Why Did I Return to University for a Doctorate?

When people ask why I returned to school or what I hope to do with a doctorate, I do not have a real answer. I want to coach, and I do not need a doctorate to coach.

More than just coaching, I want to discover the best coaching and training methods. I know intuitively and practically that many truths in basketball and sports are not really truths, but traditions, ways in which we do things because they have been done that way forever. Most people do not question these traditions, so they become universal truths.

I question truths. However, I am just a guy. I received an email a couple weeks ago that helps to explain my return to school.

A semi-prominent basketball coach with 20+ years at the D1 level – we’ll call him Kevin – emailed about some of my writing on defense. He did not specify, but I imagine he was referring to this post. He wrote:

I just read your article on defensive footwork and was astounded about your theory of pushing off your back foot and that you cannot stay in front of someone without crossing your feet over.

To explain, I think most coaches teach their defenders to be slow. I do not believe in the “step-slide” method as I was taught as a youth. When I was young, I could not defend anyone. I was told that I was slow. When I got to college, and played pick-up games against D1, D2 and J.C. players, I got picked up because of my defense. Part of that was simply a willingness to try on defense when others wouldn’t and a willingness to guard the best players when others wanted to protect their egos. However, it was also because I watched quick defenders, saw that they moved in an entirely different way than I was taught and I went about breaking all my habits from youth basketball. Suddenly, I was no longer slow.

The difference that I saw was that quick defenders use a push-off motion rather than a step-and-pull motion and they often cross their feet. In an ideal world, a defender does not have to cross his feet. However, once the ball handler starts to go, the defender cannot stay in front of him with a step-slide. It is too slow. In every sport, whether tennis, football, soccer, etc., I saw players using a crossover step to move quickly. Why not in basketball?

Spend time with Coach K, Tubby or Rick Pinto and watch how not pushing off back foot and crossing is perfected that is drilled that it is part of their religion.

Kevin does not believe in physics, biomechanics or science; he believes in coaches. This is how traditions become truths. If Coach K wins a national championship, and he teaches it this way, it must be the way. Who am I to argue with Coach K?

Coach K is a great coach. However, coaching is a generalist profession; one does not have to be an expert in every area of the game, and often great coaches are not experts in any area of the game. Great coaches often hire experts in areas where they are deficient. In Winning!, Clive Woodard writes over and over about hiring experts in every area of the game. He went beyond the typical staff with an offensive and a defensive coach and found experts in line-outs, scrums, kicking, etc. Consequently, he won a World Championship.

Coach K appears to be an expert in team management, motivation, recruiting and other aspects of the coaching process. He is an expert coach, but this does not mean that his expertise extends to all areas, like movement. To base one’s entire philosophy on one person’s method with no regard for visual evidence, science, tests, etc. makes one a slave to tradition. I prefer to keep an open mind and question everything. I want the absolute best way to teach something. I want to find the truth, not follow tradition.

In a follow-up email, Kevin absolved the poor method of blame and instead blamed the players and coaches for lack of drilling:

Brian this is not accomplished by words but drilling staying low never getting up when containing. In today’s game that is not happening but the old time guys still prove it.

Sometimes, you cannot win. People, especially coaches, are beholden to tradition. As a non-NBA, non-D1, non-championship coach, who is going to listen to me instead of Coach K? Certainly not Kevin.

However, I know there are errors in the way that we teach young basketball players. For instance, last week, I wrote about the NBA agility test’s lack of transfer to actual game agility. I did not base my feelings on science or experience, but intuition and a small, non-scientific study based on my intuition.

Last night, while reading about agility in Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications by Marco Cardinale, I found the scientific rationale to support my intuition:

“Research has demonstrated the importance of agility, inclusive of reaction to a sport-related stimulus, and its distinctiveness from physical qualities such as sprint and CODS (change of direction speed) ability,” (Sheppard and Young, 2011).

Essentially, CODS is a closed skill which can be planned, while agility is an open skill. The NBA agility test is a closed-skill test, while in game agility is an open skill. Therefore, the tests do not measure the same qualities that determine success on the court.

Of course, all NBA teams use this pre-planned box agility test. Why should a coach not use the same test as the NBA? Better question, I think, is why the NBA uses the box agility test? With the budgets, equipment and science available to NBA teams, there are far better and far more precise tests and measurements. I imagine the box agility is used because it is easy and it is tradition. It is a small piece of the overall pre-draft evaluation, so why bother to change?

Change is hard. However, I embrace change. I do not want an easy-to-use test, especially if millions are riding on my decision. I want the absolute best test.

Those are essentially the two reasons why I returned to school:

1. I am unlikely to win an NCAA National Championship any time soon, so the other way to gain credibility in our society is with the extra three letters attached to the end of your name.

2. I am searching for the absolute best way to coach a team and train players. I know things practically and intuitively; I understood contextual interference before I knew its name or read Richard Schmidt or Joan Vickers. However, I also know there are gaps in my knowledge, and I want to close as many gaps as possible.

I could close the gaps to a degree by reading more without returning to a doctoral program. However, I not only want to close the gaps, I want to produce the answers. I wanted to learn to do real research, and not just book reports. I want to find ways to take what I know practically and intuitively and discover theories or do experiments to support my beliefs. Beyond a high-level coaching position, my dream job would to work at a place like the Australian Institute of Sport or a National Basketball Federation with an opportunity to blend research with the applied, the theoretical and the practical.

Do I need a PhD? No. The letters are incidental to me. I am far more interested in the knowledge. I want to challenge the traditions in the game and find the best way to teach, learn and train.

Edit 2012: Interestingly, agility is the topic of my dissertation. In the citation from Marco Cardinale’s book above, Young refers to Warren Young, a professor in Australia. He is on my doctoral committee. I am looking at agility from three perspectives: a motor-learning perspective involving reactive agility vs. pre-planned agility in basketball; a strength & conditioning perspective examining lateral agility’s relationship to other tests and leg-muscle qualities; and from a basketball perspective, examining the differences in lateral force and time to complete the task in a step-slide vs. push-step test.

I also recently applied for what I would deem my dream job: Director of Basketball at the IMG Academy. Despite my past work as an unofficial consultant to basketball trainers at IMG, I doubt that I will be considered. I have yet to hear from them. If anyone wants to pass along a name to contact, you know where to find me.

Once I complete my dissertation, I have a research project on the biomechanics of shooting that I will pursue. Stay tuned.

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