The Game Teaches the Game

Since arriving in Ghana, I have worked a camp, run clinics, and assisted with the Ghanian u18 National Team. Last night, after a clinic, one of the players asked my impressions of the state of the game in Ghana.

The biggest deficiency is the rush to make plays. At every session, players violate John Wooden’s axiom: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” For these players, they can move physically faster than their minds can make decisions.

This is a common fastbreak: throw the baseball pass down court and hope that your teammate catches the pass. They’re in a hurry. They lack confidence and experience in other situations.

This is not a knock on the players or the coaches. It is a matter of experience. Compare the developmental profiles of an 18-year-old in the United States versus an 18-year-old in Ghana. In the U.S., the player has played 8-10 years of basketball; in Ghana, probably no more than four years. In the U.S., each season consists on 20-35 games; in Ghana, maybe five games in a season. In the U.S., the players have played on additional teams, whether club basketball or school-sponsored fall, summer, and spring leagues, or both; in Ghana, five games is an entire year’s worth of games. In the U.S., during the season, players play or practice 5-6 times per week; in Ghana, maybe twice per week. Without breaking down the math, it is easy to see that players in the U.S. have an extreme advantage in terms of learning opportunities, and every season, the disparity grows.

Consequently, the players in Ghana rush. The game speeds up. They see openings late and force passes or miss the opening altogether and force bad shots. This rush stems from two primary reasons:

  1. Lack of confidence in technical skills.
  2. Experience.

The lack of confidence in skills like ball handling forces the ball handler to devote some of his attention to the ball or protecting the ball from a defender. When his attention is divided, he is prone to mistakes. If you watch television while engaging in a conversation, you are likely to miss something; maybe the other person asks a question, and you fail to notice or you miss the punchline of a joke on television.

The same thing happens on the court. If I am dribbling up court, and I must devote some attention to the ball because I lack confidence in my dribbling ability, my field of vision narrows. This is one reason young players tend to have tunnel vision: They do not have their full attention to devote to scanning the court. When my field of vision narrows, I miss open players or I fail to see defenders already moving in the direction of my intended pass. Consequently, the defender steals the pass or I see the open player at the last second and rush a pass in his direction.

An expert ball handler, on other hand, does not have to devote any attention to the ball. He is able to scan the court as he dribbles. Consequently, he sees the open player earlier and makes the pass on time; he sees the defender running into the passing lane and holds onto the ball or pass fakes to open a backdoor cut.

The second major deficiency is experience. Once cannot learn to play in different situations without playing in various situations. The game is the best teacher. The more that a player plays, the more he learns the correct play to make in various situations.

The exposure to game situations develops the players perceptual and cognitive skills. The player is more able to anticipate a teammate’s cut or recognize a pattern in transition to create an opening for a team. This learning does not happen in isolated drills, but the learning can be enhanced with expert feedback.

As I have worked with these players, I have tried to get them to understand the idea of the best decision. When I view the game, I do not expect perfection. I do not expect plays to work perfectly every time or at all. If we run a pick-and-roll, it would be nice for the defense to fall apart and allow us a wide open lane to the basket every time. However, it is unlikely. The defense is going to do something to try to take us out of what we want to do.

When I run the pick-and-roll, and there is not a wide open lane, I have to make a decision. If they switch, I could back out and attack the post defender; I could pass to the roller on my defender; I could pass behind my drive for another player to enter the ball to the screener posting on the block; I could reverse the ball to a teammate on the weak side who may be open because the help defense is pinching into the middle of the court. Any of these could be the right decision, depending on the defense and my teammates. However, in any given possession, one decision is probably the better decision. If their post defender is really slow, and I am good in penetration, driving against the post defender is probably the best option. However, if the post defender who switches out is agile and moves his feet well, there may be a better option.

The goal offensively is not to make the perfect play, but to make the better decision more times than not. Because there are multiple options that could be correct, my teammates have to adapt and adjust to my decision. Maybe the weak side wing thought he was open for a shot; if I drive rather than passing to him, he has to adjust and move into a passing lane in case my drive is stopped. As a team, we adjust and adapt to the defense; if they switch, we try to exploit the mismatch; if they trap, we re-organize our spacing to attack the trap.

Because U.S. players play more, they are more able to make these reads. At the camp, I moved a 12-year-old into the senior group; he was playing against 16-22 year-olds. He held his own because he lived in the U.S. until a couple weeks ago, and he played AAU basketball in Virginia. Despite being 12, he has as much experience in these situations as many of the older players, and he was able to make good decisions more often than not despite his lack of size and strength.

My challenge to the coaches was to play more games. Some may be surprised by my answer, but five games is not enough. In talking with the coaches, I have basically advocated a one-game per week average. If the season runs 30 weeks per year, play 30 games per season; if it runs 50 weeks per year, play 50 games. This allows for plenty of practice time during the week to complement the increased number of games. In the U.S., teens play 100+ games between their high school season (+/-30), club tournaments (20-50), and spring, summer, and fall leagues (10-30) with their high-school teams. They also have a deeper level of experience, so they can afford to play less and perfect their skills. Because players in the U.S. typically play multiple games per week, practice time is limited, and the limited practice time is devoted to game preparation. With one game per week, more practice time can be devoted to general skill development.

Ghana has some good coaches, interest in basketball, good outdoor courts, balls, and other advantages that some countries lack. However, they do not practice or play enough. From a developmental perspective, they need to start earlier (9-11) rather than later (15-16) and play more. The players need more learning opportunities in the game, and more practice to master their technical skills.

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