Is There a Better Way: Chris Oliver Basketball New Zealand Tour

Back in February this year we (Swoosh Training) collaborated with Chris Oliver to run a player and coach development tour across New Zealand. We were able to travel across the country and help share the game and constantly ask is there a better way? The tour itself was one for the history books in New Zealand with a total of 8 camps and 28 sessions (16 on court player development and 12 coach specific sessions). We shared the game with over 200+ coaches and close to 500+ players from all over the country.

Throughout the tour not only were we actively sharing the game with Chris but we were constantly taking notes on the different ideas and concepts shared. We began to see and hear common themes emerge throughout the various sessions. Included in the notes below will be key ideas, concepts and takeaways from our time sharing the game with Coach Chris in New Zealand.

“A lot of us would be using Blackberries if we didn’t understand that the iPhone is better “- Chris Oliver

Is there a better way?

The basis of everything Chris and Basketball Immersion do revolves around a key question: “Is there a better way?” Simple yet effective. Instead of right or wrong, a coach should ask the question is there a better way when evaluating and reflecting on what you are doing to develop your team and players.

Firstly we’d like to address one of the double standards in sport. How often do we hear coaches talking about “you need to do work in your own time” or “practice can’t be the only time you work on your game”? This is definitely the case and we 100% agree; however, the same thing applies to us as coaches. It’s a classic practice what you preach situation.

Coaching in practice doesn’t mean you’re getting better as a coach simply because it’s another rep. Coaches need to find time outside of training to evaluate what you currently do as well as study new and different ideas. Yes, time is a limited resource and we aren’t suggesting coaches need to spend all day evaluating and studying, however 15 minutes on a consistent basis goes a long way.

During the tour, all the player development sessions were designed to help players connect skills with decisions and to avoid anything that “decouples” the game. All the coach education components of the tour were to help coaches by either adding, subtracting or making over what they currently do.

As coaches we use content we are most familiar with in our practices. The majority of the time these are drills that we once did when we were players. This transfer of traditional norms in coaching can be seen throughout the game. The main issue with this is that traditional coaching follows linear progressions: layup lines, ball handling and shooting all in isolation block practice into a 1v1 and 3v3 game for example.

The issue with this, in particular with youth basketball, is coaches end up layering drill on top of drill, progression on progression and it all looks clean. Then at the very end of practice we play for 10 min or less; it’s messy and the majority of things you just did do not transfer to the game.

Is there a better way? How do you get better at basketball?

We encouraged coaches to sit and watch the on-court player development session. The consistent themes of feedback we got from coaches who watched the sessions were 1. How engaged players were throughout the sessions and 2. How fun the sessions looked.

Isn’t that what you want as a coach? You want players to be engaged, to fight for their learning while enjoying the learning process. One of the easiest ways to achieve these two things is to increase Active Learning Time. To increase ALT (Active Learning Time) coaches need to decrease the following: management time, waiting time and instruction time. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply play more basketball.

Chris recently had a great twitter thread outlining to coaches “why do you have to wait to have dessert?” which highlights evidence-based practice environments vs the traditional approach to practice where coaches put skill sets into different compartments of practice, layering drills and progressions as a build up to play for a limited time at the end.

Chris had a running joke throughout the tour that he would say to coaches who watched him present for the first time: “How does someone get better at piano? Do they spend time running around the piano? Or do they play piano?” It was always a well-received joke but more importantly it broke the ice for the important discussions that followed. “How do you think you get better at basketball?….. You play basketball.”

By using the constraints led approach coaches can create an environment where every part of practice can be as exciting as the 10 minutes of play at the end. Simply by playing more basketball at basketball practice. To learn more about these evidenced based ideas check out this blog on Non-Linear Pedagogy in Basketball

We understand why coaches are comfortable with the traditional approach. It’s more controlled and a whole lot cleaner. However that’s not what basketball is. The game is dynamic and very messy at times. I have these types of discussions with junior club coaches all the time. If what you’re doing in training looks clean and controlled, that’s probably an indication that we need to mix things up. I get it you want to teach X, Y, Z but how can we do this in a way that looks more like the real deal? It can really be as simple as adding a defender or defenders to the drill. Yes it’ll be messy, but that’s what learning looks like and ultimately that’s what the games will look like.

Is there a better way? What is the #1 fundamental in basketball?

Space! I’m sure most coaches are familiar with this Chuck Daly quote “Offense is spacing and spacing is offense.” There was not one session where Chris didn’t coach spacing. Chris definitely doesn’t talk about the “fundamentals” of basketball; however, he is constantly coaching spacing as part of Basketball Immersion’s principles of play. Spacing concepts – teaching what space is and how to create it – can be the foundation of what you coach, especially at the junior level. And this is why Chris argues that Spacing is the #1 fundamental of basketball.

The video below shows how to introduce this concept of “space is always the answer” to players.

On offense, “space” is always the answer. By introducing this, Chris is then able to use questions throughout the session to reconnect the current activity back to the principle of play: space. By giving the players this answer it also gives them confidence to then answer questions when the coach uses cold-calling methods. One of the underpinning notes I took away while watching Chris deliver sessions was how well and consistent he is at defining things for players. In this example defining what space is and connecting to the second principle of play, which is advantage.

I agree entirely with Chris that spacing is the #1 fundamental in basketball and obviously crucial for any teams’ success on the offensive end. Which is why when you teach players about spacing, you also introduce the fact that basketball is a game of opposites. If the offense wants to create space, the defense wants to take away space. This is a great example of how the game of opposites can be used to two-way teach ideas to your team.

Is there a better way? Defense wants to take away space.

Using the principle of play [space], Coaches can create a framework from which to teach the game. This is another reason why the traditional linear approach doesn’t provide players the context needed since on air drills don’t provide perception or decision. In order to work on spacing you need to create an environment for teachable moments to occur and the best way to do this? Play basketball.

Another idea that consistently arose was the way that Chris defined skill. There were two key messages regarding skill.

  1. Skill = Confidence
  2. Skill can be the addition or the elimination of something

Coaches always have to deal with players and their confidence. At the youth level especially we get questions all the time from club coaches and parents about “how can we get Jimmy to be more confident?”

Well, one of the reasons Jimmy isn’t confident is because he can’t dribble. How can you expect a player to be confident when they only take one dribble then quickly pick it up (without a plan) and panics? That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. So how does [Jimmy] get more confident? He needs to work on his game.

Chris proposed that throughout a practice coaches should have 10-15 minutes of player led development times where players can work on their own game. This can start with the coach prescribing “homework” for players to take and use at home but can also be a chance to co-design activities. The more skilled you are the more fun you can have in basketball. That’s the beauty of the game.

Is there a better way? What is skill?

As for the second part of Chris’s definition, it’s widely considered that to be more skilled you need to constantly add things to the “bag”. Of course building skill from addition is great but I really believe that building skills from subtraction or elimination is completely underrated.

There are so many actions players can eliminate to be more effective & efficient. This includes but are not limited to: dribbles, passes, pivots, jabs, fakes, counters. There are also definitely some actions that might seem like an addition of skill but can be counterproductive (learning multi dribble combo moves/triple threat jabs/fakes).

Another phrase which consistently came up throughout camps was “you don’t get points for passing”. I loved this comment from Chris; overpassing was something we consistently saw. I know that ball movement and long dominoes sequences get a lot of “oohs and aahs” from the coaching community and I’m all for it, however I wouldn’t be mad at scoring as fast as possible, as much as possible. That’s efficiency. There is no point in making an extra pass when you already have a wide open shot and for the most part whenever you turn down a high profile shot you don’t get another one. This is also the reason I’m not a fan of teams tracking the amount of total passes they make. Who cares? Even worse are some overpass situations that lead to turnovers!

Is there a better way? Unintentional consequences of coaching

Chris introduced me to this entirely new concept in one of the first few camp sessions and as a coach it really makes you think. The “unintentional consequences” of how we coach. This is a statement that underlines some of the negative habits & behaviors players display that are directly linked back to the way we coach them. If this doesn’t make sense let’s put it this way. I’m sure your program or team players display habits & behaviors that you’d associate back to some form of intentional coaching, the type of thing you’d put your hand up as a coach like “that’s our culture” or “that’s how we play basketball”. Now when it comes to the ‘unintentional consequences’ it’s not necessarily major things or even things that are extremely negative however, they are definitely things that will have you questioning yourself and asking “is there a better way?”

Is there a better way? Do you get points for passing?

You don’t get points for passing! However as much as we emphasize it as coaches you’d think we did. This is a great example of unintentional consequence; the fact that we want our teams to share the ball comes from a good intention but still doesn’t change the fact that passing is actually a secondary decision. How often do we see players turn down shots? And even over-pass themselves out of an advantage into a neutral situation. These habits/behaviors stem back to the way we coach them. Scoring the ball is the primary decision and that’s why we have adopted the mindset of “it’s 1v1 before 5v5.” We want players to be assertive in their 1v1 matchup before anything else.

This leads to another common consequence of coaching “running the play”: what’s the point of an offensive set? To create advantage, get to dominoes and work together to find a high % shot. The intention of the coach is to set their team up for success by using the play to trigger advantage. In the efforts to do this, due to what we emphasize, “run the play” players become robotic, over dribble and over pass, turn down shots and can become fixated on the play vs actually playing the game. This is why we love the thread One of the most important concepts we emphasize is to NOT run the play

“The goal is to score, not to run a set play nicely! There is of course some element of pattern recognition within a set, but being attuned to different offensive scenarios is far more important than merely remembering a pattern” – Alex Sarama

There are so many examples of these unintentional consequences. I’d challenge all coaches to vet their team/program and come up with the different habits/behaviors and ask yourself why? Because you could honestly be unintentionally supporting these actions because of the way we coach them.

Coaches are obsessed with communication, we preach how important this is to us but the lack of communication is still a constant battle for most teams. Could we be part of the problem?

Is there a better way? Why don’t they communicate?

If coaches are constantly yelling and talking throughout practice or games the players themselves don’t get a chance to work on their communication skills. At times we really just need to shut up and by doing so it provides players the opportunity to communicate and figure it out themselves. One of the major unintentional consequences of coaching is that we constantly take away player led opportunities. It’s quite ironic when you think about it. Coaches are constantly talking about leadership and how important it is for the players to lead and even call out the lack of leadership. We need to find ways to eliminate some coach control moments and give players the opportunity to lead themselves. Yes this might take some time away from intensity and time on task at times but we will make major gains in the long term.

Below are some examples of ideas I’ve adopted from Chris to help provide more player led opportunities.

  • Don’t prescribe rotations (players can figure it out)
  • Player only timeouts (no coach intervention)

Is there a better way? What is coaching?

I’m constantly using this question in my role as a coach developer. It’s important to have a discussion about what people think coaching is along with what “good” coaching looks, sounds and feels like. This exercise is always an interesting one as it requires some thought and you get a range of answers. The main idea I want to highlight during this exercise is perception vs reality of what coaching is. Society is constantly painting a picture of what coaching is and this stems from the Hollywoodization of coaching.

Hollywoodization is when something/someone has adapted to the norms and ideas of Hollywood to make that (someone/something) more glitzy, superficial, thrilling etc. The “hollywoodization” of coaching paints a totally different picture of what coaching is to the world.

Hollywood displays coaching as running your team as punishment, montages of drills, a bunch of big speeches, and massive amounts of improvements in a very short amount of time. This isn’t coaching.

First of all, if running solved problems we wouldn’t have any problems! We see this form of transactional coaching and punishment throughout sport and it’s honestly a waste of time. Chris had a great approach to making consequences for his teams. Create logical consequences: if you turn over the ball during a possession the natural & logical consequence is you don’t get to play offense and you have to transition to play defense (what would running teach you in this situation?). As coaches we don’t need to create consequences such as running or push ups – we can find better ways that are far more logical.

Montages of drills leading to massive amounts of improvement is just so Hollywood. As if Daniel really learned karate skills from waxing a car! Obviously that goes without saying but it highlights an important message.

Is there a better way? Noticing progress

You are bad at something before you are ok, you are ok before you are good & you are good before you are great. There’s natural progression, even the best players in the world start off by being bad at something. A huge part of a player’s development process is knowing they are getting better, so as coaches it’s critical for us to notice the progress of players. This doesn’t need to be anything big, even the slightest improvement matters especially earlier in the process. If a player was bad at something and now they are kinda getting ok at it, that’s improvement and it’s a massive boost for the players when we highlight this.

Alongside noticing progress, another key part in development is to normalize struggle. This is another big reason why playing more basketball in practice is so important. If we put players through blocked perfection/repetition drills they become comfortable. As Chris highlighted, our job as coaches is to make players uncomfortable, until they become comfortable and then make them uncomfortable again. We can do this by creating a safe learning environment where players are encouraged to explore solutions and make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process so it’s also crucial that we normalize this. This also ties into the mental side of the game by playing more basketball, allowing players to make mistakes. We can also provide them coping strategies to continue to stay present in the moment. There’s no time to put your head down after a turnover when you’re playing basketball. The consequence of doing so is a natural/logical one, the other team will score.

The last Hollywood myth is the “big speech”. I’m sure we are all familiar with the concept. It’s halftime of the big game, the underdog team is down and it seems all hope is lost. Then the coach comes in and delivers this “big speech” that totally changes everything, the team finds energy and they go into the second half as if they are a totally new team. This paints the picture that coaching is about the “big speech”, that coaches’ big speeches are the moments that really shape culture and develop the team to potential. Coaching isn’t about big speeches, however coaching is about communicating with your team. It’s just done in a more subtle way.

Is there a better way? What is coaching?

Mini conversations with your team can lead to big changes. These can be informal conversations you have with players to help connect outside the context of basketball, which is a big part of Chris’ practice plan. These conversations could also be more specific such as providing feedback, details or asking questions as part of the mini conversations concept. These moments are gold for you and your team. Chris had suggested throughout the tour that coaches should get an assistant or parent to track how many mini conversations they had throughout a practice which reinforces the idea of tracking what you value. As coaches we need to be our biggest advocates and start to push back and begin the de-Hollywoodization process of coaching.

Summary

We have been following Chris and Immersion since we first started listening to the podcast back in 2017 and for the last 4-5 years have been a part of the Immersion community. We were lucky enough to first connect with Chris back in 2019 when we hosted him for a camp. Keep in mind, to us as young coaches Chris was a superstar. We were both blown away with how down to earth and genuine he was and how open he was to sharing and talking basketball with us. Since then we have become more and more involved within the Immersion community and asking the question is there a better way of our own coaching.

Coach Oliver and the Immersion community have been pivotal for our progressions as coaches. We have been able to accelerate our development through the various ideas and concepts shared through all Immersion platforms. We consider Coach Oliver as a mentor from afar and recommend to any coach, especially younger coaches, to become Immersion members. It will be one of the best investments you make in your coaching career.

Sam has previously interned for Immersion working on various projects behind the scenes, as well as featuring on the 200th episode of the basketball podcast.

The Basketball Podcast: EP200 Insights from Around the World

Joe has two masterclasses in the Immersion membership community.

Masterclass with Joe Reddish on Adapting Immersion Ideas

Masterclass with Joe Reddish on 1-on-1 Defense

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