Monday, March 24, 2008

Deciding, Planning, Scripting

Every Coach Development workshop I go to focuses on the criticality of developing decision makers - players who can look at what's in front of them, collate and assess all sorts of relevant information, select a course of action, and implement that course of action.

How well are we doing it?

One of the things that's becoming clearer to me, as I examine my own coaching sessions, as I watch other's sessions, and as I talk with players, is that we need to distinguish between planning and deciding.

Very few coaches, when asked, will tell you that they want to play a heavily scripted game. There are a few of us who still hold fast to the 900,000 page play book, but those of us who do stand fiercely by the theory that a "play" is a starting point, it's the follow up actions that constitute the decision.

I'm thinking about that ....

Now I'm not saying we should throw away the play book - every team ought to document their communication system, their game plan, their philosophy of the game.

So today's coaching question is: Are your practices encouraging decision making and creativity, or do your practices encourage planning; an if-then method of choosing from a list of scripted, acceptable choices?

According to all the coaching theory, the process of true decision making takes four steps:

  • Recognition: you've got to not only see whats in front of you, but recognize it in a way that is useful. For example, maybe I recognize that my opposite is bearing down hard on me in defense. If I don't, however, recognize that she is leaving her partner behind, and therefore creating a gap in the defense, then I'm not truly recognizing the situation, I'm only seeing it.

  • Assessment: once you've recognized the problem in front of you, you've got to take in all sorts of relevant information, and mentally assess various solutions.

    In the scenario above, that might mean that i need to know if I have vertical support, and if a short pass to a penetrating runner is a possible option; I need to know if I have wide support - maybe moving the ball out early and far is an option; I need to know if the player outside me is running an angle towards me, if she is, perhaps attacking the gap in the defense is an option; I need to know what the opposing teams back triangle is up to - perhaps a kick is a way to mitigate the pressure. Once I've assessed these various options I need to make a ...

  • Decision: The player needs to pick one of the options.

    Good decision makers make decisions that put a player across the gain line or get the team out of trouble. Great decision makers make decisions that put a player in the try zone, and turn poor situations to their team's advantage.

  • Execution: All the brilliance in the world is for naught if we can't actually run, pass, or kick the ball where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. When the golden opportunity comes around, we need to deliver.

So, in order to teach decision making, we need to first teach players how to recognize and assess various situations. This is where the difference between teaching "planning" and teaching "decision making" comes in.

Let's start with the standard "around the cones 2 v 1". Your instructions as a coach are something like this:

"If the defense sticks to you, pass. If the defense slides, keep the ball." Pretty normal stuff, right?

Clearly, the player needs to recognize what the defense is doing and act accordingly. But is he/she making a decision? Or simply acting out a pre-planned course of action? How about the support player? In this scenario, we're killing the "assessment" part of the four step cycle.

Let's tweak the standard "around the cones 2 v 1". This time, a third player tosses the ball into the grid, for either attacking player to catch, pick up off the ground, whatever. The defender can enter the grid the moment either attacking player touches the ball. Suddenly everything is different - and maybe a little chaotic. Suddenly, all three players have to pay attention to whats going on .... all three players need to recognize, assess, decide, and execute.

Many coaches are strong proponents of the decision tree. It goes something like this:

If x, then a or b
If a, then 2
If b, then 3
etc, etc, etc.

For example:
  • If the defense commits to you, and you have time to pass the ball out, pass the ball out.
  • If the defense commits to you and you have no time to pass out, look to pass through contact .
  • If you cannot pass through contact, keep your feet moving till help arrives.
  • If you cannot keep your feet, look to place the ball towards your team in the tackle.

These trees can get pretty detailed, and can be expanded to encompass small units, large units, and full teams. Sometimes the options are mapped to field locations and grids. For many coaches and many programs, this approach work just fine.

I see a use for these types of trees, but I think they restrict us, even when there are a myriad of options specified. My primary issue: they only address what is in the COACH's head ... creativity, on the field, comes out of the player's heads - and from the intereactions between players. Like so many scientific discoveries, it happens when two or more events collide in space and time to present an opportunity not previously imagined, and it required a willingness on the part of all players involved to venture into this unknown territory, and "try something different". A dash of "what the #$@*" mixed with a little serendipity.

No matter how detailed our script is, no matter how many options and scenarios we can imagine, we can never BE in the heads of the players on the field, we can never see what they see, and we can never fully understand why they chose what they did. No one every makes a bad decision on purpose; rather, for whatever reason, during the recognition and assessment phase of the process, they saw or assessed (or didn't) something different than what we saw and assessed on the sidelines.

A question to ponder:

Team A: You spend the bulk of practice learning to recognize the field situations, learning to assess options, and learning to make decisions, but your team struggles with execution. Your team is smart as hell, but the mantra on game day always seems to be "right idea, just unfortunate" The last pass, the last tackle, the last kick always fall short.

Team B: You spend the bulk of practice working on execution: pass, kick, catch, tackle, run - that sort of things. You look sharp, but on game day you never really find the gaps, you never really exploit the defense's mistakes. You always look good, but on game day your mantra always seems to be "we're so much better than them, why are we losing?".

So now we take a few sessions with Team A, and work on their execution skills.
We take a few sessions with Team B, and work on their decision making skills.

Which team is going to show the biggest measurable difference? What takes the longest to develop?

I pick A.

It's requires a leap of faith to be sure, and requires a belief that even the most ordinary of players can have moments of extraordinary creativity and vision. I don't know about the rest of you, but on game day, I like surprises.