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Competitive engineering: Key changes by Harbour Basketball to make competition closer, healthier and more competitive

As Vince Minjares of Harbour Basketball explains competitive engineering is about “designing youth sport structures and competitions so that they facilitate development”.

An academic definition

A quick google turns up this definition by Damon Burton and colleagues in their paper,  Competitive Engineering: Structural: Climate Modifications to Enhance Youth

Competitive engineering (CE) is a structural-based approach to changing the competitive environment of youth sports to provide more nurturing competitive experiences. Thus, in youth sport, CE attempts to enhance a variety of psychosocial outcomes by making systematic changes to the competitive environment in which athletes perform. A working CE model is presented that employs four CE strategies (i.e., modifying structure, rules, facilities and equipment) to promote athlete engagement goals based on athlete-directed sandlot sport principles (i.e., increasing action and scoring, keeping scores close, enhancing personal involvement, and maintaining positive social relationships) in order to attain intrinsic motivation outcomes, particularly competence, autonomy, relatedness and Flow while promoting an autonomy supportive climate. Discussion focuses on how the CE model can best promote research and intervention to enhance competitive climates in order to promote better sport experiences for all youngsters.

While academic, it can be a useful definition to present here.

Let us explain.

When it comes to designing sports programmes, sports leaders and administrators will be familiar with the concept of modifying structures and systems. It’s common within the sector to describe this ‘design work’ using the analogy of dials or levers. The ultimate premise here being that sport leaders and administrators can improve the experiences that their programmes provide by tweaking, shifting, or adjusting the structures and systems that underpin said experiences.

But if that is the input, then what is the output? What should sport leaders and administrators be looking for to understand the effect from adjusting those levers and dials? Here is where we often talk about quality. The output we are after is a quality experience.

The thing is, ‘quality’ can be elusive. Ask one participant, one coach or one administrator “what a quality experience looks like”, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses.

To this end, the athlete-directed sandlot principles mentioned in the definition provide a useful frame for sports leaders and administrators (as well as coaches and parents) to observe and evaluate the quality of their sports programme. The athlete-directed sandlot principles are:

  • Increased action and scoring;
  • Scores are kept close;
  • Enhanced personal involvement;
  • Positive social relationships are fostered and maintained

If we think about what makes a ‘quality’ youth sport experience, these principles (think of them as factors) aren’t exhaustive. That is, we don’t believe they cover the full spectrum of what makes up a quality youth sport experience. However, they do act as a good starting point for sport administrators and leaders to think about where to make changes in their programme, and importantly, what tangible things they should be looking out for downstream of when an intervention or change is made in a sport programme.

In the remainder of this article, a number of basketball-specific terms are referred to. For readers seeking to apply these insights to different sports, don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with basketball jargon. Instead, focus on the underlying principles and consider how these can be adapted to your sport of choice.

Competitive engineering at Harbour Basketball

As mentioned earlier, Vince used competitive engineering as a frame for thinking about the design of (and iterating) Harbour Basketball’s youth programme. The rest of this blog takes a look at some of the structures and systems that Vince introduced to Harbour Basketball through the frame of competitive engineering.

Increasing action and scoring

Style of play

Vince discussed developing a style of basketball at Harbour Basketball which is about smart and fast play. In essence, this revolved around two offensive game principles. 

  1. Shot selection – Find, create, prioritise and take open shots, don’t take hard shots.
  2. Pace – Move the ball quickly, don’t hold on to the ball, to provide the defense with less time to recover.

Coach education at Harbour Basketball encouraged this style of play, and coaches were provided with some simple ‘tactical rules’ they could incorporate into their training to emphasise this style of play.

These tactical rules were:

  1. Scoring system based on shot selection that rewarded open shots
  2. Shorter shot clock paired with coaching prompts on ‘one second decision’

Ultimately, these two tactical rules in turn increased the pace and action, and increased involvement and inclusivity.

We want players to find open shots as quickly as possible. That creates fast pace, which creates an exciting game.

This has the added benefit of making players tired, which means you must go harder, and that creates more of an opportunity to sub which brings more players in.

If you play faster, you need to sub more, which is good for inclusivity as well. More players have to play. And if you’ve got an even team playing against an even team, then in theory, everybody deserves to play and you don’t want to just play your best player, the entire game.

 So, it’s having little tactical rules like this, which emphasize an effective form of basketball that can create a competitive advantage for our teams, but it also facilitates inclusivity, which is an underrated style of play. Your style of play should involve multiple people touching the ball and many players playing. So, you should get tired playing the game and you should be passing a lot. If those two things are happening, then we know a lot of people are involved in the game.

Increasing the closeness of scores

Vince says close scores are a signal for a competitive quality experience. And with Harbour Basketball teams most often playing against other Harbour Basketball teams (in-house competitions, training, etc.) Vince rationalised that changing the programme’s structure to favour close scores, would improve the experience that participants received.

Here, there were two key changes that Vince introduced.

  1. Introducing divisions within age brackets, to improve evenness of teams
  2. Shortening games to reduce number of blow outs
Evenness of teams

Well, one of the more obvious things to look at is the way in which you can keep scores close. If you keep scores close then that’s a way of facilitating engagement and interest, right? Like you’re in a close game, you could win or lose. You’ve got to use skill and strategy and tactics to figure out how to win that game.

That’s a good thing. So, competition can be a very good thing for facilitating interest, motivation, learning, and obviously, effort. If we can make it so that every game is as close as possible in a genuine, honest way, not a manipulated way, but in a genuine, honest way, then we think people will want more of that.

And so, the first notion of an even-teams model was, we know that we’re going to play each other a lot in competition because it’s a club model. We know that they’re going to train a lot together because our facilities are so bare that all those teams need to train against each other. So, if you look across our program, 11 D ii, 11 D i, 13 D ii, 13 D i, 15 D ii, all those teams train together at the same time on two court facilities and they each get a half court.

So, they train training against each other multiple times a week. They’re playing against each other in the same competition, might as well make those games close. So, let’s make the teams even.

That was the hallmark of the redesign of the program.

We retained some element of that model into seventeens, where we do have a second division and a first division, first division still has an, A team and two B team. So, it’s basically fifteens and seventeens are effectively the same.

Reducing game length (to reduce big blowouts)

With game length we had this theory that when you got to the end of a third quarter, you had completed 30 minutes of a four, 10-minute quarter game and the score either got bigger or stayed the same roughly by the end of the fourth. So, we did some analysis on the scores over the past season. Games that were 10 points apart turned into 30-point or 50-point blowouts. There were 10 games that teams were up by 20-point at three quarters time, that then turned into 50-point wins. So that fourth quarter really didn’t have a meaningful effect on the outcome. Even if the outcome did change, it meant that the game was close. There were very few teams who came back from large deficits.

So those big blowouts are the ones that we’re trying to eliminate. And reducing the length of the game is one way to do that. For us, we were able to make games closer by slightly shortening the game to four eight-minute quarters. This created healthier competition for young people.

Increasing level of personal involvement

Vince was a big advocate for ensuring that every player in their programme felt that their participation was meaningful. A core thing Vince talked about here was the introduction of a style of play that promoted inclusivity.

Style of play

As mentioned earlier, Vince engineered a style of play at Harbour Basketball that focused on better shot selection and increased pace. This style of play resulted in players getting more touches on the ball, and an increased pace meant players tired quicker and therefore needed to substitute more often. Ultimately, these two factors meant the experience was more inclusive, as there was more involvement from all players (not just the best).

Fostering and maintaining positive social relationships

Factoring in ‘team fit’ in trials

Vince outlined extensively the thinking and detail that went into the trial process at Harbour Basketball. One of the key considerations he had was ‘team fit’. During trials, which Vince took a key role in leading, player-coach and player-player relations were a key lens that he factored into his thinking, as part of a wider process, for allocating players into different teams.

But effectively I am the sort of Commissioner General, who makes the final call, but I want the coaches to like their teams. And so, it’s important that coaches have players in their team who they really want to have in their team, but it’s also important for me to have a sense of who is a good fit between player and coach and also player and player. So, there’s a lot of culture and chemistry. It’s a bit of an alchemy, right?

Making sport easier to learn – moving from scripts to concepts

Vince discussed the importance of having a coaching approach that focused on learning concepts as opposed to scripts (i.e., set plays). He thought this made sport easier to learn for young people in the long run, which had two benefits. It meant sport was more accessible to novices, and the learning environment was more accommodating (i.e., athletes could transfer between coaches and teams easier; athletes weren’t punished for missing training and therefore not ‘knowing’ a play).

I grew up playing a more open style of game that was more free flowing. That was less controlled by the coach. And so, there’s a couple interesting nuances about this.

We think of the kind of joystick coach who likes to put a lot of set plays in and then kind of call a set play every time or have a set that they run every single time, right? And if you forget the set, then play breaks down.

We’ve learned that being able to play without scripts is really important for the improvisational dynamic nature of the game. It facilitates your ability to sort of find affordances, find opportunities and just exploit them.

Part of what sets do is take that ability away from players and turn them into robots. What sets also do is require you to remember the play. And it’s interesting when players forget plays – they’re often blamed for not remembering. But if anybody has paid any attention to working memory these days, or the problem of attention, everyone knows that everyone’s getting worse at remembering things, particularly young people who are on digital devices all the time. But also, there are young people who may have missed training because they had another team to go to or an academic event, or they just couldn’t be there because their parents were out of town, or whatever it may be.

So, if you miss the training when the play was designed or told, then you might not play. Even with some coaches, we hear this all the time: “we can’t play him because he doesn’t know the plays”.

If you rely on scripted plays or set pieces a lot in your style, which is a coach-centered approach, tactically you may be effective, but I would argue you’re excluding those kids who either struggle with set pieces, or maybe aren’t always able to make your training.

 And at Harbour Basketball we encourage kids, if they play multiple sports, to know that they don’t have to come to all our training sessions.

So, what we do instead is find a style of play that’s simple to learn. It’s hard to master, just because you know the system doesn’t mean you’ll be elite at it. But if we have a simple system or style of play, that’s got a small number of rules and is very open, players can be more creative, and they can come in and out of all the teams more easily.

What we learn is that you can move across teams. So, you might get promoted to a team. You basically understand the style.

I would argue that a sport programme, particularly a code, maybe in school, or a club, or a regional sport organisation, should have a simple style of play with a small number of easy to understand and learn concepts. I think if we want to include more kids in sport, we need to make sport easier to learn, in the sense of conceptually, easier to learn, which therefore doesn’t require an almost textbook style memorization of scripts.

Conclusion

The notion of competitive engineering, as introduced by Vince Minjares, is a structural-based approach to changing the competitive environment in youth sports to provide more nurturing experiences. If that sounds jargony don’t worry – all it means is taking an approach to modifying sport so it’s more akin to what backyard or street versions of the game might look like, by using sandlot principles. This looks like changing structures, rules, facilities and equipment to promote better engagement, more intrinsic motivation and promoting an autonomy supportive climate.

Vince used this framework to think through changes to Harbour Basketball’s youth programme, including developing a smart and fast style of play, emphasizing shot selection and pace, and introducing coaching prompts. These changes ultimately led to increased action, scoring, involvement, and inclusivity in the program.

For sport administrators and sport leaders competitive engineering provides a useful framework for designing and improving sport programmes for children and young people.

Read more series of articles below:

Image Source: Harbour Basketball

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