Athletic Strategy – Bringing the Player and Team Together: 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.

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.

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