In the previous meetings between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs this year, Spurs guard Tony Parker had his way on the court. Coming into the game, Cavs head coach, Tyrone Lue, and assistant coach, Mike Longabardi, knew that the key to beating San Antonio was to slow Parker down. Here is what they did:
“Instead of sticking with the previous plan, letting Parker become a nuisance again, Lue and his defensive coordinator, Mike Longabardi, made a change.
‘We went to the ‘show.’ We showed with David West and we showed (LaMarcus) Aldridge, just to make sure Tony couldn’t get downhill,” Lue said. “Last game, he took advantage of our drops and our ICEs and Tony went one-on-one with our bigs a lot the whole night. Coming into this night we said we wanted to show and try to make him veer out and play one-on-one against our guards. It was effective for us tonight.'”
The ability for a basketball coach to successfully navigate and adjust to an ever-changing game is a key element to being successful on the court. Regardless of how hard a coach works to prepare their game plan, there will always be a level of ambiguity coming into a game. This wise coach recognizes and embraces the ambiguity, knowing that the coach who can successfully navigate and adjust is most likely the coach who will earn the favorable outcome on the scoreboard.
“We never have complete and perfect information. The best way to succeed is to revel in ambiguity.” – Grant Hammond
The Game is Unpredictable and Uncertain
Regardless of how well you plan and prepare for a specific game or a specific opponent, it is a guarantee that something unexpected will occur throughout the course of the game. This principle of uncertainty and unpredictability applies to both your team and your opponent.
- Your best shooter goes ice cold.
- You have a player who is ill mentally or physically and therefore, is underperforming that night.
- You have a player that is virtually always reliable with the ball play shaky and unconfident.
- Perhaps your opponent will have a typical role player get hot and scores in bunches.
- Perhaps your opponent utilizes a new defensive tactic that you had not anticipated.
- Perhaps your opponent has put in a new set-play or action that you are not prepared to guard.
Our game is defined by its unpredictable and ambiguous nature. Therefore, it is the team that is able to adjust and thrive in this environment that will be successful. The biggest mistake that coaches make in these situations is marrying their gameplan and refusing to deviate due to the nature of the specific game. When our circumstances change, we often fail to shift our perspective. Instead, we continue to try to see the game as we feel it should be. When we fail to shift our perspective and refuse to adapt, we end up becoming our greatest hindrance towards achieving a successful outcome.
The Solution: The OODA Loop
The OODA Loop is the solution that coaches must embrace in order to deal with the unpredictable and ever-changing demands of the game. The OODA Loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It looks something like this:
The OODA Loop is a model that allows coaches and teams to learn, grow, and thrive in a rapidly changing environment.
Step 1: Observation
The first step in OODA Loop is to observe what is occurring within the current game. Observation is the first skill needed to adapt and overcome a situation in which there is constant change. Through learning to observe an ever-changing environment, coaches are able to approach the game with an open mind rather than a closed one. It is with this open mind that the coach is able to obtain the knowledge and information needed to successfully adjust to the demands of the game. When the coach approaches the game with a mindset of judgement rather than observation, their ability to improvise and adapt will be greatly crippled.
Oftentimes, coaches are quick to blame players and circumstances when things do not go as planned as opposed to taking responsibility and humbly accepting that they (the coach) may be wrong. When coaches are quick to judge and slow to observe, the needed adaptations are not made. Judging rather than observing leads to coaches discussing the game in a victim-oriented fashion:
- Is just wasn’t our night
- My guys don’t execute
- The game wasn’t called the same on both ends
All of these situations may or may not have merit, however, what it unacceptable is the coach resolving that factors outside of their control are the sole reason for the undesirable result. If shots are not falling from outside, adjust. Begin to attack the basket more aggressively to in an attempt to score around the rim and at the FT line. If your team is having trouble executing your system, perhaps it is the system that needs changed more than the players.
Having an open mind and resolving to observe and adjust rather than judge and complain is an essential skill that coaches must embrace. When coaches have a mindset of observation, they are able to make a clear and educated decision because they are able to see more of the factors that are at play within a given situation.
While we are coaching in the observation phase of the OODA Loop, there are two potential barriers that need to be addressed:
- Our observations can be imperfect and incomplete
- We can have so much information at our disposal that figuring out what to focus on and what to phase out can be a challenge.
Because of these two possible errors, it is vital that coaches navigate through the other 4 steps in the process.
Step 2: Orient
Knowing that the possibility exists for our observations to be incomplete or erroneous necessitates that we engage in the second step of the OODA Loop, Orient. The mental models that shape all that a coach does lie here within the orient phase. The key is for coaches to be oriented in such a way that allows them to thrive and flourish in an ever-changing world. The best coaches are those that can take various elements of their ever-changing environment and reconstruct those elements into a working and efficient solution.
In order to excel at this process of oriented oneself and creating solutions, there are a few strategies that one can take:
Strategy 1: Grow in Your Knowledge of the Game
The more that you know, the more possible solutions will be available to you. Understand that you must hold your coaching philosophy with an open hand and not get too attached to it. Having a general framework for offensive and defensive strategy is necessary, as you do not want to change with every blow of the wind. However, when you are so entrenched in a certain way of thinking, your ability to orient and adapt will be severely limited. The old saying goes that “to the man with a hammer everything is a nail”. As a coach, refuse to fall into this line of thinking. You can not be an effective coach if you constantly try to apply the same solution again and again because at some point the solution will no longer be applicable to the changing environment.
“We’re still trying to figure out who we are. I would rather take the time to figure that out than to pigeonhole my team early and not give them a growth period where they can grow.” – Mike Krzyzewski
Strategy 2: Practice the Process of Destroying and Creating
Your ability to adjust and adapt in a changing environment will only come with practice, so start now. Create a document in which you list potential problems that your team may run into and how you can adjust and compensate for those issues. Ask yourself if concepts that you have learned in strategy 1 can carry over and apply to a certain situation.
As you engage in this tedious practice, you will begin to find that it becomes easier and easier to conduct adjustments on the fly. One thing that I do when I practice plan is list other derivatives of a drill or activity that I can go to if what I had planned is not working or leading to the highest level of player learning. By practicing and being proactive, being spontaneous can get a whole lot easier.
Strategy 3: Evaluate Wins and Losses
After every practice or game, take a brief time to review what worked well and what did not work well. Track this and record it each and every time that you conduct the exercise. If after time you realize that a certain strategy continues to fail, have the courage and humility to burn it. One of the hardest decisions to make can be knowing when to continue practicing something and knowing when to walk away. Engaging in strategies 1 and 2, however, will make that process a little bit easier.
When it comes time to adjust on the fly, it is vital that you have a good idea of what adjustments will and will not work. Thankfully, the stakes in sports are quite low, as it is not a matter of life and death, but the outcomes are important and do matter to all involved. Take the time to study and evaluate what is working and what is not working. This way, when the outcome is on the line, you have a much easier decision process to engage in.
Step 3: Decide
As mentioned in the step 1 explanation, we often make incomplete or erroneous observations. With that being said, the process of orienting oneself and making sense of the observations is vital. However, regardless of how well coaches execute steps 1 and 2, the third step is always a hypothesis at best.
As a coach, do not let perfection keep you from selecting a solution that will be good enough. In reality, we will not be able to properly evaluate our decision until we engage in step 4 (act) and find out the outcome.Author Mark Batterson has coined the following definition of success:
Author Mark Batterson has coined the following definition of success that I strive to use in all of my coaching:
Success is doing the best you can, with what you have, right where you are”. – Mark Batterson
When it comes time to make a decision, make the best decision possible that you can at that time. Understand that it is your job to make the decision, own the outcome, and adjust for the future. The only decision that will guarantee failure is indecision. Be decisive and do the best you can according to what you know.
Step 4: Act
It is in the action phase that we are able to truly learn if our selected solutions were effective. If the decision is effective, fantastic. If the decision is not effective, we have encountered a fascinating learning opportunity and can then repeat the process again using the newfound data.
Ideally, implementing this process in practice when the game and outcome is not on the line is the ideal scenario. It is a great idea for you to be constantly engaging in the OODA Loop, and to also have your players doing the same. The more times the loop is completed, the more you learn and the more effective you and your team can be when it comes to the ever-changing environment of the game.
Pace: “Many Thoughts Make For Slow Feet” – Don Meyer
In a game scenario in which you are competing against an opponent, both you and the opponent are going through this loop over and over again. That being said, the coach who can move through the loop successfully with the most efficiency will be the coach that achieves the desired outcome. Obviously, going fast has no merit if you are fast and wrong.
Here is an example of the OODA Loop being used late game between Kansas and Oklahoma. Kansas coach, Bill Self, is famous for his late game “Chop” Play in which the offense performs a dribble hand-off at the wing followed by a ball screen with a flare screen on the weakside. Here is an example of Creighton running the action:
Now you can see below how Bill Self goes through the OODA Loop prior to putting in this late game set to get a late shot vs Oklahoma. Instead of the weakside flare screen, Self has the ball screen man pin down for the guard that originally handed off the ball. Because the screeners man shows on the ball screen, the help is late allowing the cutter to get downhill for a bucket.
Always be going through this process as a coach. The ideas that you have and hold so dearly may be effective for a season, but if it is time to add wrinkles or to make a change, have the courage to do so. The ability to successfully navigate the OODA Loop with accuracy and speed will lead to you being a much more effective coach, and your team getting many more wins as a result.