Play Calling is the action of instructing what the next play will be on offense. It is one of the single toughest responsibilities to master and one of the hardest for a coach to be able to relinquish to their Point Guard (or any player). In fact, there are some coaches who will never pass the responsibilities of play calling to a player on their team. Always preferring to make the call from the sidelines on what is desired from the players on the floor.
For junior players often understanding how an offense works is a very challenging exercise. For players new to game, or player new to a coach and their system, understanding what the expectations are is sometimes near impossible. Just like when a person enters employment with a new company the organisations culture, roles and responsibilities are foreign and time is need to fully come to terms with these expectations. However, there are some strategies that help expedite this process and provide a pathway to the delegation of play calling, and other actions that only serve to block this power being shared.
The first strategy on the path to building the competence within a player(s) for play calling is to be a teacher as much as a coach. Teaching and coaching are separate things. They have very strong similarities, but they also have quite specific differences. One important aspect for coaches to take away from teaching is to always be looking to educate your students about the game of basketball. With regards to the tactics of the game which form the knowledge upon which play calling is based players must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of the plays within the playbook. Which play is to be called when we want a quick score? Which play do we want to run against interior defenders who are switching screens? Which play do we want to run if facing a Pack Line Defence? By answering these questions for your players and then revisiting the topics, you will start to give the knowledge to the players upon which to make decisions.
The next step is to allow your players to make mistakes when play calling. Putting a player into a game (intense or otherwise) and expecting them to be able to make the right read about which play to run is not going to benefit the player, team or the coach. Allow the player(s) to start becoming familiar with thinking on the run and play calling at training. Take some time after each drill in which the player has exercised the responsibility of play calling to speak with them and probe why they made a certain call. Quiz the player and provide constructive feedback. Phrase the comments like “have you thought about this?” or “What play allows Player X to get the ball?”
Have the player then share the responsibility of play calling in a game with the coach during games. This might only be for a specific period of time initially, but can be grown into a majority of the time on the floor as the players offensive awareness increases. Just remember even the best players (and coaches) in the world get it wrong sometimes and try to focus on the development of the individual rather than the momentary outcome.
The next step is to apply a philosophy of continuous improvement to the play caller’s development. There are four steps that should make-up this cycle of improvement:
A player involved in play calling is only as good at the experiences they have endured. Some lessons will be harder than others, and some lessons need to be lived through more than once before they become part of the players decision making process. However, one thing which will stunt this growth is not challenging the individual to become better by exposing them to new and constantly evolving situations. This is facilitated by a coach introducing a new situation or scenario. Allowing the team (and especially the player involved in play calling) enough time to consolidate and understand how to achieve a positive outcome. Then evaluating the performance with the player to refine the fine details before challenging the play caller with new variations of the situations that will extend the players decision making further.
If performed properly in a well-timed and methodical way by a coach a player can develop the awareness on the floor to alter plays to achieve the best results. A player will be able to change a cut, or the position of a screen to gain an advantage against the opposition’s strategy. When this happens it is spectacular, and transpires on the floor in real time, and makes a team that much harder to play against.
In basketball and in most sports play calling is tied very closely to power and leadership. It is one of the most significant responsibilities a player can have, but a coach must be active in supporting this development for it is a very big burden to tolerate when things are not going well.