Teaching and Getting Players to Remember Set Plays

I did a Zoom conference with Fontbonne Academy head coach Clare Murphy recently. Two seasons ago, my team played against Coach Murphy’s team in a game on New Year’s Eve. I remember the date because it was part of my disappointed address to the team afterwards. “I think we are all checked out right now.” After the game I watched the film and at the next practice I apologized to our team. Our effort was not that bad. Fontbonne simply out-executed our team and rarely made mistakes on the offensive end. I asked Coach Murphy about her thoughts on set plays.

Plays are a Necessary Evil

Quick off the top of your head name a team that you have coached against that does not run a set out of bounds play. Chances are if you did, the team is not very good. Coach Murphy told me that any team is going to have press breakers and inbounds plays as a starting point. And in addition to those prerequisites, offensive sets that get executed are a competitive advantage. Your team knows where to go in full speed and the other team does not.

I asked Coach Murphy about the players lack of understanding on plays. If only one out of five fails to execute their role, the play fails. Coach Murphy quickly agreed. As a coach at Fontbonne for three decades and the head coach for 22 years, these players are common to pretty much all teams.

Helping Players Learn Sets

Coach Murphy cites three ways that her players remember the plays. First, on bus rides to road games the players ask coaches for a marker board. In the back of the bus, they teach each other. As an eighth grade math teacher, the science behind this learning method is effective. Players might make eye contact and passively listen to a coach giving the instructions. When they are the one forced to explain and diagram every detail, there is no hiding. Getting the play wrong is healthy in this environment. And it often elicits great questions and ideas that the coach never initially considered.

Second, in practice they spend a considerable amount of time working on the play in five on five. Coach Paul Tanglis also touched on the importance of working on sets in five on five in practice. One of Coach Murphy’s greatest frustrations is when the players force an action that is not available. In practice, she gives very little direction to the players on how to defend their sets. She wants defenders to cheat to see if the offense can recognize the counter move. It also helps the offense to learn what to do about teams that switch on screens versus teams that fight through screens.

The third step she takes to help players learn sets is create a playbook for them. For any coaches that have not heard of FastDraw, I recommend checking it out. I use the $109 product (there are cheaper and more expensive versions). Coach Murphy puts all the plays into the playbook for the players. Especially for people that are new to the team, receiving a playbook is an effective way to say “you’ve made it.” It also is an effective way to communicate that the plays matter.

Determining What Plays Work for Your Team

Coach Murphy told me that every summer she reevaluates what plays will be effective for the upcoming season. Knowing the strengths of personnel is the most important part of the process. Slashers, posts, and shooters need to be placed in situations in which their strengths are on full display. Coaches mistakenly spend tremendous energy on weaknesses.

Speaking of focusing on weaknesses, I read this quote from Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive and immediately wrote it down.

“Effective executives lead from strength in their own work. They make productive what they can do. Most executives I know in government, in the hospital, in a business, know all the things they cannot do. They are only too conscious of what the boss won’t let them do, of what company policy won’t let them do, of what the government won’t let them do. As a result, they waste their time and their strengths complaining about the things they cannot do anything about.”

Show the Same Look with Different Actions

One final idea that Coach Murphy employs is developing different actions from the same initial look. For instance, the team did multiple actions out of horns set this year. Especially early in the season, they were tough to scout. As the season progresses and teams become familiar with the calls, change the calls.

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