How do basketball players really make decisions?

Since I wrote Developing Basketball Intelligence, a reader has hounded me to read Sources of Power by Gary Klein. Having never heard of it or Klein, I put off the recommendations, figuring it was another pop science book like Outliers. However, with some free time this summer while waiting for my committee to respond with comments on my dissertation proposal, I ordered and read Sources of Power, which is not pop science at all. It is an interesting account of naturalistic decision making, as opposed to the laboratory, focused on Klein’s research with firemen, the military, emergency rooms, and more.

Klein (1998) writes that naturalistic decision making features “time pressure, high stakes, experienced decision makers, inadequate information (information that is missing ambiguous, or erroneous), ill-defined goals, poorly defined procedures, cue learning, context, dynamic conditions, and team coordination” (Orasanu & Connolly, 1993).

Decision making on the court does not have all of these features, but it is similar in many ways. Basketball does not have the same high stakes as a fireman entering a burning building, but within its context, games do have their own high stakes. Similarly, many decisions are made under time pressure and within dynamic conditions requiring team coordination.

Cue learning is an important feature from naturalistic decision making that applies to basketball decision making. “Cue learning refers to the need to perceive patterns and make distinctions,” (Klein, 1998). When we practice or play, we gain experience. We learn patterns of play. When I practice in a three-on-two fastbreak drill, I learn common patterns of defensive players. I learn to see if the bottom player is cheating toward one side; I learn to read whether the top defender is trying to stop the ball or retreating. As I learn to see these patterns, I can make better decisions. I can make quicker decisions that prevent the third defender from catching up and that put more pressure on the two defenders to make quicker decisions of their own. Rather than react to the defenders, I can manipulate the defenders to get the shot that I want for myself or a teammate.

One of the big differences between naturalistic decision making and basketball decision making should be goals. In naturalistic decison making, the goals are unclear – “we do not fully understand what we want to accomplish” (Klein, 1998). In basketball, the goals are clear: Offensively, the goal is to score; defensively, the goal is to prevent the opponent from scoring. In the three-on-two example, my goal is to score; to score, I want my team to attempt a high-percentage shot and if possible, maintain a rebounding advantage if the shot is missed. I want this high pecentage shot to be a lay-up, if at all possible. Through experience in these situations, I see a pattern in the defense that I can exploit to create a shot for my teammate.

Unfortunately, rules may prohibit my learning and execution. If a coach puts artificial restrictions on players, (1) it limits the learning, (2) it limits the exposure to various patterns, and (3) it limits the execution.

As an example, many coaches teach the ball handler to dribble to the free-throw line, jump stop, pass to a wing, and follow to the elbow. As a player, I did this drill countless times. In terms of naturalistic decision making, what are the flaws?

First, if I am following rules, rather than making decisions, how do I learn to make decisions? As I attack, I am not noticing patterns and attempting to exploit the defense’s weakness; I am dribbling to a pre-determined point and making a pre-determined pass. I am following directions, not making a decision. I am running down the court on auto-pilot.

Second, because I do the same thing every time, I am not exposed to different patterns. This is one problem that I have with most transition drills: If a team does the typical 3v2/2v1 drill at practice, two defenders wait for three offensive players. Typically, they defend in nearly the same way every time because the offense is very predictable, as it follows the coach’s directions. Nobody learns. Nobody’s brain is engaged. This may lead to better immediate performance in the drill in practice, but does it enhance learning? Will every 3v2 fastbreak in a game transpire exactly like the drill? If not, is the drill preparing players for the game? Am I learning new and different patterns? If I practice one thing, and the defense defends it, am I prepared to adjust and make a different play?

Finally, in a game sense, my execution is limited because I follow the coach’s directions. There are many different options, but the coach wants to use only one. Whether defended or not, that is our solution. The defense drops off and protects the paint, taking away the two cutters, so I am left with a free-throw line jump shot. Not a bad shot, but not the lay-up that was my original goal. The defense could pressure high and force an early pass, leaving me to cut to the ball-side elbow, even though a cut to the rim could be open or a weak-side cut if the player away from the ball cut to the ball-side. In a game, the defense can do many different things, and if I have practiced only one solution, I am limited in my decision-making abilities.

Based on previous laboratory studies, the assumption was that experts could derive many options and choose the best option. Klein’s studies revealed that “it was the experts who could generate a single course of action, while novices needed to compare different approaches,” (Klein, 1998; p. 21). Imagine a passer waiting for a screen to be set. A novice player watches the cutter; once he sees the cutter use the screen, he reads the direction of his cut: Curl, flare, etc. After he sees where the cutter is cutting, he may look to see if his defender is close enough to steal the pass. Only after searching for the defender and seeing the opening does the passer begin his pass. For the novice passer, every cut was an option, as he waited for the cutter to make his decision.

An expert passer quickly eliminates options. As he waits for the screen, he reads the defender. He knows the cut that the cutter should make at the same time that the cutter knows. Once the cutter starts his cut, the passer anticipates the direction and makes the pass. In football, analysts often say that a quarterback “threw his receiver open” by throwing the ball to an area where the receiver would be open and expecting his receiver to get there. The same thing occurs with an expert passer. As an example, if the passer sees the defense preparing to switch, the passer knows the screene will be open, and he passes before the screener finishes his roll to the basket. He leads him to the opening with his pass because he eliminated other options; once the defenses showed their switch, the passer knew the best option and did not have to wait to evaluate all the other options.

How does the expert passer know this? Experience. By playing and practicing in these situations, he knows what a switch looks like before it happens. He knows where the defender has to be for the screener to pin the defender to create the automatic opening. He knows the tendencies of his teammates; if the screener is a pick-and-pop guy, he would search for another option rather than anticipating the roll to the basket.

This type of knowledge is learned through playing. Feedback from a coach can enhance this learning, especially with the use of questions to draw players’ attention to the important cues. Players need to make these types of decisions in order to learn how to make these decisions correctly. If all practice on screening involves the coach telling the player where to pass, there is limited learning. Coaches have to allow players enough space to fail rather than trying to prevent mistakes at all costs. Players need to make decisions, and with young players especially, this means making bad decisions, missing open players, etc. However, that is how players learn to make good decisions. Following directions is not the same as learning to make decisions; it may work in the short term, but not in the long term. Players need to make these high stake, time pressured decisions to develop the experience and cue learning that enable improved decision making.

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