Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Practice Makes Pretty Good

I had an email from a coaching friend tonight who's an assistant in a really good program.  He's seen a lot of our practices in past years at ONU, and commented about how efficient they were.

Bob Knight once said, "There's absolutely nothing that has more to do with your success--or LACK of success--than the way you run your practices."  I totally agree, and believe this is true no matter what style you coach.  So, for what it's worth, I thought it might be helpful to share with you an excerpt fromt the email I sent my friend about some of the principles for conducting efficient System practices, most of which I stole from coaches who are a lot smarter than I am.  We started by talking about how to get the most out of a short, intense practice session:

You make a good point about the (short) length of our practices at ONU!  Two things account for this, I think.

First, transition time between drills has to be fast.  Training kids to RUN to spots and get the drill started is essential.  And once they get lined up, they don't need to stand around waiting for a coach to start the drill, either!  At NCC we have taught them that once we call out the name of the drill, they have all the info they need... just start the drill! Seniors get to the front of the line with a ball, and go!  

Along those same lines, having the ball rack located in the best place to make it easy to get basketballs (or put them away) for the next drill is also a small factor that gets overlooked. But think about it:  why waste time running to the other end of the gym to get balls for a drill?  Think it through.  Should the rack be in the center circle?  On the sideline? Behind the basket?  Have a manager or assistant responsible for taking care of this, and you avoid down time.  (Got this idea from Wooden, who was always looking for ways to streamline practice... and NOBODY ran a more efficient practice that John Wooden!) 

Second, nothing wastes more time than "over-explaining" a drill. Just give kids enough to know the general idea of how the drill works, then get them started. Teach the little things as they are working, and don't stop the drill for more than about 10 seconds to make a key teaching point. I once worked for a coach back in the 1980s who, during a 2 hour practice, was TALKING for 1:20!!! I'm not joking. She just loved the sound of her own voice, and the kids just stood around listening during that dead time. So, SHUT UP AND LET THEM GET TO WORK!  Kids learn by doing, not by talking. 

Also, your coaching points should not only be brief, but very, very specific. "Do THIS, not THAT!"   Do you know exactly what you want them to do?  This is partly a result of experience.  Wooden had hundreds of little teaching points, the result of having taught the fine points of his High Post Offense for over 40 years.  System coaches should also eventually have a repetoire of short, specific points to polish execution.  With a special emphasis on "short."

Two other related issues concern personnel and drill rotations. As you know, we decide BEFORE practice who will be in each unit, posting the plan so players know what color shirts to wear. No wasted time telling them what unit they are on, or what color shirt to put on.  Next, when we rotate in drills, it's (almost) always the same way: Offense to Defense, then OUT. That's a Bob Knight principle, and along with it goes the WAY you rotate: FAST!!! When we rotate, we want the next group waiting to come in, then running to their spots, not taking their sweet time. If they dawdle, I will get downright juvenile and start counting: "5 seconds to get started! 4...3...2...1! Okay, get on the baseline & let's run a sprint so we can remember how to rotate quickly."  As you know, I'm not renowned for my patience in this regard.  But nobody ever got better by sauntering to the next drill station!

HOW you teach makes a difference, too. Another Wooden-ism I stole from the master was to use a "Demonstration Sandwich" to correct players. When you observe a mistake in technique, 1) show them the correct method, 2) followed by a quick demo of the incorrect way to execute the skill (i.e. what they just did wrong), 3) followed once again by the correct way. In other words, show them: "Do it like this... NOT like that... like this!"

Bottom line: if you are sloppy with your practice plan, you'll be sloppy with your practice. The System is about tempo, so your practices ought to be about tempo, too.  If you aren't meticulously organized, and if you don't think through the practice drills, coaching points, and transitions ahead of time, it will bog down.

But if your practices are well run, you may not ever be perfect... but you'll definitely be a lot better than you would have been by being disorganized.  Practice doesn't make perfect, but it might make you pretty good.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Zone Attack

Zone Week has been going well. As I mentioned the other day, we are using a new zone attack which we believe has the following advantanges over approaches I've used in the past:
  • More movement to prevent zones from matching up on us
  • Better offensive rebounding as a result of this movement
  • Penetration options built into the continuity
  • Similarity to our M/M attack
  • Simple
The thing I like most about the zone attack is that it flows so well from the fast break.  As you know by now, we don't really have a half-court offense in the traditional sense, just Early Break (one pass downcourt and shoot), Middle Break (penetrate, then make one pass and shoot), or Late Break (our plan to keep players moving while maintaining floor spacing whenever we are not able to shoot off the first pass.) 

Our goal is to shoot within 10 seconds of gaining possession, therefore any offensive scheme at the end of the break must allow us to do that, and I think our zone attack fits the bill.

One other thing.  Like many coaches, I've had trouble in the past helping my team recognize when the opponent is switching defenses from man to zone and back again.  Normally this would not matter to us, since we often shoot off the first pass in transition (Early and Middle Break).  We've sometimes gone an entire half, not realizing until we viewed the video the next day, that the opponent was playing a zone, because we were getting a quick enough shot that we never noticed!

However, when the defense is set and is doing a good job of disguising what they are in, we sometimes get out of sync trying to identify matchup zone.  So, we have an easy way to do this in our new zone attack.  We simply tell instruct the PG, "After making your first pass and cutting through to the short corner, did anyone follow you?  If so, yell 'Man!' and we are in our Man offense.  If not, yell 'Zone!' and flow into the Zone attack."  Simple and efficient.

I've created a file of diagrams from my FastDraw program to show you how it works, unfortunately I have no idea how to insert it into this blog!  I've tried everything I know (which isn't much) and can't figure it out, so if you are interested, just email me at my office email, and as long as you aren't from the CCIW I'll be glad to send it to you!  (Note:  If you are from the CCIW, let me know and I'll give you the new and improved version ;-)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Michelle Roof: System Coach

It is always interesting to hear a coach's reaction to their first System game.  So I thought you would like to hear Michelle's insights regarding our first scrimmage last Friday.

She did a great job handling the team, taking input from the assistants, answering players' questions, and remaining (outwardly) calm.  Michelle has such a  professional demeanor on the bench,  but here's an insight into her what was going on on the inside as she shares what her thoughts  during the scrimmage.  Enjoy!
On Friday night we had our first team scrimmage against Doug’s old team, Olivet Nazarene. 
Coming into the game I was a little uneasy about a few of our concepts, primarily the back-side of our press and half-court trap. Let’s be honest … I was nervous after only two weeks of practice about pairing our girls up  against a team of scholarship athletes that has been running the system for 9 years.
Although I felt confident in our ability to attack and get shots on the offensive end, I was very worried about giving up easy lay-ups due to our lack of communication or experience running our trapping defense. This week was "Press Week" in practice, and we spent 4 whole days teaching them everything they needed to know about attacking, denying, trapping, anticipating, rotating … you get the picture. Plenty of time, right??
As the game began, I couldn’t believe the tenacity I saw in my team as they attacked and smothered ball-handlers in the full-court. I could see their confidence build with every trap and forced turnover, and the excitement in their eyes when they (and I) realized it actually worked!   As their confidence grew, so did their aggressiveness! We weren’t always trapping with the closest two people, rotating correctly, or even remembering to always have a safety, but the chaos and confusion we created for the offensive team was so much fun to see. 
On the offensive end we were a little hesitant. Players are not naturally inclined to catch and attack immediately in the half-court, and we passed the ball around a little too much instead of driving to the hoop and creating shots. We got a little better as the game progressed and created so many fast break opportunities with our pressure defense that we still ended up getting great shots … and scoring 94 points in our first game!
All in all, the pace of the game was so fast!  I was especially pleased with how effective we were at running the System after only 10 days of practice. To say that the game was fun is a total understatement … it was the MOST FUN I have had coaching a team in 11 years on the sidelines!! And the players had a BLAST playing! The energy and intensity they played with and the excitement in their faces at the end of the game was unlike anything I’ve seen.   Our players were so enthusiastic during the game--both on the court and on the bench--and although we didn’t win, they gave it their all and enjoyed every second of it. They can’t wait to get on the court and play again, and neither can I!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Zone Week

As you may recall, our first week was spent working entirely on installing the fast break against man to man defense.  We also added a few OB-Under plays against a man, and one OB-Sideline play, along with one quick-hitter.  Players learned how to run the break following a score by the opponent, following a rebound, and after a steal.  Finally, we emphasized from Day 1 the importance of offensive rebounding, and started ingraining our ORB routes (four to the boards, 3-point shooter rotates to the top for a "second chance three.")  Our emphasis during Fast Break Week was to learn the basics, and to begin developing the "warp speed" instincts and habits needed to play at System Pace.

Week Two was "Press Week" where we taught our full court pressure defense and trapping schemes after a score, after a missed shot, and in the front court vs. a spread-delay set.  Players also learned how to defend OB-Under and OB-Sideline sets.  We spent some time as well working on three skills that I consider the most essential to executing our defense effectively: 
  1. Trapping, at the front end of our press(taught via our 1 on 2 Trap Drill)
  2. Defending the Rim, at the back end of our press (taught via our 2 on 1 Drill), and
  3. Chasing from Behind and turning the ball, which is the middle portion of our press after an opponent escapes from a trap (taught via our Chase and Turn Drill)
Week Three, we are returning to fast break work, but now are doing so vs. zone defense.

One thing I've seen over the eight years we've run the System is that I'm not the only coach who has struggled to figure out a way to attack zones.  I mentioned to Michelle today that in our first year of System ball (2004-05) I can recall only one team that zoned us!  Maybe that was because our dribble-drive attack vs. M/M defense was in it's infancy and teams therefore felt they could stop us using their standard man defense. But I think it's more likely that opposing coaches believed that zone defense would not work vs. a team shooting 45 threes a game.

In System Year 2, we began to see two defensive adjustments.  First, there were more switching M/M defenses (we were using our "Pass and Screen Away" options much more in that early era, and switches were the only way to prevent easy open three-point looks off single and double-stagger downscreens.)  The second way coaches began trying to cover us was by playing lots more zone defense.  Maybe they had thought previously this would not work, but enough coaches began having success zoning us that the idea seemed to snowball.

So why did zones slow us down so much? First, we didn't rebound as well, because our zone attack back then was very stationary.  We spotted our players up in the zone gaps around the arc and relied on quick ball movement, and because we were standing rather than moving, we tended to not crash the boards as well.

Second, since we were standing still, it was easy for the zone to match up on us.  Third, whereas our man to man attack began to rely more and more on dribble penetration to break down the defense, forcing help to create open looks off the "drive & kick" action, our zone attack was pass-oriented.  We couldn't figure out how to integrate a driving attack into the zone offense!

Bottom line:  whenever anyone zoned us, we tended to underperform offensively due to our decreased player movement, decreased use of dribble penetration, and less effective offensive rebounding.  Not good!

This came to a head last season at ONU when several teams in the league began using matchup zones to defense us.  One game in February found us almost helpless against at quick, strong opponent who held us under 80 points.  In fact, we only had about 65 points late in the game before getting really hot and catching a few breaks to pull away at the end.  We knew then that we needed to address "The Zone Dilemma." 

And I think we have the answer.  But you'll have to tune in tomorrow for more details!

Friday, October 26, 2012

NCC 94-ONU 108

When was the last time you saw a team get beat by 14 and end the game clapping and cheering?

The North Central Cardinals initiated the System Era this evening and it was a blast!  I'm frankly stunned at how quickly we've picked up the basic concepts of our offense and defense.  In practice this week we'd looked very ragged at times, but playing an uptempo team like ONU we were forced into playing a speed beyond what we would have thought possible up to now.  Our effort was exceptional, our decision making was good, and our execution was good enough to get by.  But our enthusiasm was off the charts!

The scrimmage format was simple, but made sense given this meeting of two System team.  We played a regular 40 minute game, with NCC pressing the first ten minutes while ONU dropped back into a man-to-man defense.  The second ten minutes of the first half the teams reversed roles with ONU pressing NCC.  We repeated this routine in the second half.

I'd been worried this afternoon about our shift plans, because we had two players who were questionable.  It's actually easier to create a shift-chart when you know definitely that someone is out for the game.  But these two players were both borderline.  One of our point guards was going to be either "Go" or "No go," while one of our posts was going to be "Limited duty" or "No go," or "Go."  At 1 p.m. we still didn't know, waiting to see how they felt at game time. 

Therefore, I had created five distinct shift charts encompassing all the likely permutations, while taking a few other factors, besides our injuries, into consideration:
  • Consideration #1--It's hard for players in our structure to be ready to play two positions, which we had to consider in the various "No go" or "Limited action" scenarios, but I had to do that with two players in a few of the "No go" charts.   
  • Consideration #2--This being our first System experience, our G.A., Jackie, was serving as the Substitution Coach, and I knew we needed to create distinct shift charts for all possible scenarios, because we didn't want to put her in a situation where she had to decide, on the fly, how to alter the shift chart if we were forced to at the last minute.  Normally we'd let the Sub coach wing it if necessary, but this was not the time to overburden her with on the spot decisions.  Since we had time to preplan all options, that's what we did.
In our coaches meeting this afternoon, I gave Jackie all five charts, and explained how to fill them out to determine our "+/-" for each shift, the defense we were using for that shift (On or Off for this game were our only two choices), and what time each shift started.  But Jackie also had to learn to time each shift with a stop watch, to call the names of players going in on the next shift, to send them to the scorer's table (using 40 second shift lengths), and to notify Michelle any time a shift ran over 60 seconds.

As it turned out, the PG was 100%, and the other player was able to go "limited duty."  But having the charts pre-determined was well worth the effort.  It is so nice as a System coach to go through this process of shift-chart planning, because it allows you to relax during the game, knowing with some degree of assurance approximately how many minutes each player will be in the game, and how much of a rest interval each will have between shifts. 

I shudder to recall my pre-System days when one of the most stressful aspects of bench coaching for me was subbing players.  "Has Janet played enough tonight?  How long has Lauren been out there?  Does this combination work?"  A shift chart helps you think through all these things outside the heat of the game, and leaves it in the hands of an assistant.  Jackie was thrilled to be assigned an important role, and since the System advocates getting contributions from every player throughout the game, it's perfectly in keeping with that philosophy to have an assistant coach assume responsibility for managing our substitutions throughout the game!  Everyone has a job... everyone contributes to our success.

Michelle is sending me her thoughts about her first game coaching the System, which I'll post tomorrow or Sunday.  But I think I've got a pretty good inkling of what she's going to say, based on the text I got from her half and hour after our scrimmage ended tonight:

"That was sooo fun!!!!!!!!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

First Scrimmage!

After two weeks of practice we have our first home scrimmage on Friday at 5 p.m.

The downside is we are operating shorthanded with injuries and illness depleting our strength (temporarily) from 18 to 13.  Not that I needed to be reminded of the importance of depth in System basketball, but this situation is driving the message home again.  I'm glad we had enough players on the roster to weather this storm, but we will still have to make some adjustments to the shift chart on Friday in order to get through the scrimmage. 

One way to do this has been to have several players learn two positions.  For a team running the true Grinnell offense this isn't as big a problem.  Since Coach A's approach is to focus on roles rather than positions, he's better able to use different combinations.  When a player knows that his job offensively is simply to defer to the "preferred shooter," that makes things pretty clear, regardless of who happens to be in your unit on any given shift.  In the Grinnell offense, once coach makes it clear who those preferred shooters are, the various player combinations plug into that reality.  As long as an offensive unit has a handler and a shooter, any three other players can play screener roles.  Of course, defensive assignments must also be taken into account, which is why Coach A's players identify themselves by their defensive position, rather than their offensive role ("I'm an Interceptor").

One weakness of the path I've chosen to take with System basketball is my use of a more structured offensive set.  Like the Loyola Break, mine has definite jobs for each position.  For example, our 4 player is the low post, and that position requires a specific skill set.  We also have more structure in our OB plays on the side and underneath, so when a player changes positions, she must also know what to do in the OB plays, too.  Yesterday I mentioned we don't have many plays (quick hitters) or OB sets, but we have enough so that there is a learning curve there for the players who you might need to play in multiple positions.

Bottom line:  We will have a few players in roles tomorrow that they are not very familiar with, so at times we will look somewhat ragged. 

The good news is that we are scrimmaging an opponent who will--to say the least--be willing to run with us:  ONU!  We had an opponent cancel a scrimmage on us a few weeks ago, so we called Lauren up and asked if the Tigers would be willing to fill the date.  It will be good for us to start out against an experienced System team, and I'm sure we will learn a lot!

Which reminds me of another story...

A Horse walks into a bar. Bartender comes over and says, "So... why the long face?"

This story does not illustrate any particular point... I just like the joke.  :-)

Stay tuned!

Got Any Grapes?

In the last few days I've had conversations with a couple of coaches generally related to the topic, "How do you get players to ________ within the System?" 

Fill in the blank with your favorite concept or technique, "run the floor," "shoot the bunny hop," "execute the missed shot press," etc. 

As we've been installing our defensive system this week with the team, I've been very conscious of this very problem, asking myself every day, "How can we get players to 'fly to the ball' and get the traps quicker, so that our press will disrupt the opponent's attack?

Asking questions like this are essential to your progress.  Over the past eight years I've talked personally or had email conversations with literally hundreds of coaches.  This has been a wonderful learning experience for me as we've shared ideas, or they've asked probing questions about various aspects of the System.  Nothing forces you to think like having to answer a good question!

One general question that's always interested me--the Real Question which is behind all the questions these coaches are asking--is "What does it take to make the System work for my team?" What they are asking for to remedy these problems is some magic drill or coaching technique, and it does help to have good drills in your tool kit.  But it's a mistake to assume that drills are the answer. Drills don't teach, and drills don't motivate players.  You do.

So, if drills aren't the secret to  success, what is?  That's what we all really want to know, isn't it?  If I told coaches that the key to System success is to have players eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before every game, I'm sure there'd be some takers.  (94 FGA + 47 3FGA + 35% ORB + 32 TOs + 25 Shot Differential + 1 PB & J = Win?)

Regrettably, PB & J has no real connection with System success.  But what does? Let me illustrate with the following story, which reveals the value of asking the right question.

This Duck walks into a bar, says to the bartender, "Got any grapes?"  The bartender is puzzled for a moment, then says to the duck, "No, of course not Duck!  This is a bar... we don't serve grapes here."

Five minutes later, same Duck comes back in, flaps up onto a barstool, and says again, "Got any grapes?" Now the bartender is perturbed.  "Listen Duck," he says, "I told you once already, we don't serve grapes here!  Now get out of here, and if you come in again asking for grapes, I'm going to nail your fins to the floor!"

Half an hour goes by, then here comes the Duck again.  He hops onto the barstool, looks the bartender in the eye and says, "Got any nails?"

Bartender is really confused now.  "Uh, n-no, we don't have any nails."

"Oh, good!" says the Duck.  "Got any grapes?"

The key to System success, in my opinion, is reinforcing correct habits.  Like the Duck, players don't necessarily do what you say, they do what you REINFORCE!  And some players are frankly not going to pay any attention to vague "suggestions" or threats.  If you don't have any nails--if you do not do whatever you have to do to reinforce correct System habits--they won't execute the System.  You probably already know all the concepts and skills and attitudes it takes to play System basketball, but do you TEACH AND MOTIVATE those skills?

If you want to know how to get players to go hard to the offensive boards after a 3-point shot, let me tell you:  Make them go to the boards after a 3-point shot!  Don't wring your hands and complain to your staff, "These players just aren't going to the boards."  Instead, figure out a way to get them to do what they must do to successfully execute System principles.

Okay, how?

Behavioral psychologists say that in order to reinforce a skill, to make it an ingrained response, you must provide feedback that is specific, immediate, and meaningful.

First, you must familiarize yourself with specific System techniques, concepts, and coaching points... you must know your stuff! And you must provide a steady barrage of feedback so players know exactly what you want them to do.

Second, you must provide this feedback immediately after you see players making a mistake OR (better yet) after seeing players do something correctly ("Catch them doing something right!")  The more specific your are ("Good job Sally!" isn't nearly as powerful as "Wow, Sally!  Nice job of going to the boards and getting both feet into the paint, with your inside arm up!"), and the more immediate you are (tell Sally right now, not at the next film session!), then the better Sally will execute.

But the third aspect of reinforcement is that it must be meaningful.  And this is where it's important to know your players.  To some young women I have coached, a meaningful coaching point would be something like, "Hilary, I'm disappointed!  You know better than that!  Now please go hard to the boards next time.  Come on, you can do it." 

But to another player, it might have to be, "Angela, I've reminded you four times today to get your feet in the paint for the ORB, now step off the court!  In fact, just go upstairs to the jogging track and run 10 laps."  Now that would be pretty extreme, but you get the point.  Some players you can motivate with merely a disappointed glance (or a simple word of encouragement)... they are sensitive, and little things are meaningful to them!  Other players pay no attention whatsoever to "threats" or disappointed looks.  They've been threatened by experts their whole lives.  But they will respond to consequences (positive and negative) that mean something to them, and that are consistently reinforced. 

Two years ago, I suspended a player from practice for three days.  That's what it took to get through to her.  Twenty minutes after I notified her of this consequence, I had an email from her, saying, "You are right coach... I've not been giving my best effort, and my attitude hasn't been what it should be.  But I promise you I will never let it happen again!" 

All it takes to motivate a Duck is a meaningful consequence.  She has to know that, yes, you DO have some nails.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's the Situation?

Many years ago I ordered Bob Knight's first video.  I think it was called "Clinic I" and it was really good!  He explained many things in that video related to practice planning and teaching the game that made a lasting impact on me at the time (about 1984).

Anyway, one thing Coach Knight said in the video was, "We don't teach plays... we teach players HOW to play."  I never forgot that because it is at the heart of System basketball, which as you probably know is not real big on set plays and rigid structures.

And this is where it differs significantly from conventional basketball.  I went to a clinic several years ago in which a college coach was demonstrating his pick-and-roll offense.  He said at one point, "We have 80 specific plays that involve the pick and roll."

And he was serious!  80 plays??? Last year we had 3 plays, and when I found another play I wanted to run, I deleted one of the original 3 from the playbook.  Didn't think we could master 4 plays, I suppose.  Well, maybe we could have, but really, what's the point?  I disagree with Bob Knight about many things (after all, he is the Godfather of Ball-Control Basketball), but absolutely, 100% agree with him that our job is to teach players how to play!  But so many coaches confuse plays with playing.  To say nothing of the problem: how do you work on--and remember--80 plays?

So, the System doesn't rely much on plays, but rather on a basic structure, with options that flow from that structure, options which are chosen based on how players (particularly the PG) read the defense.  Same goes for System Defense.

What I'm getting at is this.  In the System you don't teach plays.  You don't even teach offenses or defenses in the conventional sense.  You teach situations.

What's a situation?  This term has traditionally referred to OB-under, OB-sideline, free throw, jump ball plays, and late game strategies.  In the System,  "Situation" can mean all those things, but more commonly refers to the following:

  1. Fast Break after a Score
  2. Fast Break after a Rebound
  3. Fast Break after a Steal
  4. Creating a quick shot after a Dead Ball ("referee handle").
  5. Creating a "second-chance three" after an offensive rebound
  1. Press after a Score
  2. Press after a Missed Shot
  3. Press after a Dead Ball (endline, sideline, underneath)
  4. Press when the opponent is trying to hold the ball on you
Your job, as a System coach, is to help your team master each of the above situations.  Why is a System situation so different from a conventional situation?  Because in the System, your team's success depends on their ability to instantly react and create an advantage when they transition from offense to defense, and vice-versa.  If they have to stop and think, you have no break.  You have no press.  Everything depends on pace and habit, so you've got to train them do the right thing in the right situation, at maximum speed, every time (run the floor, inbound the ball quickly, screen for the preferred shooter, trap the rebound on defense, etc, etc).  In conventional ball, by contrast, it usually doesn't make any difference whether you gained possession via a rebound or a score.  You aren't going to run anyway... you are going to call "Pick and Roll #74."

Well, today we introduced Defensive Situation #4:  Pressing and trapping an opponent running a spread/delay offense against us.  It is fun to see the players start to cut loose from the bonds of conventional defense before our very eyes, as we explain to them "There are no zones or individuals to cover.  You might be anywhere on the floor, relative to the ball.  You might need to rotate completely out of your original area, and as long as we are trapping the ball and denying the lag pass, it's all good!  There are no wrong answers here, with the exception of less-than-maximum effort."

The first day of "Defense Week" we worked on Situation #3 above, which is the easiest to execute because it starts with everyone standing still.  Yesterday we added Situation 2. 

See?  One brick at a time, and the wall goes up.  The concrete is still wet, so the wall isn't close to being solid.  Not yet.  Come back to situations regularly (especially offensive ones).  Eventually, the concrete hardens.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Keeping it Simple

Today we introduced our "Missed Shot Press."  As most of you know, it is essential in System basketball to transition instantly from offense to defense when losing possession, a concept I've labeled "zero transition time."  I use terms like "zero transition time" because they sound very impressive and complicated... something I learned from hanging around football coaches in my younger days.

The other reason for having a missed shot press is that it prevents opponents from slowing tempo.  They cannot catch their breath by walking the ball to half-court.  Instead, they are under pressure from the moment they secure the rebound, or (preferably) from the moment we score and get into our "made shot press."  This constant pressure not only wears down the opponent physically, but just as importantly, psychologically. Imagine how it feels to play 40 (or 32) minutes knowing that every time you touch the ball, two defenders are going to be running at you waving their arms and yelling "Your mother wears army boots!"  (or words to that effect).  Really wears you down, to say nothing of how your mother must feel.

We started our Teamwork Period by reviewing the "On" made-shot press today, before progressing to the missed-shot press.  ("On" means simply that we are matching up on all five opponents, with one of our defenders on the inbounder.  Our other basic press alignment is "Off").  We introduced "On" yesterday in a dead-ball situation, having a coach serve as referee and hand the ball to the inbounder, giving our defenders time to get into the proper stance and position on the potential receivers.  We teach this positioning first against a "2-up" (1-2-2) press break alignment, then show them the 3-up set.  We also teach players how to switch any screening or crossing action, and how to "cheat" the weakside defensive wing towards the inbounder so that when the ball is passed in, we are close enough to quickly rotate into the "Lag" passing lane (back to the inbounder). We ALWAYS take this pass away completely in order to force the opponent to attack downcourt (not backwards!)

We teach the missed shot press via a simple drill which we call (drum roll please... wait for it...) the "Missed Shot Press Drill."  Offensive players line up at the curl and fade spots, with a post on the block.  Defenders have the inside position as a coach with the ball behind the backboard passes out to any of the four perimeters.  They are instructed to catch and shoot, and the defense may not block or contest the shot.  On the shot, everyone except the shooter crashes the boards, while the shooter rotates to the top of the key to become the safety in the missed shot press should we fail to secure the offensive rebound.  Regardless of whether the offense makes or misses the shot, they will pretend the shot was missed and immediately trap the rebounder as soon as the defense gains possession.  Our simple rule is "Nearest two players TRAP, next two defenders GAP (cover the gaps between the ball and the nearby outlet receiver(s), while deepest player is the SAFETY (the three-point shooter in this case).  Two Trappers, Two Gappers, and a Safety.  Simple!

I asked our players today why they thought we liked to using these terms: Trapper and Gapper.  One answered, "Because it sounds cool, kind of like a football coach."  Good answer, but wrong.  We use these terms because they rhyme. :-)  More to the point, we use them because they are easy to remember.

But since we are on the topic of football coaches, did you hear the one about old Coach Smith, whose team was 0-9 going into the last game of the season?  Being 0-9 was definitely a problem, but he knew he could keep his job if only he could beat the big cross-town rival in the last game of the season.

Unfortunately, with a minute to play his team was down 10-7.  They had possession on the 50 yard line with no timeouts remaining, so Coach Smith sends in Play #17.  Loses 5 yards.  Then he sends in Play #9.  Loses 5 more yards.  Having no time to send in another brilliant play, the poor coach turns to the stands, ignoring the fans who are booing and cat-calling, locates his wife and yells, "Honey, go start the car so we can make a fast getaway!" 

But just then the crowd erupts in pandemonium, and as Coach Smith turns back to the field, he sees his running back crossing the goal line with the winning touchdown!  Running onto the field he grabs his quarterback and says, "Son, what happened?!!" 

"Well Coach, you called Play 17, and that didn't work. And you called Play 9 and that didn't work.  Then I saw you weren't sending in another play, and I decided I better do something.  So I just added up 17 + 9, and I called Play #25, and it worked!"

The old coach took the dim-witted quarterback by the arm and said, "That's all fine and well, son, but there's just one problem...  17 + 9 is 26, not 25!"

To which the quarterback replied, "Dang it if you ain't right, Coach Smith... but if I was as smart as you, we'd of got beat."

Keep it simple:  Two Trappers, Two Gappers, and a Safety.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


The second week of preseason practices are devoted to Team Defense, and despite my tongue-in-cheek comments a few days ago, we do enjoy putting in this phase of the game. 

Today we started by installing our press against a 2-up and 3-up press-breaker.  I like to use what I call the "5-count Drill," handing the ball to the inbounder and then counting down from five to one as defenders deny hard and try to create a violation.  We teach switches on all screens and crosses, and show players how to trap quickly and rotate into passing lanes, especially the "lag" pass back to the inbounder. 

Our other point of emphasis today was to chase hard and try to catch up and turn the ball when a dribbler escapes the initial trap.  I believe this is a critical skill in women's basketball, because if you can force a handler to just change directions, it often gives other defenders time to recover and re-trap the offense.  Men's teams will typically just spin or crossover such a tactic, attack the rim and score, but many female ball-handlers will either stop their push of the ball when forced to change direction, or even kill their dribble!  So, turn the ball!

A final point was the play of our safety.  Today one of our safties decided to gamble, rotate up and go for the steal on a long downcourt pass.  She didn't get it, and the opponent got a wide-open layup.  So...

I got really excited, stopping the practice to point out and lavishly praise her courage and aggressiveness.  I wanted that defender feeling 10 feet tall for taking a calculated risk, because safeties have a tough job, and when they gamble like that--and fail--they are exposed for all the world to see.  Nevertheless, they MUST take those risks, because if they don't, our press is constantly defending with 4 against 5!  We want safeties to gamble (intelligently, I hope) therefore we never criticize the attempt, whatever the result!

But, I did quietly instruct her weakside teammate to get the heck back to the rim next time and cover for her teammate. 

Which reminds me of General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Germans at Bastogne in WWII, during the Battle of the Bulge.  When the German forces demanded his surrender, McAuliffe replied, "Nuts!"  When told of McAuliffe's reply, General George Patton said to an aide, "We've got to get up there fast with reinforcements... a man that eloquent deserves to be rescued!"

Your safeties are your "General McAuliffes," but everybody else had better be your "General Pattons!"

Here's today's defensive practice plan.

Practice #6, Sunday                                                                                       Gregory Arena           
October 16, 2012                                                                                                                   

EMPHASIS:      55 Press after a Score
12:05-12:20  WARMUP
                        Cone Layups-Laybacks-Jumpers
                        Dynamic Warmup

12:20-12:35     SHOOTING
5x10 Threes, Moving(5 standing/5 moving*            / Posts- Position work

12:35-12:45   TRANSITION
                        FC Figure 8/ 2 on 1
                        HC 3/2                                       Penetrate lane; Beat front defender

12:45-1:00       GROUPS
2/1 HC                                     Sprint to lane; Bluff & retreat; STAY SQUARE! Contest shot
1/2 Trap
                         Water Break

1:00-1:30       TEAM DEFENSE
                        55 Press-Dead Ball                             Walk through vs. 2-up, 3-up, & Help
                        55 vs. 2-up:  5 count Drill                  Down and Back; Rotate

1:30-1:45       SITUATIONS
                        OB-Under Defense                             Walk through vs. OB3 (Box)
                        Cardinal Break                                     One shot at far end, score on return

1:45-1:50        OMPETIVE SHOOTING        
                        Three in a Row Threes!            3 Groups, 5 spots; Shoot 3 & rotate, 1 pt/make; +2 Bonus


Saturday, October 20, 2012

First Impressions

(Quick Recap for those just joining the Blog:  Before reading today's post, take a look at the following cartoon video clip for a quick and fun review of System principles!  Glad to have you aboard!  DCP)

In the film classic The Verdict, Paul Newman plays an idealistic but discouraged attorney who is representing a family in a heartwrenching medical malpractice  case.  All the corrupt, intimidating forces of the legal system are arrayed against Newman's clients, and all hope of a just verdict seem lost when he stands before the jury to deliver his closing arguments, asking them to ignore the judge's instructions to disregard a key piece of evidence.

"Today," he reminds the jury, "you are the Law.  Not some book, not some statue.  You are the Law."  Then he he quietly pleads with them for something very simple, but very difficult:  to have the courage to do what they know, in their hearts, is the right thing.   "In my religion," he says, "I am told 'Act as if ye have faith, and faith will be given to you.'  We must ACT with faith in our hearts, for if we don't, we are just... lost."  And he sits down.

We have now concluded our first week of practice and are very pleased with our progress.  This progress was only possible, though, because our head coach, Michelle Roof, had the courage to do what most coaches would never do:  take action to try something new and different, because she had faith that it would benefit her team.  So I asked Michelle to be a guest blogger today and give us her first impressions after a week with the System.  I think you'll like what she has to say!

On October 15th, the BEST day of the year,  we sat in our pre-practice meeting to go over the practice plan for the day.  It was my first official day of “System” basketball and I couldn’t have been more excited.  In the preceding month, we had already met with our players and countless recruits, describing to them our new System and its benefits, including the  energy, excitement,  and team comaraderie it provides.  Our players were nervous, but also excited to dip into the new future of Cardinal women’s hoops!  I was ecstatic, having fallen in love with the System when I was a women’s assistant coach at Grinnell back in 2001.  But only now, in 2012 after years of soul-searching, had I finally found the guts, or the “craziness”, as Doug and Coach A call it, to make the jump. J
In that first practice planning session my initial thought was, “Coach Porter, our time slot is 6:00-8:45...  You left out about 45 minutes of practice!”  When he told me that was all the time we needed on the first day … or every day for that matter … I still asked to add more drills to the mix.  “Coach, what about this?  What about that?  How are we going to get better at the little things, the fundamental aspects that make us sharp?  If we have the time and the players are already expecting to go until 8:45, why don’t we take advantage of the time we have?  We should take advantage of EVERY opportunity to get better, shouldn’t we?”   I admit that, despite Doug’s explanation that we would get more done in an hour and a half than any other team in the county, I was a bit skeptical … but, of course, still excited!
“So, how about conditioning?  There is no running on the practice plan.”  When he explained that practice was all the running we would need, I was again somewhat doubtful.  All I could think about was the high intensity training they did with our strength coach in pre-season, and my fears that they would lose their conditioning level if we didn’t push them to their maximum capacity with sprints after practice.  I heard a lot of “Trust me” ‘s from Coach Porter on that first day, so I did.  And so practice began …
After five practices, I now understand Doug’s points about practice time and conditioning.  Practice is so up-tempo and intense, requiring the players go “all-out” every second of every drill.  I was really surprised at how physically demanding an hour and a half of practice can be, even for our most in-shape and physically gifted athletes.  As the end of the hour and a half approaches, I could see them start to hit a wall.  It became obvious to me that if we extend practice any longer, we couldn't expect them to continue to give maximum effort.  Due to the demands of every drill, and limited transition time between drills, they are tired after 90 minutes.  If we added any more practice time they would no doubt begin to coast … the worst five letter word of all! 
I have also been extremely pleased with the continuous effort and focus of our players.  They always start the year with so much intensity, but this year I can tell they are really enjoying themselves. Who wouldn’t???  We haven’t done any boring, yet physically exhausting defensive-slide drills.  No shell drill.  It has been all offense, all scoring, all transition all the time!  Who wouldn’t love that???
Lastly, I love the freedom my players are enjoying as they put all of the offensive concepts together.  They are truly “playing ball.”  We’ve already seen some pretty nice passing and decision making, and they are making impressive reads and playing on instinct.  It is so refreshing when there are no wrong answers.  It is amazing to see the skills they have when you take away the limitations of a structured, ball-control, patterned offense.  These kids are already starting to get confident and show some creativity.  And they love it!
Don’t get me wrong, it's not all fun and games:  our demands are high, and we are committed to developing the high level of conditioning it takes to play at top speed.  But it is going to pay off big-time.  There are lots of smiles and a great amount of energy in practice, and players are already getting better.  In System basketball, players are asked and required to play at a higher level, and even after just one week we are seeing many of them expand the limits of their game.  Doug has told me all along, and it is one of my main reasons for going to the system, "Players will absolutely reach their full potential as athletes and as skilled basketball players."  I have already seen it happen, players making plays I didn’t give them the freedom to make last year.  They love it and I do too.  Our confidence level seems to grow every day, and they--along with our coaching staff--continue to enjoy the process.   There's no doubt:  after just one week I am hooked!!!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Defense? What's that?

Well, we are nearing the end of our first week of practice, and the clock says "Offensive work- 8 hours, Defensive work- Zero."  It's been a great week!

I know it's pretty common among basketball coaches to introduce the offense and defense simultaneously, and divide daily practice time between these two phases of the game.

We don't do that.  I'm not sure exactly where I got the idea to work on offense and defense on different days, but like 90% of my System philosophy, that approach probably came from Coach Arseneault.  Why do it this way?  Well first of all, because System offense takes much more time to perfect, for the simple reason (as John Wooden pointed out) that you have to coordinate player movement with the basketball, whereas on defense you don't have to worry about timing, handling the ball, etc.

Second, offense is clearly the major emphasis in a System that averages 100+ points per game. And since it takes more time to develop those offensive skills, that leaves relatively less time for defense.  Therefore, if we must make a choice about what to work on (given that we have such short, intense practices), we choose offense. 

Now, I know there's a strong bias among basketball coaches--even bordering on fanaticism--towards the defensive end.  But let's get real.  Nobody really LIKES to play conventional defense! So if you claim to just love coaching defense, please recollect that pivotal moment, early in your coaching career, when some clinic speaker first confused you by telling you, "Defense is more important than offense!"  And you actually believed them.  Up till then you were a normal person who understood that liking to play (or coach) defense is a little weird.  "Zig-Zag Drill?  Yes!  I love it!"  See what I mean?

Of course, I'm being  a little facetious here to make a point:  it's okay to like coaching offense more than defense.  So get back in touch with your inner child and remember that being a great defensive player is not something you ever dreamed about as you were shooting around in your driveway.  You never did a defensive count down:  "3 seconds left on the clock... 2... 1... OH! TIMMY STEPS IN AND DRAWS THE CHARGE AT THE BUZZER TO WIN THE GAME!"  No, it was:  "3-2-1 Timmy hits the winning shot!"  Right?  Of course.

So am I saying that I don't think defense is important?  Well sure it is.  It gives you something to do while you are waiting to get the ball back from the other team.  Oops!  There I go again. 

Seriously, defense matters to me, but not in the way you think.  For a System coach, defense is about steals and tempo.  Or to put it another way, it's about making something happen, not preventing something from happening (which is what conventional defense is all about.)  See the difference?

Anyway, what this means is that System defense isn't something we worry about (or practice) every day.  In fact, once the playing season begins, we work on defense only one day a week. Spending more time than that on defense is actually going to be counterproductive, because a) you'll wear out your kids' legs if you press every day in practice (and System defense IS the press), and b) it's not that complicated. 

By way of illustration, just imagine how you would play defense in the following scenario:  "You're down 8 with one minute to play."  Now, play defense like that all the time.  In other words: trap constantly, everywhere on the court, gamble, anticipate, and work really hard.   Sure there's more to it than that... but not much more.

In the preseason, we spend the first week entirely on offense, and the second week entirely on our press (after made and missed shots, front and backcourt traps, and defending sideline and OB-under situations.)   After the preseason, once games begin, we work on defense once a week to polish some of the basic skills and concepts.  Oh... and (I lied) we also "work" on defense the day before a game when we walk through our opponent's press breaker alignment and their OB formations, just so we know where to stand at the start of each defensive possession.

And I just remembered one other reason we only work on defense one day a week:  It's more fun to work on offense.  There, I said it.  So, go out there and coach offense, guilt free. 

And just for the record: we averaged 36 defensive turnovers a game last year.

Practice Structure

Starting from scratch at North Central has forced me to rethink how we structure our practices. 

First, it does take a little longer than I prefer, initially, to teach drills and system concepts, so our practices are going a little longer right now:  about 1:45 to 1:50, vs. 1:35 which is typical this time of year with a veteran system team.  Coach A prefers 1:15, but as I said yesterday we feel there are some fundamentals that we need to work on each day so we are taking a little more time.

Another thing we like to do is break practice into "periods."  I don't like reinventing the wheel every day, but do want to provide variety in our plan.  As a compromise, we have several practice periods in the same daily sequence, and we change the drills day to day to keep things interesting and to make sure we are working on all aspects of our style.  Our periods at NCC are
  • Warmup Period:  A layup drill, followed by dynamic warmups.  Some system coaches do full-court passing or dribbling drills here to loosen up
  • Shooting Period:  Next we shoot 100 threes, using a variety of drills. After they finish shooting we chart the number they made, and plug that into a spreadsheet after practice which calculates our team percentage for that day, and each individual's percentage for the season in this drill.  In the beginning of the season, we preceed this shooting with a brief review of shooting technique.
  • Transition Period:  Here we run drills such at Full Court Figure 8 (3 man weave) down and back, or a half-court 3-line pass & layup drill ("Carloina Break"), or the 6-line shooting drill which we have adapted for our offense.  Next we do a 2 on 1, or 3 on 2, or 3 on 3 drill to help polish our execution and reads in transition. 3 on 2 and 3 on 3 also help us master offensive rebound rules. We finish this with one of our three 1 on 1 drills, which I'll talk about in a later blog post.  We love 1 on 1 for developing system "finishing" skills.
  • Group Period:  This is our breakdown period where we work on the parts of our system
  • Team Period: Next is teamwork, 5/0 (my abbreviation for "five on five") or 5/5.  This is the main period of practice and usually runs 30-40 minutes, less as the season unfolds.  We start with full-court live-ball work (teaching transition after a rebound, steal, or score) and  finish this period with OB sideline, OB under, FT and other situations.
  • Competitive Shooting: We finish with some sort of fun and competitive shooting drill.  We will compete vs. ourselves (trying to beat our personal bests), vs. another group or groups, or we will try to beat our team record in some sort of team shooting drill.  We often shoot free throws during this period, too.  The point is to leave the floor happy!
Two last comments about practice structure.  First, I like doing new drills for two days in a row at the beginning of the season. Example: If we are introducing Carolina Break on Wednesday, I'll try to live with the sloppy execution that day, then do the same drill again on Thursday. The drill will be much improved the second day, AND the players will remember it much better when you repeat the drill later in the season. 

Lastly, never forget that LESS IS MORE!  We never practice over 1:50, prefer 1:35 or less, and reduce time as the season unfolds.  I know some system teams that make a habit of not practicing at all the day after a game.  You might think this would hinder your team's development... it won't, unless you have in too much "stuff" to work on (OBs, Quick hitters, multiple presses, etc).  That's another reason to keep it simple!  This is about effort and intensity and pace, not wowing the basketball world with a variety of Xs and Os.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Hard Part

The hard part of introducing the System to your team for the first time is always going to be the first few weeks of practice.

I've been exhausted after each of our first two workouts, and any teacher understands what I mean.  When you are in front of a group for an extended period of time, and actively teaching a new concept or skill, you find yourself drained at the end of the lesson/school day.  (Frankly, I don't know how you high school coaches do it, teaching all day and then having any energy left for basketball practice!)

Now, technically the System ought to be "easy" to teach compared to conventional basketball, because it's fun and relies more on effort and a clear, simple structure rather than on lots of drillwork and precise execution.  I've used the analogy in the past that ball-control basketball is like a chess match, where every move takes time and--after half an hour of intense concentration--you capture a pawn.  But System basketball is like taking a sledge hammer and smashing the chess board to bits.   Not real complicated, but very aggressive, very effective, and very demoralizing to one's opponent.  (The downside comes when you call up that chess opponent to reschedule a match for next year... not a lot of takers!)

So, given how fun and simple it is to take the sledge hammer approach to basketball, practices shouldn't be that emotionally draining, right?  Yet they are for me this year, and I think there are two reasons for this.  First, I teach too many breakdown drills initially.  I've seen other System coaches who adhere to Coach A's approach of just warming up, shooting 100 threes, and then jumping into "6 Line Shooting" (a drill that teaches players how to execute System end-of-break options using three lines on each end of the floor: handler, screener, and shooter).  Next comes 5/0 and 5/5 situations, followed by a shooting contest at the end, then it's Miller time.  On and off in one hour and fifteen minutes!

I'm not sure if my tendency to drill more has to do with a) my situation coaching female players (my gut and 35 years of experience says they benefit from more skill-work), or b) my need to micromanage practices, and my use of breakdown drills to express that compulsion.  I honestly think it's "a)" but am willing to seek counseling if I'm wrong about this.

The second reason practices are wearing me out this year (poor me...think about how tired the players must be!) is that every single drill is brand new to the players.  After the first few System years at ONU I just called out, "Carolina Break drill!" and the players knew what to do.  We required freshmen to get in the back of the line and watch, and seniors to be in the front because they knew our expectations.  Players coached each other, and that makes a LOT of difference.  But when introducing a brand new system, with new concepts, attitudes, tempo, and drills, it all has to come from you, at least initially.  The System is not designed to be "coach centered. " But at least for awhile--when introducing it in the beginning--it has to be.

But it is worth the effort to do it right, and to set the bar high from the very beginning.  After the first few weeks, you'll have introduced the offense and the press.  From there on out, just polish and try to get a little better every day.

Then, watch and wait for "the light bulb to go on."  That's when the Run and Gun System starts to run itself.  Then you'll know that the Hard Part is over.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

First Practice

Our first workout is in the can, and here are some initial impressions.

  1. First, this was a blast.  I told a coaching friend at lunch today how glad I am that I decided to do this.  Starting over with a new team is a challenge and very exciting.  In only two days I can already see them improving before my eyes.
  2. The players seem to be in slow-motion right now.  Now, don't get me wrong... they are trying very hard!  But they are not yet "hardwired."  They have a lifetime of tempo-habits to overcome, and are used to playing for much longer stretches, which means they are used to pacing themselves for that interval.  We are all about short bouts, which allow (and require) maximum effort. It's the difference between "striding" and really sprinting.  And the biggest thing I notice when I watch another coach's first-year system team is that they (and possible the coach, too) don't yet understand how fast the tempo really needs to be.  How do you evaluate tempo?  Ask yourself constantly:  Are they really sprinting, or are they just striding (or even jogging?)  Players claim to prefer running to playing a ball-control style, but most of them start to coast when confronted with how hard it really is to sprint every time!  So keep pushing them, and KEEP BOUTS SHORT!  We never go more than one "cycle" (one down-and-back)at a time before stopping and resetting and/or rotating groups in and out in practice, otherwise they will start to pace themselves, which is the death of system tempo.
  3. It looks really raw right now, and I guess I didn't realize how complex the offensive movement can seem to a beginning system player.  But I also know that "Rome wasn't built in a day," and I'm totally confident they will get better every day as they learn to just react and stop thinking so much.  Right now their heads are spinning, but we will stick with the breakdown drills and 5/0 and 5/5 drills until they assimilate the stuff.  Then, one day, they'll be able to quit thinking and just react!
Here is a copy of our first workout for those who are interested.  Sorry if the abbreviations might seem confusing at first, but if you have our book or DVDs you can probably put together what we are doing.

Practice #1, Monday                                                                                                
October 15, 2012                                                                                                                   

EMPHASIS:      Fast Break after a Rebound; Early & Middle Break; ORB rules, Swing Entry
                        Cardinal’s Nest (Team talk)

6:00-6:15         WARMUP
                        Elbow Layups, Laybacks                     Sweep below knees, 3-step layup, protect ball
                        Dynamic Warmup

6:15-6:35       SHOOTING
                        Partner Passing; Hop 3s
                        5x20 Threes*                                      6 groups of 3; Start at right Fade

6:35-7:00       TRANSITION
                        FC Figure 8
                        TC Options                                          ORB rules; Early Break: 1-4; 1-2; 1-3Middle Break:  
                                                                                      Rim-Post-Pitch-Drag-Trail- Dribble Out      

7:00-7:10       GROUPS
                        4-Spot Downscreen                            Intro, then work at both ends
                        HC 5/0  Swing Entry & Continuity
                        Water Break

7:10-7:45         TEAM OFFENSE
                        5/0 Break (½ Cycle)                            After RB by 5; by wing; into Early-MiddleBreak
                        5/2/2 Break                                        Three groups; No Inbounds; Shoot off FIRST PASS!
                        5/5 Blockout                                       1 Cycle, 3 groups; Explain Inbounds
7:45-                COMPETIVE SHOOTING