We were doing a shell drill at one point in the middle of the season. At the conclusion of it, an assistant coach asked our team what can we do better. The number one answer he heard was communication. I was content with the players’ answer, but my assistant was not. “Ok, what are the three most important things we need to be saying on defense?” And it dawned on me. We say communication, but we do not say what we want them to communicate.
Coach Seth Stantial and his teams have always played an extremely simple brand of defense, but the players rarely make mistakes. The teams he coach are year in and year out the best at communicating that we face. I asked him what he asks his players to communicate and other defensive principles.
Knock Down Dominoes
The analogy “knock down dominoes” is the core defensive concept for their team. They want to communicate three things especially when it comes to playing defense in transition. The first is “ball.” Whoever is responsible for stopping ball needs to communicate it by saying “ball.” The second is “house.” This is the term that their team applies to the paint or the hoop. The third is man. That would probably be communicated by whatever the jersey number of the opposition is. The order is critical. A couple times per game at youth games players think they are doing the right thing covering the man only to have someone else on offense walk into the paint for an uncontested lay-up.
The rules once it gets to half-court is that players who are one pass away must be able to close out on the catch. Players that are two passes away are on what their team calls the “wall.” The wall is another term for basket line. It is a little detail, but I like wall better than basket line because it is less syllables to communicate. Coach Stantial told me that if he could immerse the youth players with only one concept to already have stored away when they got to high school it would be “ball, one away, wall.”
One of the most consistent complaints coaches make is lack of communication. We need to specify the highest of priorities of what we want communicated. It is a touch ironic that the issue in fixing player communication is a result of coach communication.
Holding Players Accountable for Communication
Coach Stantial mentioned that the easiest way to hold a player accountable is to remove her from the game. My JV coach frequently will take out five players and put five new players in when they are not communicating. He is quick to forgive and gives the players another shot a few minutes later, but there is always a difference in how they communicate with the next opportunity they get. Coach Stantial mentioned that sometimes the offensive skill of a player that misses a communication assignment hampers your ability to remove them from the game. It is an unfortunate give and take.
Sometimes taking players out of the game works. Other times freezing practice and asking the players what happened is effective. And then there are those moments where the teams needs to run. Before the “Have Fun Basketball Police” arrest Coach Stantial or myself for penalizing players by making them run in a sport in which running is a requirement, the players want to be held accountable. Coach Stantial tells players that their lack of communication just resulted in giving up a basket. If players give up a basket in an actual game, they must run up court. They will be the first to admit they need to be pushed and motivated to do their best.
Running for a Penalty Creates Mental Toughness
Earlier this month I read the book Coach God which is written by former St. John’s Prep and current Newburyport girls assistant coach Joseph Lovett. He gave the best rationale I have ever read on “running as a penalty.”
“When he [Sean Connelly] took over the program on the varsity level, he instituted a running consequence for every competitive situation, full court one-on-one drills, foul shooting, and scrimmaging. Everything had a winner and a loser. Athletes were always under pressure to perform to the best of their ability. He changed my mind about running as a basketball coach. I saw players respond calmly to pressure situations with a reservoir of physical and mental toughness that they previously didn’t hold. Selfishness wasn’t allowed. Everyone was expected to try their very best; if they didn’t there was a consequence (Lovett 41).”
I know that the military and the game of basketball are not on the same level of importance. I am one of those people that hate using the analogy “that game was a war.” That said, there is a reason that the military consistently relies upon exercise as a consequence. It creates mental and physical toughness. Will the Navy Seals love it? Probably not. They will grow to appreciate it though. I think the same is true of basketball players or any athlete.
Most coaches would agree that communication on defense is more important than communication on offense. That said, the most important consideration for offensive communication according to Coach Stantial is calling the player’s name that you pass to. Coach Stantial values calling names for two reasons. First, a couple times per game players will not realize the ball is being passed to them. Second, the passer a couple times per game is indecisive in the split seconds before letting the pass go. By calling the name of a teammate, Coach Stantial believes the passer and the receiver are significantly less likely to be at fault for a turnover.
The entire process will only eliminate turnovers if the passer does not telegraph the pass. It should go without saying, but calling a player’s name and then throwing a pass will cause turnovers. The name should be called as the ball is released from the passer’s hands.