Pattern Recognition: Differentiating expert and non-expert point guards

In the season’s last Monday Night Football game, New Orleans‘ Drew Brees flipped the ball behind him to Pierre Thomas as he was tackled. Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski exclaimed that Brees has eyes in the back of his head. I am fairly certain that he does not have eyes in the back of his head, and the helmet would seem to negate such an advantage. In fact, when ESPN showed the replay, Brees looked directly at Thomas as he delivered the pass.

When players make great plays, analysts use sensationalistic language. We watch sports on television so much that we accept this sensationalism as matter of fact. Nobody criticizes Gruden and Jaws for suggesting that Brees has an extra set of eyes; we understand that it is hyperbole, and they mean that he has exceptional vision or possibly greater peripheral vision. The analysts are unspecific, and neither are most coaches.

When a basketball player makes a great pass, analysts and fans say that he “sees the play before it happens.” What does that mean? Do great players look into the future?

Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind includes a chapter with Josh Waitzkin, childhood chess prodigy, tai chi world champion and author of The Art of Learning. In the chapter, Waitzkin talks about jiujitsu champion Marcelo Garcia, who is featured in an earlier chapter. Waitzkin says:

“People talk about Marcel as if he thinks ten moves ahead but I don’t think he does. People have the same misconception about strong chess players, that they see ten moves ahead. They don’t, but they know where to look. They think two or three moves ahead, but in the right direction…The strong chess player only looks at two to or three moves but because of his intuitive understanding, his pattern recognition, when he analyzes those two or three moves he gains insight into the position.”

Making decisions in basketball is the same. Studies have shown that experts recall more from a game situation than non-experts, but only if the pattern reflects a real or typical situation. If the situation is random, experts are no better at recall than non-experts. Therefore, it is not general memory skills, but specific memory recall learned through experience that separates experts from non-experts.

For the most part, experts and non-experts engage in the same scan and search pattern and see the same things. However, experts fixate longer at more information-rich locations and glean more information from the scanning process. Brees does not actually have eyes in the back of his head; instead, he knows that Thomas is supposed to pick up a blitzing linebacker and if that blitzing linebacker is now tackling him, Thomas is probably nearby and open. Therefore, he gets his head around to the position where he expects Thomas to be, sees him open and flips him the ball.

A less aware and less skilled quarterback does not maintain his focus on the task and does not read the pattern in the same way. He does not equate the blitzing linebacker tackling him as a sign that Thomas is probably open. Instead, his attention probably turns internal as soon as he is hit as he tries to prevent injury or feels sorry for himself because his line cannot block anyone.

Great point guards maintain their broad-external focus under pressure or when dribbling at a high speed and scan the environment. However, through experience, they know where to look to find the most relevant cues, and they ignore irrelevant information. They do not see into the future; however, they recognize patterns quicker than non-experts and use this recognition to predict the correct decision. The recognition and prediction enable a quicker decision which often makes the decision more accurate.

When an expert playmaker beats his man into the lane, he recognizes a familiar pattern. He maintains a broad focus – he sees the rim, but also the defenders in the lane. If he quickly determines that a pull-up jump shot is his best decision, he shifts to a narrow-external focus on the basket. The genius of players like Steve Nash is their ability to shift from broad to narrow focus so often, so quickly and so accurately.

As the player drives, if he sees a help defender rotating to take away his lane, he looks at his second move – should he go around the help defender or pass? If he decides to pass, he evaluates his first option (the help defender’s man). If another player has stepped in front of him, he moves to his third move and finds the open player that the help defender’s helper left open.

This processing happens in a fraction of a second. When he whips the pass to the open player on the wing, the analysts remark about his court vision, his awareness or his ability to see the play before it happens. In essence, they are talking about his selective attention and his pattern recognition.

The non-expert who makes a poor decision does not recognize the pattern in the same way. Once he beats his man, he may narrow his focus on the basket, so he does not see the help defender or an open teammate. My theory is that a player’s dominant attentional style determines his role as a point guard or a scorer, as scorer’s tend to have a narrow attentional style, while point guards have a broad external style.

A less experienced player may not recognize the secondary help defender. Rather than thinking two to three moves ahead due to his pattern recognition skills, he may be stuck on his one move like a novice. He may lack confidence with the basketball which requires him to devote more concentration to the dribble, and less to finding the open man. This would narrow his vision and shorten the processing time, making him less likely to see the secondary help defender or the open teammate on the wing.

How does one develop the pattern recognition skills to make the right decisions at the right time? Practice and feedback.

I am amazed at our instructional style and expectations for players. If a coach never allows his players to play outside the framework of a specific set in practice, how does he expect them to play outside the set and make good decisions in a game?

Most teams do a few standard transition drills like the 3v2 drill where defenders stand in the key and wait for the offensive players to attack while the offensive players attack together in organized lines. How game-like is that?

If that is the only transition practice, should the coach expect perfect decision-making and execution in transition situations where the three players are not in a line or the two defenders are not in the key?

If the patterns differ, and the players’ skills are not adaptable, why expect the players to make the right play? If you teach a math student that 4×4 = 16, do you automatically assume that he knows 4×7=28? He can memorize the one answer, but can he recognize the pattern? Is his learning of the one problem adaptable to other problems?

If a coach values good decision-making, the players need practice making decisions. After or throughout this practice, the players need feedback. Why was that a good decision in that situation? What if this had differed? How would that change the decision? For instance, why did you make the pass on that 2v1 fast break? What if the defender split the distance between you and your teammate? (finish) What skill might have made the execution easier? (inside-hand dribble)

Running through the typical 3v2/2v1 as I have seen it, even at the college level, is conditioning practice, not skill work. If players are instructed to make the same pass and the same shot every time, how does that enable the players to practice their decision-making?

To learn, players need practice in the specific skill, and they need occasional feedback to augment their development. The practice and feedback will help players develop skills like pattern recognition that will lead to better decision making and game performance.

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