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How Harbour Basketball embedded a style of play to support better playing and coaching outcomes

Total football, tika-taka, rush defense, motion offense, counterpuncher.

What do all of these terms have in common? They are styles of play across an array of sports.

Many reading this will be familiar with the concept of styles of play (or principles of play) within your respective sports.

In essence, a style of play encapsulates the approaches, strategy or philosophy which underpins how an individual or team competes in a game. This could be the way players move, pass, shoot, defend, and interact on the field or court, and the objectives they seek to achieve. Different sports may have different styles of play, and teams within a sport may adopt different styles depending on their strengths and weaknesses, the opposition, and the situation in the game. Styles of play (or principles of play) or often threaded through coaching and player development guidance.

At a first principles level, style of play is normally grounded by one of two objectives:

  1. As a coach or programme, how can we develop the most effective or competitive athlete or team in the present?
  2. As a coach, programme, pathway or system, how can we develop the most effective or competitive athlete or team in the long term?

The common theme here is the connection between style of play and thinking about competition outcomes (either today or one day in the future).

Enter Harbour Basketball

In contrast to thinking that is normally associated with style of play (as prefaced above), outgoing Basketball Development Officer Vince Minjares says his rationale for embedding a particular style of play at Harbour Basketball wasn’t just about competition outcomes. Vince saw how a style of play could be central for:

  • Helping coaches (particularly new coaches) be better
  • Helping a programme be more inclusive
  • Making basketball easier to learn

An important premise for the rest of this article is connecting coach thinking about ‘technical’ and ‘tactical’ domains with the psychosocial experiences young people have in sport.

As Vince puts it, there is a benefit to coaches having a holistic understanding of the technical and tactical in their sport, and how these domains can impact the social and psychological experience of playing and developing in and through sport.

One of the things we’ve talked about often in coach education, that I think is sometimes oversold is the technical doesn’t matter.

And I would say that they matter, there’s a minimum amount that matters and that minimum amount is important because it facilitates not only good play, but it also facilitates a number of the social and emotional outcomes that we want for kids in sport.

In the remainder of this article, Vince delves into various basketball-specific terms, such as “motion offense.” 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 of Vince’s thought process and consider how these can be adapted to your sport of choice.

Introducing the Harbour Basketball style of play

We had lots of concerns around the way in which basketball players were coached. We didn’t have a cohesive identity as an organisation in terms of how we wanted to play basketball, how we wanted to coach kids.

I think that in the last few years, we’ve developed an identity as an organization in terms of the rep, the club rep and club programme…

The difference now is that there’s a clearer coaching philosophy. There’s a clearer player development philosophy and style of play.

On Vince’s arrival at Harbour Basketball he recognised that there wasn’t a cohesive identity around how the programme coached basketball. Vince was quick to introduce a style of play based on two key principles (that drew more broadly from motion offence). These two key principles were:

  1. Shot selection. Find, create, priorities and take open shots, don’t take hard shots.
  2. Pace. Move the ball quickly, don’t hold on to the ball, so that the defense has less time to recover.

While coaching underpinned by these principles did lead to teams and players getting good results, this style of play also generated other important benefits to the programme.

Coaches became more athlete-centered

Vince discussed how the style of play underpinned a shift in coaching away from “joystick coaching” towards coaches that supported more autonomy in their players, where there was a movement away from coaching “set plays” towards on emphasis on coaches helping their athletes to “find affordance, find opportunities and exploit them”.

Vince also outlined how a style of play could support better athlete learning outcomes, and coaches to be more effective (particularly novice coaches).

When you get into the game itself, there isn’t a lot of “coaching”, in the sense of strategy that needs to happen, particularly in our younger ages. The coaching is mainly praising those who actually employ the game principles of good shot selection and fast decision-making, making sure they are there to support the team, and then just subbing, which is pretty easy for novice coaches to do.

There isn’t a lot that they have to do. And so, we’re not reliant on expert tacticians, particularly in our junior grades or second division teams. Obviously, if you get to a first-division or an A team, you might need to be more of a tactician. You need to understand the nuances of adjustments, but at its heart, we’re after the same principles of play regardless of what level of team.

And that obviously facilitates growth.

So, I think that the coaching approach is a design decision, right? The coaching approach should be easy to implement for the coach and doesn’t require massive tactical knowledge. It should be empowering to players. It should be fun for players. So, what we find is that giving players this freedom, but a small number of simple rules, is actually really facilitative of creativity, lots of teamwork and kids like it.

Like it’s fun. Coaches aren’t just telling players what to do the whole time. They only have some simple rules to follow.

Games and practices became more inclusive

Young people benefited from this style of play as it saw more people getting touches on the ball. Additionally, a higher pace was much more physically demanding on players, and this in turn meant there was a greater inclination by players and coaches to rotate substitutions. This, paired with designing more even teams within Harbour Basketball meant that training and playing experiences were more inclusive.

The ‘game’ became easier to learn for players

Vince was a strong advocate for the advantages of a simple playing style, which he believed would lead to improved learning outcomes for players. He believed that a sports environment based on a simple playing style would boost player confidence and ability and increase player retention in the sport. Additionally, from a programme perspective, a simple playing style would facilitate smoother transitions for players as they moved from one coach to another.

What we do instead is find a style of play that’s simple. It’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. So, what we learn is that you can move across teams. So, you might get promoted to a team and you basically understand the style.

I would argue that sport programmes should have a simple style of play with a small number of easy to understand and learn concepts as a way of facilitating good basketball. It’s what all the research tells us good players do. They simply read the game based on kind of principles.

But it also facilitates retention because players don’t feel that they can’t play because they don’t know the offense or they don’t know the system, and then they get accused of not being committed. 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. It doesn’t require almost like textbook style memorization of scripts.

How the style of play was embedded at Harbour Basketball

There were two key levers that Vince used to embed this style of play at Harbour Basketball:

Tactical rules and cues for coaches

Vince utilised a range of coach education strategies, including resources, videos, clinics, observation, and feedback, to help coaches in the Harbour Basketball program concentrate on incorporating a few basic tactical rules into their trainings and games. These tactical rules were:

  • Shot selection-based scoring systems (to incentivise better shooting decision-making)
  • Implementing shorter shot clocks, along with providing coaching cues that emphasized the importance of pace and quick decision-making

Coaches were provided with some tactical rules to facilitate the development of this style.

The notion of tactical rules is an important design principle. So, a tactical rule is a rule for decision making that you embed into your team’s style of play that you use as a rule in training. And then that same rule carries over into the games. So as an example, there are two common rules that we employ or encourage coaches to employ in our training.

One is a scoring system based on shot selection. So, we want players to shoot open shots. they’re more likely to go in and, and not only are they more likely to go in when you focus on shooting open shots, you pass up contested shots, which facilitates passing, which means that more players are involved in the game.

So, if you can incentivise players to shoot open shots and pass up bad shots, you’ll have a better style of play. So, one rule that we encourage is a scoring system where we overvalue open shots. For example, you might give an extra point for a catch and shoot jump shot that’s wide open or a layup that’s wide open. Any other shot might be worth the normal score or even valued less. Maybe zero or one, whereas the others are worth two. And so, the valuing of point totals in training creates a sort of tactical rule via scoring.

The other thing we like to do is emphasise the ‘one-second decision’.  That’s not necessarily a rule you can employ in the game, literally while you are playing, but it becomes a point of emphasis that we can come back to and talk about. Don’t hold the ball, as holding the ball allows the defense to recover. In training, we use shot clocks.

Shorter shot clocks force faster play. 

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

Wider coaching approach

It’s crucial to understand that while Vince was implementing the style of play at Harbour Basketball, he was also working to improve the coaching strategy, development and approach within the programme. Vince recognized the relationship between these factors and the success of embedding the desired style of play.

Coaching philosophy underpinned by a climate of development

The Harbour Basketball programme embraced a coaching philosophy that was underpinned by a climate of development. The embedded style of play, which was characterized by a more free-flowing style, allowed athletes to be more creative and experiment during both training and games. As such, this playing style perfectly reflected and supported the overarching coaching philosophy of promoting a climate of development.

From an induction perspective, when you bring a new coach on, we sit with them and we talk through style of play. Whether it be in a small group format or in a one-on-one format.

We want to have this conversation with coaches that says ‘broadly speaking, this is the style of play we want to do’. I create a ton of resources. I’ve got YouTube videos that sort of walk coaches through the style. I’ve got various resources and articles and handouts that we pass on to them.

We’ll just walk coaches through the whole process, including the development philosophy, the style of play, and then implementation guide in terms of training and competition, and how to actually put it into practice in those two settings, which are your two primary settings.

Coach recruitment

As the youth programme of Harbour Basketball expanded, it created a demand for more coaches. Newly recruited coaches were generally younger and inexperienced, making them less likely to challenge the playing style that Vince and the organization were striving to establish. On the other hand, older coaches, or coaches that had a high-level playing background often brought their own established beliefs about play style, requiring Vince to take a more collaborative approach in supporting them.

I would say from a coach recruitment perspective, I’ve personally found that there is less kind of fighting or challenge, or working with coaches who don’t agree in part, because a lot of our coaches are young, aren’t elite players, and love being around basketball and want to get their hands dirty coaching.

And they start at entry level where the tactics and strategies are not intense at all. We’re working with somebody who’s already sort of an open canvas. They’re curious to learn. They feel grateful to have the opportunity.

They feel supported and they don’t have a history built on another style, either as a coach or a player. Some might as a player, but when they apply to our programme, we end up having an initial conversation with them. We talk about where they’re at. I ask them what their preferred style of play is? They might have some generic comment. Then I introduce this to them with the backing of sort of some national body material and material I’ve developed. If we get them on board early at the very beginning, then there isn’t a philosophical change that usually has to happen every once in a while.

We do get a coach who maybe was a really good player or has coached for a long time. And we really like them. We might have to have a bit of a negotiation about style and some of them might like set plays a little bit more than I do. And you know, it’s a bit of a back and forth.

I try not to be a micromanager of coaches’ decision-making. I think that’s not helpful. And so, I like to think of it more as a dialogue that’s always happening and try to encourage things.

Alignment to Basketball NZ style of play

The style of play was aligned to Basketball NZ, including the style of play that the national teams use. This often-provided Vince and Harbour Basketball the ‘social proof’ as part of the wider rationale for adopting this style of play.

The national body does have a nationally defined style of play that very much aligns with ours. It is a lot more detailed than ours and that’s for good reason, because it’s focused on the national team and that’s a high-performance team. But if you look at the principles underpinning a lot of their style, their style of play and the conversations and commentary coming out of national team coaches, it very much aligns.

So, we can back our stuff up with, “Hey, you know, we’re not the only ones who are saying this”.

Take aways for other sport administrators and sport leaders

The style of play embedded by Harbour Basketball was a game-changer for the programme. The success of Harbour Basketball’s style of play serves as a reminder of the power of a clear coaching philosophy and style of play in shaping the experiences of athletes and coaches in sport.

Here, Harbour Basketball got coaches to orientate their coaching around two key principles: shot selection and pace. This resulted in not only better playing outcomes, but better coaching outcomes and a programme that was overall more inclusive. The work that Vince lead on style of play also worked in tandem with wider work around Harbour Basketball’s coaching philosophy, where both work streams could be seen to mutually benefit each other.

For sport leaders and administrators who oversee youth sport programmes, there are a number of key take aways:

  • A style of play is an important aspect of a sport programmme and can have a significant impact on coaching and playing outcomes.
  • The style of play should be based on a clear philosophy and principles and should be well understood by coaches and players.
  • A holistic approach to coaching should look to take into consideration how the technical and tactical domains connect to the psychosocial experiences of players.
  • A style of play that is simple to learn (though likely hard to master) can be beneficial for helping accelerate the effectiveness of novice coaches.
  • Having a cohesive style of play throughout a programme makes moments of transition (I.e., moving between teams and coaches) easier on coaches.

Read more series of articles below:

Image Source: Harbour Basketball

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