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How to Develop Smart Basketball Players
by Brian McCormick, CSCS, PES: Performance Director, TrainforHoops.com

In any sport, decision-making and perceptual skills separate the average player from the very good player. To develop a player who consistently makes good decisions and the right play at the right time - a player with a high basketball I.Q. - requires four things:

  1. Technical skill
  2. Attention
  3. Game Awareness or Understanding
  4. Experience
Basketball intelligence is more than making the right pass, and players without the ball illustrate their basketball intelligence by cutting to the right spot, spacing the floor properly, anticipating rebounds and more. However, explaining basketball intelligence, and the way these four factors contribute to and influence basketball intelligence, is easiest when using the ball handler as an example.

As a player dribbles or holds the ball in the triple threat position, he must decide quickly whether to attack, pass or shoot. If he decides to attack or pass, he has to decide where to attack or where and when to pass. When nobody defends the ball handler, this task and the decision-making process is easier, as the player can survey the court and find the best option. However, when the player is defended tightly or trapped, the decision-making process is more error-prone. "As a simple rule, the more complex and demanding the centrally performed task or the more stressed the athlete, the narrower will be the functional visual field size, resulting in errors that coaches often describe as tunnel vision, (Meir). As the ball handler feels more pressure, his attention shifts from finding the best passing or attacking option to protecting the ball from the defense, and his field of vision narrows as his attention shifts.

A player with better technical skills - shooting, footwork, ball handling and passing - has more confidence. The confidence increases the player's field of vision, which improves the player's decision-making. Due to his confident, the player does not divert his attention to protecting the ball. Imagine Steve Nash: when he dribbles, his head is up and he surveys the court because the defense does not bother him. He senses the pressure and protects the ball as necessary, but he does not shift his attention to the defender.

Maintaining your attention on the appropriate task enhances your performance. A person can process a limited amount of information at one time. Robert Nideffer, Ph.D. suggests thinking of your brain as a camera that takes 40 pictures per second. Normally, you divide these 40 pictures evenly into four concentration areas: broad-external, broad-internal, narrow-external and narrow-internal. However, if you shift your attention, you can take more pictures in the desired area. If the player shifts all his attention to a broad-external concentration area, he sees more: the game slows down, and he feels like he has more time to make a decision.

If a player feels pressure while handling the ball, he shifts his attention away from his objective - finding an open teammate. Rather than using all 40 pictures to find the best passing option, he devotes some attention to his defender and protecting the ball, and he shifts some attention internally as he questions himself, which slows his processing and decision-making. Rather than devote his 40 pictures to finding an open teammate, he uses 10-20 pictures. The game speeds up, his focus narrows, and he gets tunnel vision - he sees his teammate get open, but misses his teammate's defender trailing one step behind. He throws the pass and the defender steps in front for the steal. We blame his vision, but his misdirected attention started with a lack of technical ability and confidence.

Once a player has the technical skills to direct his attention appropriately (broad-external concentration area when surveying he court), he needs a greater game awareness so he can concentrate on the proper cues. Australian Institute of Sport sports scientist Damian Farrow "has found that players who make poor decisions tend to glance at targets, rather than pausing on them. They're also more drawn to motion," (Kahn). Making a good decision starts with anticipating the play and reading the right cues earlier than a player who makes a poor decision. We call this "vision," but it has more to do with processing cues as opposed to what cues we see. As we develop a better game awareness, we process the right cues and ignore the unimportant ones.

Game awareness centers on the basic tactical skills which comprise offensive basketball: give-and-go cuts, pick-and-rolls, dribble-hand-offs and more. When learning these skills, players must learn the basic execution of the skill (how to set the screen, where to cut), but also the relevant cues. When using an on-ball screen, for instance, the ball handler must read his defender and the screener's defender and also the help defenders. "In a lot of team sports, you're attracted to the area of greatest movement," Farrow says. "But just because there's a person running fast and waving his arms doesn't mean he's the best person to kick to."

If the ball handler automatically passes to the screener rolling to the basket without accounting for the help defender, he may pass to the defense or lead his teammate into a turnover. The player needs to anticipate the opening based on experience, but he must see the opening before passing. If the ball handler reads the help defender before even using the on-ball screen, because he anticipates the play, he can make the pass earlier and thus be more successful. If he waits until the middle of the play to account for defenders, his decision-making will be slow - after all, we are talking about decisions made in less than half a second, and every millisecond counts.

Beyond learning the cues and the proper skill execution, players need repetitions to learn these skills. If players try to learn by the book - through drills and relying on coach feedback - they will not feel the skill or internalize the cues, and their reactions and decisions will not be as quick. Instead, players need to play in situations where they see lots of different defenses, and they can react to situations and learn from their mistakes. Running a drill where the decisions are pre-determined helps a player to learn the best plays in certain situations, but the player needs to experience the plays in live settings to learn the pattern recognition and decision-making skills that ultimately determine the player's success in a game.

Small-sided games or unstructured play provide this type of learning experience. " Playing soccer with 30 other kids in a dusty village plot turns out to foster the kind of flexible thinking and acute spatial attention that pays off in high-level competition. 'We should be modeling our programs on that,' Farrow says emphatically," (Kahn).

Developing an intelligent player requires a multi-faceted approach. Drills alone cannot teach the skills, game awareness, attentional styles and game experience required to develop a high basketball I.Q. Instead, players need a variety of activities, from individual practice to master the basic technical skills to team practices and games to practice the execution of the basic tactical skills to unstructured play to gain the experience and flexible thinking to make the appropriate decisions at the right time and with the required speed.

McCormick is the author of Developing Basketball Intelligence, a book designed to help coaches develop players with a high basketball I.Q. He also founded the Playmaker Basketball Development League to further assist coaches and league administrators develop these qualities in youth players. Visit www.playmakersleague.com for more information. McCormick is a former professional coach in Europe who is pursuing a doctorate in sports skill acquisition. For more information on his other books and products, visit 180Shooter.com.


  • Kahn, Jennifer (2007). "Wayne Gretzky-like 'Field Sense' May Be Teachable." Wired: 15.06.
  • Meir R (2005). "Conditioning the Visual System: A Practical Perspective on Visual Conditioning in Rugby Football." Strength and Conditioning Journal: Vol. 27, No. 4 pp. 86-92

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