The Flaws of Set Plays

I did a video chat the other day with North Andover boys coach Paul Tanglis and Triton boys coach Ted Schruender. The two have been great friends since first grade and one of them happens to be my brother, so it was a great conversation. Coach Tanglis has been coaching basketball since 2006. When I asked him a couple summers ago about box outs and close outs his answers were really helpful. I asked him the other day about the biggest change that he has made since starting out in coaching in terms of X’s and O’s. His answer sparked a conversation about set plays versus motion.

Decrease in Pick-up Basketball

Coach Tanglis is increasingly having his players run motion in games instead of sets. A downward trend that Coach Tanglis has noticed in recent years is players experimenting with their games. In speaking with Coach Tanglis and Coach Ted we were all in agreement that pickup basketball is way down. If you drive by a park on a nice day, it is unlikely that you will find teenagers playing (pre COVID-19). The reasons can be debated, but the bottom line is players are missing the opportunity to improve without the pressure of adults around.

When players stop playing pick-up basketball, it makes it more difficult for them to be spontaneous when a set play does not work. Coach Tanglis increasingly noticed that players are unsure how to react when a play breaks down. In addition to pick up basketball being unavailable, youth teams simply do not have the time. They may only practice once or twice per week and there are many priorities for the coaches at this level. They need to show a press breaker, a baseline out of bounds play, get the players shots, etc. As a consequence, he made teaching high school players motion a higher priority this season. He utilized the Princeton offense to try to get his players to learn to read and react more.

Retaining the Details in Set Plays

At Triton High School, Coach Ted still values running sets. One change he decided on this year was to run less set plays. He used to run as many as eight sets, but this year he ran only five. Reflecting on past seasons, Coach Ted noticed that retention is an issue for his players. In games, players are often used to playing one role on the floor. Being thrust into a new role in games can throw off their timing. Thus, Coach Ted has decreased the volume of plays with the goal of increasing the efficiency. Each player is asked to execute and visualize the play from multiple perspectives.

To better develop their retention, overall IQ, and team communication Coach Ted is fairly hands off once he puts in a set play. Many coaches are against practicing plays 5 on 0, but this is an element Coach Ted incorporates in his practices. He likes to separate the team in two groups on both ends of the court. Many times, he takes his highest I.Q. players and splits them up in order to give them the opportunity to teach the players that are struggling to pick up the timing or other minor details. An unintended consequence of this method of teaching is that it also gives injured players a role at practice. The idea of giving the players an opportunity to learn from one another is backed heavily be research.

The Research

According to Peter C. Brown author of Make it Stick, coaches need to temper the expectations they have for how quickly players pick up new ideas. “What psychologists call the curse of knowledge is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task that we have already mastered.” Part of the problem with having such a high volume of plays is that the coach can memorize them since he was the architect. The players do not have the same sense of urgency to learn.

Coach Ted stressed that the set will look better in 5 on 0 than it is in reality. The benefit of 5 on 0 is that it will give the coach a clear indication that a player does not know a play. At a certain point, the players need to be held accountable to learn it. The Timing of plays will be disrupted by a good defense. If players cannot do it 5 on 0, your team will make even a bad defense appear competent.

The Challenge of Defending Your Sets in Practice

Coach Tanglis plays against some of the toughest ball pressure that the state has to offer. In practice, they might do a little 5 on 0. Most of what they do though is compete 5 on 5 and he needs his defense to simulate their opponents. That is a significant challenge if the opponent is more athletic or longer. Coaches might want to make rules for their offense such as if you beat your man, you cannot score immediately. Teams that group their starting five together are going to need to do creative things to challenge them in practice. If they run their sets against five players that are worse, it will not set them up for game success.

Personally, I hate running sets in practice because my teams cheat. They develop bad habits defensively. Sure, I want the offense to learn when a defender cheats, but ideally if ten players are on the court at once all ten should develop. That is why this season I ran less set plays than ever before. The offense and the defense grow.

Going forward I do see a need for set plays. My goal is to put in set plays after timeouts or to start out quarters. In practice this is something that can easily be simulated and will prevent a defense from cheating.

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