include for example the club and the league.
  4. In games, emergence is inevitable. Thus the coach should give up the attempt to control in detail what happens. Rather, she should prepare her team for the emergence to make sure that in the long run, tendencies in the game favour her team.
  5. A basketball team’s goal is to win basketball games. That’s the purpose of its existence and functioning. This makes winning the measure of everything. For example, a player’s techniques are not good or bad per se. Rather, they are to be assessed and developed based on how well they serve as means to enhance the functioning of the team and ultimately the probability of winning.

Positivistic and Holistic Coaching Paradigm

In hindsight, the implications of the complex coaching paradigm may seem “common-sense” and “normal”. Yet much of the coaching tradition has ignored those implications.

The most dominant and prevalent coaching paradigm may be referred as the positivistic or reductionistic coaching paradigm. It’s based on the idea that the functioning of a system can be explained and predicted through the functioning of its parts.

In other words, teams and players are treated not as complex systems but rather as complicated systems where the parts’ functioning and their interaction can be predicted. For example, it is assumed that shooting in games can be optimally improved through practicing shooting without defense. And that the team will necessarily become effective once it acquires more effective individual players.

In the holistic coaching paradigm the players are considered complex systems. So it’s an improvement over the positivistic paradigm. Regarding basketball coaching, the problem with the holistic paradigm is that it treats individual players as the primary actors. This contradicts the fact that in basketball, it is the teams that are the primary actors.

This has led to misunderstandings for example about the relevance of individuals’ technical skills. They are often treated as a goal per se, not as a means to enhance the functioning of the team.

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