Thinking on the court is a prerequisite for success. Seeing an opportunity and seizing it, recognizing an opponent’s tactics and adapting to them, communicating with teammates, understanding one’s limits and emphasizing one’s strengths — all examples of how thinking separates great teams from the rest of the pack.

Teaching players how to think is one of the key functions of a top coach, even at the high school level. Even if a student-athlete possesses poor critical self-management skills at the outset of the season, they can make incremental improvements which will benefit their studies and basketball game.

A player can develop an excellent jumpshot by copying a shooter like Ray Allen and spending hours in the gym but they cannot develop the cognitive abilities of a player like Steve Nash without significant guidance from a coach. Coaches can enable thinking among players by incorporating these elements into their philosophy:

Encourage Communication

Playing smart is complementary to playing together. Insist that players talk to each other on the court and illustrate various methods of doing so, both verbally and non verbally. Foul-line huddles during games are an excellent way to talk on the court. Praise those who communicate consistently and always keep an open door.

Thinking Before and After Performances

Visualization is an important part of game preparation. If an athlete has visualized the situation ahead of time, they will be better equipped to handle it correctly when it arises during a game. Visualization is also an important component of debriefing that athletes can do one their own, in a small group, or with a coach. After a game, players should address the emotions that they are feeling before reflecting on their performance.

Present Options

Let players know what is available. The best way to run a play depends on the actions and reactions of each player. Missing road signs, a traveler cannot find the right path. What is initially presented conditionally (“if the defence does this, you do this”) becomes choices players make on their own initiative, evolving into a season-long discourse between players and coaches.

Congratulate players who do what is best for that situations, stop drills to present more information, and remain flexible at all times.

Develop Problem Solving Abilities

Coaches shouldn’t neglect the “student” component of “student-athlete.” Basketball lessons should translate easily into life skills. A critical life skill is effective problem solving. For example, the Swiss Army employs a five-step process to solve problems: initiation, orientation, concept development, plan development, and issuing orders to execute the plan. Likewise, a good basketball should be able to recognize what is happening on the court, know how to adjust, and perform accordingly.

Under pressure – on the basketball court, the battlefield, or elsewhere – these five steps should be executed quickly and efficiently. During an exam, a student may have a few minutes to outline a problem and plan a solution but on the court an athlete has only milliseconds. A consistent approach and positive habits allows one to navigate all sorts of problems swiftly and smoothly.

Effective drills simulate game situations and require players to read the defense as they are performing a skill. The outcome of those whole and part method situations provides instant feedback about the quality of the decision made. Coaches can comment on the process and help players comprehend that although the shot might not have gone in, it was still the right idea to take it.

Give the team problems to work on in small groups. Present challenging situations during practice and ask the team for input in solving them. Change each squad’s systems during a scrimmage without informing the other side forcing the players to read and adjust. Understand the abilities of the players and tailor these activities to their strengths and weaknesses.

Instruct the Right Skills

If players lack the confidence to perform under pressure, they will not have the time to think on the court. For example, if player can’t protect the ball against a trap as they dribble, how can they read what is happening on the court or signal to their teammates? Practice all drills, especially ballhandling, at game intensity.

Teach Not Only What to Do, but Why

Enlightening players why the team is running a particular set is critical to their understanding of not only that system but also the game as a whole. Throughout the entire season, coaches should link what they are trying to do with the reason why, whether coaching the entire team in practice or tutoring small groups of players during workouts. Providing critical information facilitates team preparation and adjustments during games.

So the centre sets a high rub for the point guard; why is this a good idea? Telling players why they are doing something will improve execution of the whole play (taking a high percentage shot) and the little things (setting up the defender for the screen, taking two dribbles to create separation, giving a target while rolling to the basket, etc.).

Give Meaningful Feedback

Players require frequent forthright feedback. It’s not a criticism of the player but of the performance. If a player can’t shoot, they shouldn’t jack threes in a game until they improve. On the other hand, players need to know what they do well and receive opportunities to do it during games and practices. When a player DNP-CDs, let them know why and give them a chance to prove you wrong the next time the team practices. Feedback should be objective and based on the process, not the outcome.


The time between games and practices is an opportunity for players to reflect. Coaches can guide this reflection at first (“what did you think went well?”, “what did you find frustrating”, “what would you change for the next time?”) but eventually athletes can perform this on their own. Video can be a valuable tool – especially given the accessibility of high-quality smartphone footage – to show players what transpired visually and help them recollect their though process. Great players acknowledge their mistakes and make adjustments.


One of my favourite recent coaching moments was when a team cast aside the end-out that I had I instructed in favour of something entirely different. Scoring on the play was important in the short term but thinking and working together was important to long-term goals. Fortunately, we were able to do both, which was outstanding.

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