Teaching Court Vision

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

My spring basketball team just finished its six week season. Half the boys are 8th graders, half are 9th. One of the 8th graders vividly comes to mind concerning lack of court vision.

This young man has a knack for passing the ball to the other team, in fact, he is quite good at it. He receives the ball, looks downcourt and chooses his target, aims and fires. He is intercepted so regularly that as soon as he catches the ball, the other teams start their fast break. I take him out and talk to him, again and again. He's frustrated to the point of tears. I know he wants to do the right thing and is trying as hard as he can, yet when I put him back in, he resorts to his instincts with predictable results. Immediately.

So, how do you teach this thing called court vision? Well, the example above was a failure, but it can be done. What needs to happen is that the coach and the player need to get on the same level, however low that level needs to be set. The 8th grader I described was in way over his head compared to his competition and here he was looking to get help from a coach who was gibbering some kind of monkey-talk ... and not a very happy monkey at that.

Let's call court vision something else. Let's call it gamesmanship because the players who have it are playing the game; the ones who don't are simply participating. The game player understands his environment well enough to recognize the cause and effect relationships at work, and with this logical base has the power to manipulate situations to his own benefit.

The participator, on the other hand, is merely trying to fit into the process and look like a basketball player. Little kids are a perfect example. They will go out on the floor the first few years and pretend to play basketball and have a blast doing it. Its a lot tougher for inexperienced, older kids. They may have a skill or two picked up somewhere in the past, but the game comprehension level is still back at that younger age. Trying to survive, they will dogmatically pursue their perception of a coach's direction, or doggedly repeat a skill that worked in the past hoping that with enough attempts they will finally succeed. By succeed I don't mean that my 8th grader became a good passer, but that he actually passed the ball to someone on his own team.

Where do you learn gamesmanship? I think the game of basketball is too complicated as a place to start. You need to start small. If you were programming a robot to play basketball, you'd need to teach it simpler games like tic-tac-toe, tag, and hide-and-seek. Our kids need to learn these basic concepts long before they get on a basketball court. Playing other sports like soccer is very helpful to further shape the minds of young athletes. All such play experiences add their values to one's total gamesmanship score. As kids get older, the games can get more complex. Think of the similarities between chess and basketball (see the article on my site called "Analogies") and how useful chess concepts of gambits, roles and space management can be. In the heat of an intense basketball game, you want your players to be able to reach into a rich treasure trove of problem solving skills. That's the place inspiration comes from.

If you're coaching beginning basketball, I don't know if you should be playing a lot of tic-tac-toe. I hope that your players have had some enriching play experience to build upon. You can simplify basketball, though, using the basic children's games as a guide - dribble tag, keep away, relay races. Make all your drills competitive (who can make the most, who can be the fastest, how high can the team score). Competition will encourage the kids to improve though innovation. When you do these drills, start simple and add rules over time to make the drills more complicated and challenging. When doing those dribble relay races, for instance, incrementally add cones, crossovers, defenders - you get the idea.

Start the kids playing 1:1, later 2:2. Take your time working up to 5:5 even if you have to play your first game after only first 2 weeks of practice. If your players can't handle 1:1, how are they going to handle a five man game?

Court vision is gamesmanship. Its surveying the situation, selecting a strategy and executing a skill. Its having the understanding and the confidence needed to initiate an educated risk. You don't really teach gamesmanship, you grow it. It takes a lot of nurturing, patience and time. If your older player lacks court vision, it won't come without investing the same degree of care and commitment. There are no shortcuts.