*Author’s Note: This 2 part post is part of an initiative the author is publishing in partnership with Hadley Park and Recreation for the benefit of student-athletes and coaches. The first post focuses on strategy. Prior lessons are referenced with the idea being that an athlete’s internal strategy (what they can control) influences their team’s external overall strategy. More traditional topics will be returned to in future weeks as well for those not wishing to read in-depth analysis of sports strategies.
Article 1: External Strategy
Greetings and welcome to this week’s edition of Mondays with Matt! This week, I would like to finish our discussion on athletic strategy. For a few weeks now, we have been talking about this concept of strategy. We have spent quite a bit of time identifying what internal strategy is and why it matters. This week, we will take a look at external strategy – the actual operations of how a game is conducted by both teams and why strategy is important to understand.
The way that a game is played and designed is based on a sequence of strategies and strategic decisions. As we watch games, we notice these strategies. We root for certain strategies to work. We watch a play develop in basketball or watch the sequence of passes to find a good shot in hockey and soccer. We notice how our favorite team is trying to score runs in baseball and softball.
All of these events do not occur in a vacuum. Yes, they do occur by individuals who have mastered the fundamentals and are playing a game. There is luck, chance and basic performance occurring. However, these happenings are also occurring based on a certain mindset that a team has based on achieving their goal of performing better than their opponent. Now, we are not going to dive deep into strategic analysis in this column. There are sports libraries full of books dedicated to different game plans and strategies and why (ie. Football – West Coast Offense vs. Pass Balanced; when to use a 4-3 Base Defense with read options [see Tom Landry] vs. a Cover 2 personnel package. Baseball/Softball: Base Advancement vs. Power Ball; SABERMetrics vs. traditional scouting. Soccer, Basketball, Hockey: Spread Offense vs. Crash Offense; Zone Defense vs. Man Defense).
What I do want to make sure is understood is that a team’s external strategy is based off of many different factors. These include a coach’s values, their preferred playing style, what they value in terms of fundamental skills, an opponent’s tendencies and our own team’s tendencies. What are your team’s tendencies based off of? One, how your team performs as a collective unit. Two, the individuals who make up your team. The internal strategies that make up your collective team.
There was an example that I used last week that I would like to examine further. In basketball, there are many different types of external team strategies that a coach can employ. You can use set plays, post plays and fast break plays among the many options. For this example, let’s look at the fast break. The fast break is an offensive strategy typically used to capitalize on your opponent’s failure to score. The emphasis is moving the ball up the court quickly. In order to do this, you need to have conditioned players who can run. You need to have good ball control and the ability to make quick, concise passes to your flanking teammates as you move down the court. If the members of your team are not fast or don’t excel in those skills, then the fast break will likely not be a key way that that team plays the game. You are looking for a skills match – a consistency in skills and strategy between player and coach. For example, in baseball and softball, the generally accepted offensive strategies are “small ball” (using hits, stolen bases and base advancement to score runs) and a more power-based strategy (homeruns, swing for extra base hits). If you are a coach that values small ball principles, having power hitters all over the lineup may not be a good match-up and vice versa.
So, we have established that there are many different strategies that teams can employ and many different factors go into determining that external strategy. This diversity is fine. However, there is one key to success in all of this where there must be no misunderstanding if a team and its individuals are to experience success: Understanding. Player and coaches alike must understand the strategy. Players must understand and respect the overall team external strategy and understand how their self-regulated internal strategy impacts that entity. Likewise, a coach must understand every nut and bolt of their philosophy and strategy. A coach must also understand his/her players. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? What is their value? How does that add or detract from the overarching team identity? It’s about managing people and managing expectations. Without understanding and respect from both players and coaches, that one team heartbeat becomes fractured.
So, in closing, as a player and a coach, understand your internal strategy and your team’s external strategy. Understand every reason and every nut and bolt of your system. That is how you put yourself in position to succeed. That is why strategy is so important. Not only in sports. Look at the world around you. Life. Work. Sports. They have a lot in common. Even in everyday life, there is this relationship between strategies. Understanding this will help you in any environment.
In closing, pay attention to strategy. But, I would also like to stress as an aside, never forget the basics of what made you interested in strategy in the first place. Never forget the fundamentals of the game you are playing or the task you are performing and the fun that you derive from it. Never forget the basic act of how to do your job – playing a piano, throwing/hitting a baseball, shooting hoops. As Park and Recreation participants, enjoyment of the activity is of the most importance. Understanding strategy is a tool that helps you succeed in adding value to that enjoyment at higher levels.
Article 2: Workload and Capacity Management – Understanding the System
In today’s edition of Mondays with Matt, I would like to have a conversation with you all about workload. While we will be discussing the importance of understanding workload in athletic terms, this is another one of those concepts that translates into everyday life as well. What I want to impress upon you in this week’s discussion is the importance of understanding workload and the idea that workload intensity is not a constant – it is an evermoving variable that impacts how you play the game and perform. For coaches, it is also important for you to understand this concept. As was mentioned in a prior column, as a coach, you are a teacher and a manager. You are not managing just players. You are managing people – adults, kids – who happen to be under your supervision in the role as an athlete. Coaching is about managing expectations and understanding the concept of workload is critical to this.
So why is understanding workload important? Understanding your workload is important because it allows you to understand what you can do and are capable of. As a coach, it allows you to understand what to expect from your players in a given moment given your current situation. In an ideal world, you would be able to benchmark your workload and your capacity based upon how much work you have done or how long you have played. However, that assumes that all in-game situations are alike and constant. The assumption is that all plays and motions that happen within a game during a set time-period are of equal stress. That is where this thinking is flawed. We live in an imperfect world where we are subject to variables and our capacity changes based upon in game context. An athlete’s capacity and workload stress incurred is affected by the situations that they have been exposed to in the game and how they reacted to those situations.
As I was watching this year’s Major League Baseball National League Championship Series, broadcaster (and former player) John Smoltz made a great point relating to this. Smoltz said something noting the impact of high stress plays and situations on a player’s strategy and capacity.
Let’s look at a few examples. Whether you are a player or a coach, you should be able to relate to these examples. Let’s look at fast motion sports such as basketball or soccer. You are trained to run up and down the court and be able to make essential fundamental plays – i.e. pass a ball, shoot a ball and dribble. You also are aware that it is easier to perform these tasks when you are relaxed, confident and in the zone. It is also easier to perform these tasks when you are rested. This is why substitutions exist in these sports.
Now, let’s break that down further. Why is it harder to perform these tasks under certain circumstances? Why are you effective in some games when you have played 30 minutes but are tired after 20 minutes? Shouldn’t the well-rested theory work the opposite way? This happens because of situational play and high stress plays. Let’s say your team is winning and your team is in control of the game. You are confident and can take your time and perform your tasks the right way. You can play 30 minutes and, despite a higher workload, have the capacity to perform.
Now, let’s flip that scenario. Your team is behind. You are aware of the clock ticking. You need to match the other team and then surpass them to win. You are pressing. This is a high stress situation. You are performing the same tasks and running the same amount as the scenario when you are ahead, yet you are tired and ineffective after 15 minutes of play. Why? Your workload may be lower but the intensity of that workload is higher, resulting in more stress and lowered capacity.
An excellent example that I like to give is pitch counts in baseball. Ignore the arguments on whether pitch counts are too much of a data driven approach – traditional and new school views can co-exist. Let’s look at pitch counts and Innings Pitched. Look past the numbers and the statistical thresholds that people tend to use. There is more to the story. Look at the qualitative context instead. We have two pitchers, each pitching 8 innings and 110 pitches. Which one is more tired? Well, the starting pitcher was ahead in the game and did not let many runners on. Their pitch count was a result of mixing pitches and working the count. They are not as tired and could go another inning, despite the thresholds. The other pitcher? They have been in and out of jams with runners on base. Walks and hits have been an issue. Same Innings Pitched, same pitch count but they are tired. It’s time for a relief pitcher. See the difference? Workload and capacity influenced by high stress situations. Going back to John Smoltz, that was his point.
As you can hopefully see, workload and capacity understanding are critical components to understand as a player and as a coach. The same can apply to an everyday workplace as well. We are impacted by the situations that we are exposed to. Understanding that can help us manage ourselves and others better. This can help you become a better worker, manager and athlete/student-athlete.