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"Good Constraints": 5 Smart Hoops Habits To Develop in the Off Season

by Richard Ford
Director/Clinician, Smart Hoops Basketball Camp

Two weeks ago Saturday, my 11 year old daughter's AAU club hosted a regional qualifying tournament and I volunteered to run the scorer's table at one of the gyms. My daughter's team wasn't playing, so I had the luxury of taking in the action as a true, unbiased outsider.

The opening game was between two 13 year old teams. They were alert and focused. The coaches had their dry boards, rosters, and game notes at the ready. The players diligently went through their pre-game paces. I was monitoring the clock and making sure that I understood the score pad's commands and quirks. With 45 seconds left in warm-ups, the referees gave me the start sign. I hit the horn, and the game was on. The teams huddled, then broke out to the jump circle. I was fired up. It doesn't get any better than this for a hoops junkie.

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The ball rose into the air and, for a moment, seemed as if it would be suspended forever at its apex. What a perfect sight. But then, the dreamy aura of hoops heaven was slapped forcefully into a sobering reality. The ball was tapped into the backcourt of the home team. Almost immediately, the player who grabbed the ball pounded it into the floor and then picked up her dribble. She made herself vunerable and weak. Two members of the opposing team aggressively jump-trapped her in the backcourt. Then, a whistle….and a foul. It was the first of at least 65 whistles signaling a foul. Did I say 65? Yes, 65!

The game was divided into 16 minute halves. Both teams were in the double bonus by the 8:00 minute mark of each half. I wish I could say that it was simply an aggressive, physical game, or a game that was poorly officiated. The reality was that these very athletic and talented girls simply didn't know how to play defense without fouling. A note on the officiating: the referees in this game (and the next seven games) were superb. They made the right calls at the right time and didn't become lazy as a result of the poor play. I didn't disagree with a single call they made (the parents and coaches were not as convinced), even though what should have been a 90 minute game became a 120 minute game.

Both teams used gimmick full court and half court presses and/or traps. The coaches stood tall screaming out plays, giving hand signals that would make a major league baseball manager envious, calling "crucial" timeouts to rally (or, more frequently, simply yell at) the troops, and working both the refs and the scorer's table volunteers . Despite all of this heady "game management", the players would resume play and continue making silly mistakes. Defensively, players flew at the ball, out of control and off balance. Intelligent containment defense seemed to be against the rules, and so did communication. If points were awarded for reaching, lunging, slapping, and being out of position, then this game would have the highest scoring in AAU history. Offensively, there was an epidemic of meaningless, wasted dribbles, "maybe" rather than "sure" passes, "tight roping" the sidelines with the ball to try and squeeze through a 12" gap, poor spacing, little movement without the ball, and poor shot selection. Nevertheless, the pace was fast and furious and the wild action created a smokescreen masking the poor quality of play. These issues were a recurring theme through the 8 games I scored that Saturday.

Like the caveman in the GEICO commercials, I was on the verge of a total, existential hoops meltdown. I began to wonder what these middle school level games would have looked like if they were played under a different set of rules. Imagine if it was a violation for a player to be off balance (on offense or defense); to reach, slap or lunge at the ball; to get within three feet of the out of bounds line while dribbling; to take a shot in the half-court set without making a pass; to make a pass while in the air; to go baseline to pass rather than to score; to force the ball-handler to her strong hand; to throw a lazy, "maybe" pass that was knocked out of bounds by the defense; or to immediately dribble the ball at her feet upon receiving it without going anywhere? Okay, so my fantasy will never become reality; however, smart players who are looking to immediately improve their games in this off-season would be well advised to adopt the "good constraints" approach to behavior modification and create their own "Smart Hoops" rules that they diligently impose upon themselves in pick-up games between now and November 1st.

Behavior modification experts understand how easy it is to build good habits. We are creatures of habit….literally. Our automatic behaviors trump rational thinking. Why? Because it is easier. We eat (often certain foods) automatically, we judge first impressions automatically, we channel-surf certain stations automatically, we greet people with the same words automatically. In short, automatic thoughts and actions are much more powerful than rational thoughts and actions. And players can change any of their behavioral default-settings automatically if they choose to adopt the "good constraints" approach to habit building.

  1. Make Every Dribble Productive
  2. Throw "Sure" Passes, Not "Maybe" Passes
  3. Reduce the Size of Your Court
  4. Take Smart Shots
  5. Force Ball Handlers Left

How do you make these five crucial concepts "good constraint" habits? By tapping into your automatic, cognitive decision-making memory! Every player has bought into the notion of developing skills-based "muscle memory". Shooting is the best example. Repetitive motion (with good form) translates into automatic action rather than thinking action. Yet behavioral psychologists recognize that we also have "decision-making memory" that operates the same as muscle memory. In the off season, most diligent players will have numerous pick-up game opportunities. There will be no coaches or scouts in the stands, and it very unlikely that Michael Jordan will drop in to check out the action. Those games are the perfect opportunity to develop your decision-making memory. All you have to do is commit yourself to one of these five concepts in a given game, and focus on nothing else. For example, you are at you neighborhood YMCA playing in a rag-tag pick up game; say to yourself: this is my "productive dribble" game. Every dribble that I take will attack the basket, improve a passing angle, draw defense to set up a teammate, or get me out of trouble. Don't worry about scoring or looking good. Let this one, meaningless game be a habit-building self-tutorial on productive dribbling. If you are a serious player, you will play dozens of "meaningless" pick-up games this summer. Rotate the points of emphasis among these games, and let each one propel you closer to your "good constraints" goal of becoming a better player by habit. Go for it!

Rich's next article will go into the details of the 5 "Smart Hoops" Habits.

Contact Information
For registration questions call:
1-800-NIKE CAMP (800-645-3226) – toll free
415-479-6061 – fax
For program questions call Richard Ford:
Email contact: ptgdhoops@earthlink.net

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