Peak by Friday: Girls’ Basketball as an Insurgency
I typically like Malcom Gladwell. However, Gladwell is a runner, not a basketball player, and he is better off sticking to things that he knows, rather than trying to make the most ridiculous points possible using the most far-reaching comparisons.
In his latest article, he compares a girls’ basketball team that presses to David beating Goliath and Lawrence of Arabia. Honestly, I could not read the details because his points about basketball were so simplistic and misunderstood that it rendered the rest of his argument meaningless, and I don’t care about biblical verses. Unfortunately, after reading three poorly articulated articles in a row, Gladwell’s is the one that drew my ire to a point where I had to comment on something.
Basically, an immigrant from India coaches his daughter’s basketball team. He doesn’t understand the way Americans play basketball and thinks it is silly for the defense to run back on defense. He is an MIT-educated engineer, so somehow this thought-process is different than with the thousands of other youth coaches who press because in Gladwell’s eyes, this one press is innovative.
Is it any wonder that Ranadivé looked at the way basketball was played and found it mindless?A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot…It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection. Basketball was batch!
Now, I like a press as much as the next guy. However, with good players, presses do not work. Presses give the offense more space to attack. Presses work in youth basketball because the defense is ahead of the offense. It takes almost no skill to play defense: when I coached u-9 boys, our best defender was a soccer player who missed half of our practices to play competitive soccer, but he was fast; when I coached junior college basketball, our best defender was a sprinter who could not dribble the ball even though she was 5’5, but she could defend anyone with her speed and a little bit of game understanding.
Secondly, presses rely on offensive players making poor or rushed decisions. As the offensive player feels pressure, his vision narrows and he makes bad decisions. In the NBA, players have time and space and do not feel the pressure.They have confidence in their ball skills. They have confidence to yell at a teammate if they need someone to set a screen or come back to catch the pass.
Third, with young girls especially, it is hard to throw the ball the length of the court. So, even if the player has confidence with the ball and has a wide open teammate 80-feet away under her offensive basket, the defense is fast enough to catch up to the flight of the ball. Therefore, the defense can condense the court and only cover the back court, turning a 94-feet game into a 50-foot game. In the NBA, that doesn’t work. Even against defensive pressure any NBA player can throw the ball 90-feet to a wide open target.
In basketball played by skilled players, the defense retreats to take away the space. The defense’s goal is to force the offense into a contested shot. By extending the defense, the defense gives the offense more space to find an open player for an open shot. This is why shooters are important. If a team has no three-point shooters, the defense can pack it in even further and force the offense to shoot 18-20-foot jump shots. However, if the team has a bunch of shooters, the defense has to spread all the way to the three-point line, which opens more lanes to get into the middle of the court and collapse the defense, leading to open shots.
In youth basketball, presses work, which is why 90% of youth teams use them. Apparently the only place where youth teams do not press is in Redwood City and wherever Gladwell watches youth basketball games.
As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.
Actually, this is one of my arguments for the Playmakers Basketball Development League. Young and/or novice players need more room to practice their skills, while advanced players need more practice in limited space to improve their skills. At 12-years-old, these players are developmental players and the goal should be learning new skills and developing into better players, not just winning. There are programs that win tons of games – AAU National Championships even – because they press, press, press, but at practice, they practice their press and lay-ups.
But, the players never improve their other skills. They may have a great season, but they will have a hard time playing at the next age group if they have no other skills. If the goal is to win a youth league, by all means, press. It is the easiest way to win at the level. But, winning does mean that players are improving or learning.
Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. “What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,” Rometra Craig said.
Exactly. Most youth games are a battle of who can get and make the most lay-ups. Hiding weaknesses is a great approach to win a game; however, against better players – and there are much better players than a local recreation league in Redwood City – what will these girls do? How will they handle a press against bigger, stronger girls? How will they adapt when they play offensive players with a little skill who do not panic with the ball? How will they play at the next level if they cannot shoot from outside?
“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.”
Is this a track team? Fitness is great and being in shape is great. But, what are the goals? This is the definition of a Peak by Friday mentality and the problem with many youth leagues. With so little time to practice, we’ll be in better shape and overwhelm them with defense. How do players develop skills in this atmosphere? How do they learn to read the game?
The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills.
I am not one who says that there should be a no press rule if the league is set up as a competitive league where winning trumps everything. However, as I have suggested repeatedly on the blog and in Cross Over: The New Model for Youth Basketball Development, I think players should play more developmentally-appropriate games.
As 12-year-olds, the press is fine. The problem, however, is that many girls in this league start at 8-years-old and they are unable to handle a press four years later. The problem isn’t the one team that presses with 12-year-olds: the problem is that for four years, players have done the same things playing with the same rules and they have not developed the skills necessary to make inbounds passes under pressure or pass out of a trap.
I question the coaching methods of the team because they admitted to making no attempt to develop their players’ skills. However, the other team’s complaints are unjustified, as players should have basic skills by 12-years-old. Defense will still be ahead of the offense, but if coaches teach skills each year, it starts to balance out.
The problem, I imagine, is that in previous seasons, the complaining coaches sat back in zone defenses and ran set plays and spent all practice memorizing set plays and different defenses to win their games, so their kids never developed basic skills either. When they faced a press, they were ill-equipped to handle the press.
Players need to develop skills. They need to be taught how to handle pressure and develop passing and ball handling skills. 12-year-olds should be developing proper shooting technique.
The problem is the win-at-all-costs or Peak by Friday mindset where coaches prepare to beat their next opponent rather than developing general skills to help the players in this season and beyond. I, for one, would never send a player to a basketball practice where all they did was run, run, run. If I wanted a player to run, I would join a junior track program, where at least they would run on a trail, grass or all-weather track to reduce the jarring impact from running on a hardwood floor. Furthermore, what about teaching players how tomove correctly? Jump, land, bend, squat, shuffle? ACL injuries are an epidemic in girls’ basketball because of coaching like this that focuses solely on “being hard,” running and winning with no thought given to the health of the players or the players’ future.