Mike MacKay talks about the importance of providing a deep understanding to younger players.



I have been in Vancouver on numerous occasions but normally rely on public transportation or friends to drive me to and from my destination. Sitting in the passenger’s seat you develop false confidence about your knowledge of the city.

You don’t make any decisions on the route being taken, you just enjoy the ride.  On a recent trip, I decided to rent a car. Being male, I felt I could rely on my innate sense of direction, developed when my ancestors were hunter-gathers, to guide me to my destination. Needless to say, sitting in the passenger’s seat on all of those previous trips, did not help my deep understanding of Vancouver streets, where I was now forced to seat in the driver’s seat. I was required to make decisions that I wasn’t prepared to make. It wasn’t until I reached the border to the USA that I realized I needed to stop and ask for direction, acknowledging that I was lost.

David Perkins in his book Making Learning Whole; describes understanding as either shallow or deep. When we do not engage students in their learning experience it is like being the passenger and their understanding will be very shallow. It is concerned with getting the facts and skills straight and looking good. By putting the students in the driver’s seat they develop a deep understanding by being involved in planning, making decisions. This leads to more intrinsic motivation.

As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, shallow understanding this is often done when the coach skips stages of skill development. The lack of a good introduction, that explains the why and the lack of using guided defence, to consolidate the decision making, are the two biggest short cuts coaches seem to take.

After watching a number of NCAA games I also tend to believe that the rules you play can have a vast difference on the level of deep understanding required by the players. With the number of timeouts that the coach can call, anytime the team has possession of the ball or the ball is dead, the NCAA coach is almost always able to tell players what to do. In FIBA, with fewer timeouts, the shorter length of the timeouts and the inability to call timeouts to stop play, the FIBA coach is not guaranteed that he/she can tell the players what to do in time and score situations at the end of the game.

I have watched coaches practice these situations at the end of practice. The coach usually does all of the talking. Telling the players what to do. The situation is played out. The players are told what they did right or wrong and the team move on to the next situation. This is like being in the passenger’s seat. No deep understanding is being developed. Players can treat each situation as a separate entity because the coach is in the driver seat and the player just has to enjoy the ride.

Author David Perkins in his book calls it the heart-and-mind theory. A student writes a test and on the paper, the teacher writes a comment; “Next time be sure to …”. The teacher is making a big assumption that the student will take the mistakes to heart and keep it in mind next time. The chances of the student review his/her work and truly reflecting on the mistakes are slim and nil. As coaches, we do this all the time when we do not do a proper debrief with the players. When you just tell you to assume that what you told has been learned. Not only that you assume that they can apply it.

For example, when doing a time and score scenario the coaches tell the players to foul as soon as the ball comes in as the clock is now the opponent. When the ball is inbounded by the opponent, Billy, who is guarding the player who receives the pass, is hesitant and does not foul. The clock runs out and the scenario is complete. The coach brings the players in and tells Billy; “Next time foul right away. (Take this to heart and keep in mind for next time). In the next scenario, the same situation occurs, but now there is a little more time on the clock. The ball is inbounded and Billy’s player takes one dribble over half and picks the ball up. Just as the five-second count is about to happen Billy fouls. When the scenario ends the coach tells Billy; “You did not need to foul, we had the turnover. Remember this for next time?” (Take this to heart and keep in mind for next time). You can see the frustration on poor Billy’s face.

Let’s look at the same situation where a coach is trying to develop a deep understanding. Early in the season, the coach allows the players to decide what to do in the time and score scenarios. The team that was down decided to foul right away. Once the ball is inbounded Billy still did not foul. Once the scenario finishes the coach leads a debrief.

“Billy, how could we have stopped the clock and prevented time from elapsing?”
From his hesitation, the coach can tell that Billy is confused?
“Billy, explain what you were thinking? asks the coach.
“Coach, I couldn’t foul I had four fouls”, explained Billy.

As you can see Billy only had a surface understanding of the game. No one had ever explained to him that the clock was the opponent and by him fouling out he was helping his team. By asking questions and allowing the players to sit in the driver’s seat (where they get to plan the trip) deeper understanding is gained.

The coach then turns to the players; “What could you have done to make sure that Billy was not put in the situation where he would foul out?”.

One of the younger players speaks up; “Could we have subbed someone into the game just to foul? ”
“Yes! That is a great idea”, exclaims the coach.

Continuing the coach says, “Can you see how that player may only be in the game for one second, but his fouling gives the team a chance to win. When would we not have to foul right away”, asks the coach since he can see how interested the players are in the topic.

“Coach, should we foul if the player is going to get called for five seconds? ” asks one of the senior players. “If we still had time on the clock, it doesn’t seem like we have too.”

“Good point Tom!”, says the coach. “Are there any other time when something similar might happen? ”

“What about an eight-second backcourt count?”, chimes in another player.

“Excellent, now you guys are really thinking?” Replies the coach, proud that his players are starting to deeply understand the concept of fouling late in a game.

“Coach, what about fouling before the ball is inbounded? Wouldn’t that be a good idea? No time would run off the clock and we would not have to worry about anybody being hesitant once the ball comes in.” says one of the players.

“I like your thought process, but there is a problem with fouling when the clock is stopped”, says the coach.

“Isn’t that called an intentional foul coach? Don’t they get two shots plus the ball back at half court?” exclaims the captain of the team.

“Your correct Steve” replies the coach. “Are there any other times in these situations when the referee may call an intentional foul?”

“If we foul and the referee thinks we are not trying to get the ball”, answers Billy.

“Correct Billy! You now know why it is important to practice these situations when the clock is the opponent. Do we always want to foul the first person who catches the ball?”

“Coach! Shouldn’t we foul their worst foul shooter?”, asks Tom.

“That is true Tom if the clock is not our opponent. If we have time we can be selective, but when we don’t have the luxury we must foul right away”; answers the coach.

We need to be able to:
• know if the clock is the opponent, this determines if we can be selective in fouling
• defend the inbounds without fouling,
• defend to have a chance for the turnover
• be in a position to foul right away
• make it look like we are going for the ball

There is no question it takes less time just to tell players what to do, but I think you would agree that only surface understanding usually comes from this approach. It is players who have a deep understanding of the game that will have the ability to drive the car.