Anticipation and Mini-Races

The other day I ran across an interview with a soccer player who was asked about his lack of speed. The interviewer wanted to know how he was consistently able to get to the ball before his opponents who were considerably faster. The player responded, “I start running first.” 

Although he said it tongue in cheek, the player's response was actually very insightful and applicable to basketball. In any race, the person who starts first has a huge advantage. And in basketball, there’s no agreed upon starting point for these mini races. You don’t line up on the blocks like a sprinter waiting for the gun to go off. Each player chooses when they start the race.

Moreover, each race is extremely short. A race to grab a rebound might be a 3 ft race. A race to a loose ball might be a 6 ft race. All of these races are small because basketball is played in a small space (compared to football, soccer, rugby, etc.). Because each race is so short, any head start is a huge advantage. A .5 second head start on a 5 ft race is massive. You’ll win that race every time. 

Basketball is full of tiny little races. Even ones that don’t involve gaining possession of the ball. For example:

  • Help from a weak side defender is a race between dribbler and helper.
  • Shooting the gap on a downscreen is a race to cut off the passing lane to a shooter
  • Transition defense
  • Transition offense
  • Rebounds are races to the ball

It’s the players who “start first” that always seem to be in the right spot. They always seem to be making plays and winning the 50/50 battles. 

The skill that leads to winning these mini-races is anticipation. Anticipation is what allows a player to “start first.”

Let’s look at a few examples of the value of “starting first" in these mini-races. 

When transitioning from defense to offense, coaches often emphasize “first three steps.” But when do you take those three steps? That’s the key question. Do you wait until the ball is secured and passed to a guard? Or do you recognize that the ball is heading directly for a teammate and immediately take off?

You might bust your butt on those first 3 steps, but if you start late your advantage is severely minimized. By correctly anticipating that your teammate will grab the rebound, you can start first and put additional pressure on the defense. 

If you’re in help side and have to rotate over to take a charge, anticipation is crucial. Being able to anticipate or react quickly to a drive gives you that extra fraction of a second to win the race to the charge circle. 

You can anticipate a drive by recognizing that the on-ball defender is out of position or off-balance. Another signal that you might need to provide help soon is if there’s a speed mismatch on the perimeter (e.g. a slow post player guarding a quick guard). That recognition allows you to begin to rotate over a moment before the attacker actually begins their drive. 

These mini-races are decided by the slimmest of margins. That means that any lapse in concentration, even just for a moment, can be fatal. It’s the difference between a contested shot and a wide open shot. A breakaway layup and a steal. Losing track of your check or the ball for a half second can mean an easy basket. 

This is all fairly obvious when it’s spelled out, but I think many people underestimate the value of anticipation. It’s an important skill that requires zero physical talent. As far as I know, lack of athleticism is not correlated with anticipation. Having great anticipation can level the playing field between the athletically challenged and the athletically gifted.

But anticipation isn't easily developed. Great anticipation requires an uncommon level of discipline and focus. Discipline to always be in the right spot and complete focus on the task at hand. 

Moreover, anticipation requires tons of game repetitions. It’s only through these repetitions that you can begin to spot patterns and sequences of play before your opponents.

Conclusion: Anticipation is an undervalued skill, it allows you to “start first” and tips the odds in your favor in the hundreds of mini-races that exist in every game.