Developing Game Awareness and Quick Decision Making

(Like most of my posts, my thinking was stimulated by something I read. This time it was an article about developing game awareness in soccer players and can be read here).

On offense, coaches often try to straddle the line between playing fast and playing intelligent. But playing fast doesn’t simply mean pushing the ball in transition. A team can play fast in the half court too. Teams that play fast in the half court have rapid ball and player movement. They rarely catch and hold, instead preferring to catch and make a quick shot/drive/pass decision. 

But playing at high speed is difficult to do efficiently. Making the correct read is much harder when done at pace because it compresses the decision making process. When done right, though, playing with speed AND intelligence is a deadly combo.

Teams that do both are tough to guard because their quick decision making forces the defense to play at a faster pace than their used to, increasing the likelihood that they make a mistake. But, like I said before, this quick pace of decision making is difficult to develop. 

One way to improve decision making at speed is to develop greater game awareness. The more aware of the game situation the player is, the quicker they can come to a decision once they catch the ball. Game awareness can be improved with a tactic that's emphasized in soccer--scanning the field. 

Soccer players spend the vast majority of the game without the ball. This puts a premium on awareness and positioning prior to receiving the ball. It’s crucial for players to always know where they are in relation to their teammates and the defenders. As a result, soccer players often scan the field when they don’t have the ball in order to read what’s happening around them. This scanning creates more aware and effective players. Research backs up this up: 

From the article,

Research on English Premier League players by Geir Jordet, Jonathan Bloomfield and Johan Heijmerikx (2013) shows that there is a direct correlation between the number of searches done by a player (counted by head turns away from the location of the ball) and the player’s performance. The research indicated that in the lead up to receiving the ball (the 10 seconds before receiving the ball), those who had at one point in their career received a prestigious award – such as FIFA World Player of the Year – explore at a rate of 0.33 searches per second – just over three searches away from the ball in 10 seconds – compared to the 0.27 searches per second from those that hadn’t ever received similar awards. At the top end of the results, both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard averaged 0.62 searches per second, over six searches every 10 seconds.

Although I have no evidence to back this up, I believe the best basketball players also scan the court more. It might not be a full head turn as it is in soccer, but quick glances around the floor creates more aware players. And more aware players can make quicker and smarter decisions. However, purposefully scanning the court isn’t often taught (to my knowledge). 

Most offensive players look at the ball and wait to receive it. They might look away from the ball as they set a screen or use a screen, but for the most part their gaze is fixed on the ball. It’s only once they receive the ball that they look around, make a decision, and act. The model that most players use is as follows: 


This model is slow and inefficient. Players who wait to read the defense until they catch the ball are slowing their decision making process and losing out on opportunities to exploit defenses that are out of position. Additionally, if players who follow this slower model are told to play fast, they're more likely to rush and make a poor decision. 

A poor decision doesn’t necessarily result in an obvious turnover. A poor decision might manifest as a missed opportunity to attack an off-balance defender or a slightly mistimed pass to a teammate who was open a moment earlier. These subtle differences can be the difference between good shots and bad shots. 

So how can we improve upon this model? By re-organizing it. Instead of catch - look - decide - act, it should be:


Look: Take mental snapshots of the court. Quick scans.

Decide: Make a decision based on information you glean from your mental snapshots.

Catch: Prepare your body and position yourself to enact the decision you’ve made. This might mean turning your hips or angling your body so you are ready to execute your decision immediately.

Act: Dribble, Pass, Shoot, Hold. (Note: When I say act, I don’t necessarily mean that a player has to move or score. Sometimes the best decision is to simply catch and hold the ball. Act simply means to execute the decision that you made—even if that decision is to catch and hold.)

The new model front loads the decision-making process. It requires players to spend time analyzing the defense before receiving the ball. 

One specific situation where this is very valuable is for players spotting up on the perimeter. A player who is spotting up on the wing can survey the whole floor and analyze where the advantage is. They might read that a teammate has a mismatch and quickly swing the ball to them before the defense can fix the mistake.  

Or they might read that their individual defender is out of position on their closeout and susceptible to a quick drive. This exactly what the offensive player reads in the video below. As you watch the video, notice how these moves are only effective because the offensive player read the defense before they caught the ball.

In many of these clips, the offensive player is probably glancing at the defender as the ball is in the air. Although this violates the principle of “don’t take your eye off the ball” it gives the player an extra mental snapshot of the defense.  

Sidebar: I question the universality of the coaching advice “don’t take your eye off the ball.” It might be good advice for younger players but for older, more skilled players taking your eye off the ball while it’s still in the air gives the player a precious extra moment to read the defense and make a quicker, more effective decision. One really important time to take your eye off the ball is when coming off a screen. As you come off a screen, taking a peek at your defender to see if he is trailing or shooting the gap is hugely important. It gives the offense better data to decide whether to curl or flare. 

Coaches preach don’t take your eye off the ball for a few reasons. 1) It’s infuriating when a pass goes straight through a players hands. 2) Coaches have always done it so it’s assumed to be good coaching. 3) It’s difficult to directly tell whether taking your eye off the ball is what caused the player to score. But it’s fairly obvious when a player who took their eye off the ball fumbled it out of bounds. 4) Availability bias. The moments when a player fumbles the ball out of bounds spring easily to mind so coaches give it more weight. 5) Loss aversion. Humans tend to feel greater pain when losing something (possession of the ball) than the pleasure they get from gaining something (an advantage situation on offense).

Re-organizing the decision making model can help improve offensive execution--especially at the fast pace pace the basketball is played at these days. It takes time to get used to this model but the benefits are significant. 

In The Art of Learning (which I wrote about here), Josh Waitzkin writes about how masters of their craft do things that seem mystical to average onlookers. But in reality, what they're doing is simply zooming in on the crucial moments and seeing the game in finer detail. If we were to use a movie analogy, elite performers see more frames per second than the rest. And with that extra detailed lens, they can do things that seem incomprehensible to everyone else.

Scanning the floor is one way to help train this deep understanding of the game. In doing so, players develop the ability to see more frames per second. They practice the skill of making decisions quicker than their opponents. In doing so, players leave defenses confused and flat footed.