Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Smarter Than a Lab Rat

So far this season, we are shooting two fewer free throws per game than our opponents. But if we take out the first two games where we surprised the other teams with our System approach, we are shooting 13 fewer free throws per game!  In eight seasons at ONU our teams averaged shooting five more free throws per game than our opponents, due partly to our aggressive driving game, and partly due to our emphasis on "playing clean."

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, excessive fouling can be a problem, and we are not alone at NCC among System teams struggling with this in the early season.  Coincidentally it's been a subject of discussion on the runandgun chat group as well.  How do you coach a team to not foul as often?  What approach works best to correct this problem?  I could talk about drills you could do to improve in this area, but it all starts with two simple points of emphasis: Awareness and Balance.

The first step to improving awareness, and with it a commitment to reducing your team fouls, is to define those situations in which you are most often caught fouling unnecessarily.  You might respond, "All fouls are unnecessary!"  But this ain't necessarily so.  And maintaining balance is difficult due to the fact that in System basketball you are playing very aggressively, sometime at a pace beyond your players' abilities to control themselves.  John Wooden said that poor balance was the cause of most poor execution, and felt it should be taught like any other fundamental skill, and I think we can infer that fouling too is the result of poor balance.  (Try reaching in for a steal while maintaining perfect balance... not as easy as it sounds!)

How do you teach balance?  Emphasize keeping the head directly over the base (feet), not leaning forward or sideways.  Do "reaction drills" where players must change directions instantly, moving left, right, forward, and back at full speed. 

The alternative is to tell them to slow down and get under control, but you don't want to tell them that, do you? Okay then, while playing fast, does you team know how to pick it's spots?  I think an accidental foul while rotating for a steal is something we can live with.  We are being aggressive, may get a steal, and are forcing tempo. 

But we want our players very clear (aware) that two situations where we definitely do not want to foul are in a trap (bodying up or reaching), or in the lane (leaving our feet to block a shot).  Bob Belf in a recent chat group post adds "hipping the breakaway dribbler" or reaching in while running beside the dribbler.  Pretty dumb. 

Another aspect of awareness is helping players understand why fouling is such a no-no for System teams.  First and foremost, it stops the clock and the opponent gets to rest.  Second, it prevents us from maintaining a rhythm, breaking back after a rebound or even after a score.  Third, you get into foul trouble.  Fourth, they get a free throw.  Again, pretty dumb.  But do they players really understand this?  Help them see the importance of (to put it more positively), "Playing Clean!"

One last point.  I heard once that it's impossible to sneeze and keep your eyes open at the same time.  Something about how our nervous system is wired.  And in your playing days, did you ever notice that whenever you reached in for a steal your feet stopped moving? Try it sometime, and make your players aware of that simple fact.  Why do they do it, then?  Simple behavioral reinforcement... they got away with it once or twice, and occasionally are rewarded with a steal...like the lab rat getting a sugar pellet once every 10 times it presses the lever. 

But the rat eventually fouled out.

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