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Developing phenomenal, elite decision makers

I have produced a few blogs on coaching and development. My colleagues and friends have done guest blogs on these subjects too. I'm always on the hunt for guest bloggers that can offer outstanding content, and have some great guest blogs in the pipeline coming up.

I really hope that the concepts in this blog get some consideration and analysis from those that hope to develop outstanding talent, division 1 college prospects and Australian Representatives. I am really getting into some nuts and bolts ideas here on my views on how to really develop talent in the following blog.

First, lets think about a decision.

"Decision-making is a fundamental element of any sport, especially open, fast, dynamic team sports such as volleyball, football, soccer, rugby, and basketball. In order to succeed in winning any game and competition at national and international level in all individual and team sports there is a need to reconsider all success factors in order to make a better decision to win. At the elite level, coaches and athletes appear to consistently make good decisions in situations that are highly temporally constrained." -

Typical decisions we need to make when playing include, should I;

- shoot or drive?

- layup or kickout?

- fade away or step through?

- kick ahead to lane runner on right or left?

- gamble for the defensive steal or not?

I have not fully appreciated the phenomenal decision making of some of the elite kids I have been lucky to coach until I have had the chance to watch them play in detail on video. It is the minor details, the small, rapid decisions that they make quickly and accurately that is noticeable. Their ability to tune in and listen to feedback and rapidly put it into practice, into their decision making framework, is one of the main things that sets them apart.

I want to discuss some of the methods we (my coaching teams, their team mates) have developed to instill expert decision making capabilities.

Coaches' mindset - risk mitigation vs risk encouragement

In a previous blog I talk about risk mitigation coaching vs pro risk coaching. Risk mitigation I feel is what you do to minimize poor performance, you are more worried about protecting a losing margin, rather than rewarding and developing talent that will win you games. Many of the ideas here can only work when a fear of losing is removed from the coaches' mindset.

Pro-risk encouragement means that if you need to make a decision, make the RIGHT one with no thought of risk, or fear of making a mistake, in that decision. If you don't understand what I mean about risk encouragement; We use phrases with players like "shoot the open shot without consciousness", "hand down, man down", "you reach, I teach", "no matter how you guard me I will counter it and beat you". In defense "If you go to the coffin corner, we will bury you", "if they go to the coffin corner, double aggressively, if they go past the Ts then double, if they back turn in the back-court double, if you feel like doubling anytime just go and double it". These are confident, aggressive pro-risk phrases.

Guys in my teams get yelled at for not backing themselves, not playing with confidence, they don't get yelled at for taking the wrong shot.

This is pro-risk encouragement.

Featured athlete Isaac White (Class of 2017) footage: 12 points vs NCAA Powerhouse UCLA. Isaac is generally a pro-risk guy, that backs himself but also led the Basketball SA premier league in effective field goal percentage in 2016, showing he is also a great decision maker.

Measuring the quality of the decision

One of the traits I hope that the men that play in teams we coach are known for is for being phenomenal decision makers. I think this is only going to be relevant if they can make great decisions at ANY level of the game after they have played for us, which I hope is true in the case of the featured athletes who have now moved beyond our teams.

I first want to define what decision making is and the various characteristics of a "phenomenal decision":

- speed of the decision: I feel that players need to make decisions without thinking. Decision making should almost be a motor skill, a reflex adjustment to what the opposing player does, rather than a slow thought process to go through each time.

- the degree to which the decision will make your team mates better: Shooting long corner, kickout 3s for example makes your team mate s better, if your defence is helping on penetration. Not shooting open long corner 3s makes your team worse. If your guys shoot the long corner, kickout 3 with confidence, to punish the fact they went to help on the dribble penetration, next time the defender won't help off you which will open up the driving lanes. When that happens the penetrating guy needs to score to make sure the defender again helps off the dead corner on their next drive. If the penetrating player tries to kick it out when there is no help then the shooter in the dead corner will not be open. This is an example of how a scoring mindset can shift the defense and when it shifts you can counter that shift.

The blind, absolute pass first mentality I see Club/Rep/Domestic teams often playing with, at the expense of aggressive scoring, I feel just reduces the scope for decision making. If you score and can score all over the floor you DO make your team mates better because you shift defence, you force help, rotations and mismatches.

-how consistent with team concepts: To what degree does the decision fit with team concepts. Most decisions will not fit in perfectly, nor need they be. This is not as black and white, absolute right or wrong, as some would like to think it is, it is more a continuum between a poor decision to a great decision. In our teams want to give players a lot freedom to make decisions but they have to make their decisions in a way that their team mates can adjust to. Generally a decision in a team sport will impact the movement, patterns and decisions (at that time).

- decision has a purpose: EG: in offense score the ball, or pass the ball to create scoring opportunity for your team mate or create space for your team mate with a screen etc.

Footage of U18 SA Metro Men in 2015 examples of great decision making, anticipation and awareness in offense and defense. Such as a talented team of men.

How to develop phenomenal decision makers

There are are range of concepts and ideas we implement in order to develop phenomenal decision makers. I really hope coaches seriously consider implementing some of these. They are the same things we implemented at Central Districts Lions during the amazing run of U14 team success (you can read about this in Toby Lockwood's blog) and they are largely the same ideas that my current club Sturt has allowed me to implement in teams coached at the Sabres.

- practice, practice, practice.

- Speed of decisions. Reduce "thinking time".

- No such thing as a mistake when making a decision, unless it is defined non-negotiable or automatic and there are not many of those.

- teach counters.

- teach concepts.

- competitive, game related drills - small sided games.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In a pro risk environment we need elite talent. Our system won't hide your deficiencies, it won't mitigate your poor performance, so you better be good. You better practice A LOT because if you don't you will get exposed, we won't hide you, we won't mitigate your lack of capabilities.

I feel indy workouts need to be consistently undertaken. This will often mean early morning workouts. When working on moves of different types I don't have them practice a single move continuously. I will tend to give them a move, then a counter move, then maybe another counter move and they need to mix up between the two or so moves. I tend to guard them (often beating them up with my strike pads) to give them cues as to when to make the move or counter move. This means that players can be equipped to make decisions, not be robots when making moves. Workouts tend to include a lot of talk and communication with the guys about mindset, building up confidence and self belief and helping them understand how well they are traveling in their development. It is a great time to spend one on one time communicating with your guy whilst they are doing work.

Practice leads to confidence and it also leads to rapid decision making because the skills and moves become automatic.

Image of Pasadena at 6:30 AM in the morning prior to an indy workout. Practice, practice, practice.

Speed of decisions, reduce "thinking time"

I sometimes see players at training and you can see them hesitating, fearful of making a mistake you can almost hear the cogs in the brain ticking as they reach each decision point. These are guys playing by thought and not feel. We want our guys to make decisions without hesitation. We try to get them to predict and see cues and constantly reinforce that they must not think slowly, I want them training their brain to make decisions rapidly. If they could maybe have made a better decision we can deal with that, but what is worse than a poor decision is a slow decision. It may get ugly at first, the idea of rapid decision processes, but eventually they will get used to speeding their brain up and playing by feel, not thought.

No such thing as a mistake when making a decision

Making a quick decision is more important than making a mistake. As long as players are taught to move in unison and taught in concepts, when they make a read if they do make a wrong read the rest of the team can make an adjustment. When things really break down you need a motion offense to go into. It might be flow, 4 out 1 in, 5 out, dribble drive some kind of continuity offense needs to be in the repertoire to flow into.

Ask questions when you see your players make decisions. There is no right or wrong answer just ask them why they made the decision, get them thinking about their decision and offer them other alternatives to try. Your players respect you, they will listen and want to try out your alternative ideas. Ask questions of your players do not tell them they wrong, there is really no right or wrong in the game.

Teach counters

Whenever I design a drill I always try to think of counters. We always talk about counter moves and decisions. We tell the kids to think to themselves constantly "no matter what the other team does I will have a move, a counter decision to punish them". Whenever we do a drill I will create scenarios that test players ability to create counters. For example if we are working on playing out of onballs I will let defence decide 2 options to guarding onballs and change it between the 2 continuously.

Counters is a word I use regularly and something I constantly get players to be aware of.

Screenshot of a training plan: Drills include key teaching points, but also include variations. Have a winner and loser and include defence as quickly as possible.

Teach concepts

Whilst teams I coach do have set offenses I always try to teach offense in terms of modules. We have some key concepts to ensure everyone is playing together and on the same page. This means players can really do what they want in offense as long as they all stick to the team concepts. For example:

What do we do on a post feed, and all the options and counters.

How do we play out of pick of rolls, with all the options and counters.

How do run our primary fast break with all the options and counters.

When we have a big guy dive on the rim we like to lift our other big guy.

When we come off an off ball screen the screener and cutter off the screen must work in opposites. IE if the cutter curls on the rim the screener will pop.

How and when players do these things is up to them. This is teaching in concepts.

Competitive, game related drills - small sided games

I love using small sided games to teach concepts. We modify the rules depending on the concepts we are teaching. I tend to break down concepts of our offense a lot with small side games. There are always rules areas of the court to play in certain advantages given to stimulate actions and options we want to work on. We will often manipulate scores for certain shots depending on what we want to work on.

EG: For every ball reversal accumulate a point which is added to your team score if you end up with a score. You are only allowed 2 dribbles but get a bonus 2 on a throwdown to encourage throw down moves. On a post action and automatics out of post feed you have 6 seconds to score. ETC.

There is little point practice decision making when the context has no relevance to a game situation.

I see so many times coaches practice drills that have no game relevance whatsoever and often the skills being developed, albeit out of the textbook, have little game relevance. These kinds of skills and fundamentals have being coined "fake fundamentals" by author Brian McCormick. I highly recommend you read his books. he has also written a book called "21st Century Practice" both are phenomenal books that will open your mind to more contemporary development, far different to how coaches worked years ago.


I am not convinced that our x's and o's are all that important if we are focussed developing junior talent beyond their junior years. A focus on developing talent, decision makers, with a great feel for the game will lead to stronger basketball in your state (hopefully South Australia).

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