Basketball is a thinking game but, as a coach, one of your major responsibilities is to take as many situations as possible out of thought processes and turn them into quick reactions requiring no thought at all.
For example, when a player catches a basketball, you don’t want him thinking what to do, as though there are a lot of options. There is only one option. Look immediately, every time, to the basket. If there’s no shot and no one open, then some thinking can kick in. But not at first.
Same with rebounding. At some point a player has to decide whether or not to keep trying for a rebound, but not initially. The only acceptable reaction initially is for your big men to head to the basket immediately, every time.
Those words are key: immediately and every time. I think it makes sense for you to make a list of things that your players recognize as requiring instant reactions. This is what I call Pavlovian Basketball, because these things are as automatic as Dr. Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell.
The length of your list will have a lot to do with the degree of success you enjoy as a coach. A lot of things in basketball need no discussion and no thought. They must simply be trained as reactions. Here are some of my personal “instant salivations:”
- In practice, when my players hear a whistle, they stop. When they hear two whistles, they come running. If they see me point to a line, they sprint to it.
- In scrimmages and in games, a shot by the other team means hands up. (All five players, every time. Why not? It should remind them to start their block-out dance—hand up, seek someone to block out, make contact, go to the ball.)
- A shot by us brings immediate 3-2 movement for the rebound.
- A mistake means instant hustle.
- Frustration means pick up a teammate.
- Ball going out of bounds, run toward it.
- Teammate trapped. Surround him.
- Full court press. Get strong and precise.
- Loose ball? Grab it. Ball to chin, elbows out.
- We lose the ball, switch ends. (Don’t let athletes stand there gazing as though something unusual has happened. It’s amazing how many players do this.) The moment the other team gets the ball, sound a horn, if you have to, to teach your players to react immediately.
This is by no means a complete list, but I think you get the idea. A good way to review the basics before a game is just to call out the situation and let your players call out the response. If they can do it verbally, it won’t be long before they can do it physically on the court—especially if you reinforce these things on the court immediately and every time in practice.
The more consistent you are, the more consistent your team will be. Dr. Pavlov didn’t hope his dogs salivated every time he rang a bell. He trained them until they salivated every time he rang a bell. The dogs’ reactions were involuntary, automatic—just the way you want your team’s to be.
THINK THE GAME
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How many times in the history of basketball has a coach corrected a player, only to hear the player say, “But Coach, I thought . . .” The coach says, “Don’t think.” And maybe adds, “It’s a bad habit.”
Is it a bad habit for a player to think? Not in general, but it is a very bad habit to stand on a court thinking about what to do in a situation that happens a hundred times per game—like the need to switch ends— and needs no thought at all, just a quick reaction.
—Excerpted from the book, “Running the Show”
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