The book Superforecasters changed my perception of game planning. The authors, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, hit on several common themes that I have been reading up on during the off-season. Decisiveness, transparency, and open-mindedness among them. There were also some newer concepts that caused me to reconsider the way I typically do business as a teacher and coach.
What can be forecasted?
At its core the purpose of trying to make an accurate prediction is to try to alter any potentially undesirable results. As a basketball coach, there are many predictions that would be worth making. Predicting what players will be on the team, who will work hard in the off season and who will not, or what type of energy you will get from individuals before practice begins. Having an intuition about all of these aspects of the game is certainly valuable, but to me game-planning trumps all of them.
Why is game planning the most important element to forecast?
At the end of the day, a coach is with the players for only a fraction of the time that the player is conditioning and developing as a player. Let’s say the season lasts 96 days. That means the coach is working 26% of the year with the player. The vast majority of those 96 days is focused on getting ready for the next game. Two of those days are devoted to tryouts. For our team, the time before the first game the past couple seasons has been 12 days. It is hard to game plan for game number one. Therefore, 84 out of the 96 days, my energy and focus is on preparing for the next game. That is 88% of the time.
One of the key things that Gardner and Tetlock hit on in Superforecasters is that the best guessers are not using words like “probably.” They give percentages and do not round to the nearest ten (like 26% and 88%). By focusing on the 88% (game-planning) as opposed to the 26% (off season) or even the 2% of season (predicting what players will be on the team) I am putting more energy into the part of the program I control the most.
Traditional Game Planning
In the past for the high school program I’m coaching, three coaches have scouted ahead. Very often this involves going to the gym of the team we will play next after a practice. Sometimes we have film of them. And as the season evolves we often have multiple looks at a team. We write down starters, key bench players, what defenses we may face, what sets, transition strengths, key rebounders, etc. After consolidating the research, I will typically write up a blurb about the personnel and three keys to the game for the players. If I have not seen the team play, one of the other coaches will write it. Sometimes I fear TMI (too much information). Maybe players should just “playground” it and not worship or disrespect their opponent based on our write up. For the most part, it adds value though. Practice drills and games are altered to reflect what is coming and players’ expectations might change to avoid unnecessary panic.
Superforecasting Game Planing
The process overall is solid, but can certainly get cleaned up by doing three things that Superforecasters would advocate.
- Assess the game plan after the game. I do not have a template, but should make one. Questions such as what was true and what was false about personnel could be relevant. It would also be important to revisit the three keys. Did we as a team achieve what we set out to do? Did we as a coaching staff prioritize the most important controllable? If the questions indicate that the process was broken somewhere then the scouting process needs to be altered to ensure that the mistake is not replicated.
- Avoid group think among the coaching staff. If the network of coaches you have is small make it bigger. Use that network and get their thoughts on the upcoming opponent. If multiple coaches watch the same game, it does not mean that the interpretation will be the same. This leads to the third point.
- Nothing is certain. As David Petraeus was quoted in the book, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” I do not mean to equate the work that the military does with basketball, but I think his quote has transferable value to basketball. Players and coaches should take into account the possibility of in-game adjustments and address this expectation as part of every game plan. Sometimes a team is not executing the actual game plan, but when they are and it is not working it is time to reassess. An adjustment can produce the necessary confidence for those games that an opponent may simply be having better luck.
As Tetlock and Gardner state in Superforecasters, “Brushing off surprises makes the past look more predictable than it was – and this encourages the belief that the future is much more predictable than it is.” A player’s performance can vary from game to game. Too often we have faced a team and simply shrugged when a player has an unusually great performance. We chalk it up as luck. If we actually were to track this, would it be luck or our forecast causing us to take that player lightly?
The same can be said of an entire team. The great mistake that people always make is the common opponent assumption. Seeing that you beat Team A and that Team A beat Team B guarantees that you will beat Team B. Until Team B comes into your building and wins. Basketball has many variables, and upsets happen when several variables are out of the ordinary. For this exact reason surprises need to get dissected as much or more than a “routine” game to not repeat the problem in the future.