Nonlinear Pedagogy in Basketball

Nonlinear pedagogy is an approach to coaching underpinned by an ecological dynamics theoretical framework. This approach is particularly relevant in a sport such as basketball, where athletes must constantly make quick decisions. If coaches adopt a nonlinear pedagogy in their practices, it allows their players to better-adapt to the complex nature of basketball.

The traditional, linearized approach to basketball coaching comprises of a series of progressions and build-ups. From 1 on 0 and other “on-air” progressions players may then progress to more ‘complicated’ scenarios much later on, such as 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3 etc. This is the way coaches have done it for years, with players requiring specific ‘fundamentals’ before they are able to supposedly handle being placed in more advanced solutions. This coaching methodology remains the bona fide method with most official coach education courses that are held within not just basketball, but many other sports. Coaches grow up doing this because it is what they are taught is the “right away” to coach, even though there is a more effective method supported by recent findings in the skill acquisition world.

Understanding Nonlinear Pedagogy

Nonlinear Pedagogy is “untraditional.” It reverts the typical build-up which coaches have grown to love, which starts with segments of the game as opposed to using decomposed, fundamentalist drills. The coach may have some principles of play in-mind as to what they want to accomplish, but not a specific road map of how to get there. The five key concepts of nonlinear pedagogy include:

  1. Representative learning design
  2. Purposeful manipulation of constraints
  3. Attentional focus
  4. Information-movement couplings
  5. Functional variability

For an enhanced understanding, I highly recommend Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction by Jia Yi Chow, Ian Renshaw, Keith Davids and Chris Button.

Let’s take a look at how these principles could be applied in-context. As opposed to using a traditional drill, such as a three-man weave or 1-on-0, a coach may choose to start their practice with 5-on-5 over three trips. This is high in representativeness given the fact that the three trips (down and back) include all phrases of the game, as well as the fact we have the same number of players as found in the real game. Specific constraints could be used within the 5-on-5 to shape specific situations. Let’s take for instance a principle of play: the two side break. This is when two players fill the weakside corner and wing, exploiting the spatial advantage provided by the transition defense’s tendency to load up towards the middle of the lane. Starting with 5-on-5, but using constraints to amplify affordances (opportunities for action) for the two side skip to occur, provides a deeper context for the players to develop these solutions with the same information sources that exist in the game. This could be as simple as awarding double points for a score off the two side skip, with three up and down trips before the 5-on-5 resets and the other team get the first possession. Critically, this approach allows players to understand how a concept works in 5-on-5, which is impossible to achieve in 1-on-0, 2-on-0 etc. Trying to ‘teach’ a two side skip through 3-on-0 contains none of the representative information that exists in the game because the defense is not there. The offense doesn’t get accustomed to perceiving subtleties in the defense’s positioning that may lead to the two side skip, or more importantly, something else occurring. The two side skip may be the focus but not the only outcome within the activity: just like what happens in the real game.

Self-discovery is an important concept for coaches to grasp. Many times, coaches fail to account for how skill is an emergent behavior and that players can perform something without ever being explicitly “taught” it. Every time a coach uses a linear build up using the traditional method paired with explicit instruction, it robs the players of a golden opportunity to self-discover. Adopting Nonlinear Pedagogy (NLP), means that coaches must consider questions such as what problems are the players encountering which could then be aided by constraints and specific small-sided games? This then shapes what is done next in the practice, such as 1-on-1, 2-on-1, 3-on-3 etc, where the affordances and number of possessions to experience specific situations are amplified. For instance, maybe players are struggling to make an accurate two side skip pass. Amplifying the affordances (opportunities for action) whereby this pass occurs could be useful, and this could be done through a 1-on-1 where the passer has to get the ball to a teammate on the weak side 45, dribbling and passing against a live defender pressing them in the front-court. By keeping the defender in this activity, we let self-organization play its part in allowing the passer to develop functional solutions to fulfil the task. The player can explore different ways to get the ball to their teammate while coping with the pressure from the defender, as opposed to learning one ‘correct’ way to pass as seen in a traditional, linearized approach. Additional task constraints could be the space being played in (offense can only use half the half-court) as well as having a time limit, such as 5 seconds, to successfully pass the ball to their teammate.

This can be a challenge as it means deviating from a scripted practice plan. Just like the problem that comes with young players memorizing patterns with continuity offenses and set plays, following a practice plan closely has the same effect on coaches. They do not see the problems the players are encountering in the practice as they are so focused on “teaching”, executing drills and giving prescriptive, corrective feedback, that they do not see what players need the most and therefore miss a golden opportunity to shape the rest of the practice accordingly. I would argue that the goal of the practice is instead for coaches to be closely observing what is emerging before responding accordingly.

Following a Practice Plan

For coaches first becoming familiar with adopting NLP, following a plan may serve a purpose as it gives them an idea as to what activities and specific task constraints they may use. Without having to worry about what to do next, this may help coaches with the ability to watch how the players are interacting within their environment, identifying the successes and challenges players are encountering within each activity. Using this as a springboard, coaches can think of ways to manipulate constraints on the fly in-response to what is emerging in front of them. If coaching a professional team amid an intensive schedule, or working with very reduced preparation windows such as a National Team, following a plan can make sense. But critically even when using a plan, the coaches have to be ready and willing to go off-script.

Watch the video below for an example of how to adopt a NLP:

Practice Plans aligned with a NLP

Adopting a NLP as advocated by Chris Oliver and myself can be used and adopted by all coaches from the NBA down to high school. Having a practice plan can be important as it shows the staff as a whole to be prepared for the practice. However it is not a traditional plan that is set in stone, with specific timings for how long you will spend on each activity. Unless using bursts or scrimmaging, I do not advocate for using fixed time periods in practice. If players find something too easy or challenging and we need to manipulate constraints accordingly, why wait and continue wasting valuable practice time?

Upon the conclusion of a practice, adopting a NLP means the practice may have looked very different to how the initial plan was written. Key points of emphasis for certain principles of play may be agreed upon with SSG’s (e.g. ability to create and keep an offensive advantage), which allows coaches to focus on what they are looking for within each activity, but leaving lots of flexibility for how this actually happens. These are not the traditional points of emphasis focused on technical execution and rigid automatics. Critically, coaches should not always begin by telling the players what are looking for at the start of each activity. Doing this each time defeats the object of using the NLP. This is very much the opposite to the traditional approach, whereby coaches tell athletes exactly what outcomes they want to see within each practice activity.

Scripting Parts of Practice

Some elements of the practice may be more planned, and effective practice planning certainly involves coaches anticipating what parts of the practice players may struggle with. For instance, youth players will probably not have many adaptable solutions to play against a drop coverage in pick and roll. But by starting with the whole concept in-mind (e.g. 5-on-5, only scoring through a Pick and Roll against drop coverage), players will have a chance of discovering some solutions, which may include acting on favourable affordances such as the reject, slip, pick & pop, rolling behind the drop defender etc. Another advantage to this is that players can immediately work on different parts of the game: simultaneously discovering how to use a defensive coverage successfully to neutralize the offense, while exploring functional solutions to also exploit and punish it offensively.

When the coach wants to sharpen up the offensive execution of such solutions, the buy-in is greater because the coach can re-connect some of the solutions to things players have already done within the 5-on-5. Film can also be used to educate intent, showing the players what they did, filming the 5-on-5 portion and showing some of the best solutions players came up with. This is much more player-led than the coach going in and telling the players “this is what we will do against this type of coverage.” Decision-making is not a case “if X happens, look for Y.” This is simply far too reductionist. Coverage solutions are merely possibilities that exist, and there may be even better ones out there waiting to be discovered! Players may be attuned to different possibilities playing against a switch, drop, blitz, show etc., but the solution cannot be scripted as the constraints are ever-changing.

This approach is far better for facilitating learning compared to the coach coming in and immediately teaching things in a linearized fashion. Going back to our example of the drop coverage, the more complex coverage solutions such as a hostage dribble and snake are of course much less likely to be self-discovered within the context of a youth practice. This is where the CLA, underpinned by a NLP, is used within possible activities such as 2-on-1 and 1-on-1+1 scenarios whereby these solutions can emerge. A really simple way I encourage the movement solution of a hostage dribble (when the offense dribbles keeping the defender on their back) is running a 1-on-1+1 or 2-on-2 Pick and Roll, with the task constraint that the ball handler waits for two seconds inside the lane before scoring. Sure enough, the hostage can emerge as one potential solution, but critically there are multiple affordances if this occurs: for instance potential scenarios out of this could include passing to the roller, finishing at the rim, snaking, finding space to shoot etc.

During the Practice

Within these practices, water breaks and player led time-outs serve as a great opportunity for the coach (es) to decide on what is needed next. This may appear like a daunting task but this is the art of growing as a coach. Challenging yourself with such situations will prepare you for anything! Within this minute, the following needs to be decided:

– Any changes to tasks constraints and activities 
– Specific notes on individual players. At College Prep we use this period to determine potential rate limiters which are then the focus of our morning player development sessions
– Format, structure and changes for the next SSG
– Anything else of note

Common Player Development Methods

In the player development world many coaches and trainers fall for the linear honeytrap by teaching moves on moves on moves, or doing lots of 1-on-0 of particular techniques and actions. This includes examples like teaching a cross-jab, same foot stop, curling off a pindown etc.

The problem with these common methods are that coaches and trainers never give the players the critical connection: when or how will you be in a situation to do this in a game? Using declarative knowledge by saying to a player “this is when you will do this move” is completely different to reality and assuming this will actually work. Pulling players out of their environment is simply not helping prepare them for success in the future. 

Head to and join our online community.

Related Articles