Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is always a way to win. It doesn't matter what the game is or who you or your opponent is, there is always a way to win.
That seems like an outrageous thing to say, but it is true. You might argue, "OK, Coach Jordan, is it possible for you to beat Michael Jordan 1 on 1 in basketball?" Yep. It isn't very likely, but its possible. Of course, it is also possible to win the Powerball Lottery and be a multi-millionaire, but I wouldn't bet any money on it, just like I wouldn't bet any money on Coach Jordan. But there is a chance.
To win the lottery, you must buy a ticket and enter it according to the rules. To beat Michael Jordan, you must be on the basketball court with him and play by the rules. That is the price of your chance. The chance is yours. What you do with it is up to you.
The main point I am trying to make here is that one should never feel intimidated even when facing a superior opponent and long odds. There is a way to win - can you see it? If you can see it, you can do it.
In our lottery example, you must at least buy the ticket and enter it on time. You can't legally control how it is picked. The way you win is to enter and accept the the risk of losing your ticket cost. To reduce the risk, you must buy more tickets. If you buy millions of tickets, your odds get pretty good. Your profit, though, is much lower after you subtract your ticket investment. And, you'll still probably lose.
In our Michael Jordan example, you need to buy more tickets in a sense. You may need to play him a million times hoping that he may have a horrible game and that you will make all your halfcourt, fadeaway hook shots. Like the lottery, its possible, but not likely. But, if you had the chance to play him just one time, wouldn't you take advantage of the opportunity? I would, and I'd do my best to win, no matter what the odds. I just wouldn't bet any money on me!
I purposely used two extreme examples. If it is possible to beat Michael Jordan, isn't it so much more possible to beat your cross town rival? What really bothers me is to see a team hang their heads at the start of a game because they have decided they are already beaten. They have given up and forfeited their chance to win. If that is the case, why even play? The object of the game is to win.
Many better teams and players understand the intimidation factor pretty well. If it is possible to beat your enemy psychologically before the game, the actual execution of victory is merely a formality. That's why you see a lot of athletes strut and talk trash and play very physically against smaller opponents. That's why the best teams recruit the hardest to get the best players. They know if they send out "the message" and cause opponents to fear them, they won't need to work so hard to win. Their opponents will beat themselves or opt not to compete at all.
But, what happens when the best team meets the underdog who refuses to give up? You know, that is what good teams fear the most - someone who will dare to beat them. For the team that is expected to lose, even being close at the end of the game, having a chance to win, is a victory in itself. But, to actually pull it off ... there is no sweeter win than the one no one thought you could achieve.
It takes more than audacity to to beat the better team or best the better player. It takes a plan and the courage to carry it through. The key is to see the way it is possible to win. The better the opponent, the more risk you need to take. Just like buying more tickets for the lottery or taking halfcourt, fadeaway hook shots to score against Michael Jordan, you need to decide how much risk you are willing to take to win. Risk is expensive. The lottery ticket anology is obvious, but in the battle of beating the better team, you will need to be willing to pay the price of playing your heart out, getting banged up, and still lose the game. That's the kind of game it really hurts to lose.
Making Your Plan
Whether you are planning to beat the better team, or if you are a player confronted with matching up against a superior player, the concept is the same. You must first take stock of your own abilities and then measure it against your opponent. A coach can evaluate the team early in the season by comparing the team against others coached in previous years and by playing some preseason games. Players can get a feel for how they stack up in those early games, too.
Once you know your weaknesses, you must do what you can to improve them. If you are excellent shooter, but have trouble dribbling with your left hand, there is no point is practicing shooting. Your oponent is going to beat you because you can't dribble left handed. If your team is great at pressing, but struggles at half court offense, the first team that knows how to break your press will have you at a serious disadvantage.
This quote is from the Art of War by Sun Tzu:
"To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy."
So, the first part of your plan is to identify and shore up your weaknesses as best you can in the time available.
The second part of your plan is to see what the enemy has provided as a means of his own defeat. At first glance, you may be looking at an impressive looking, tall and athletic opponent. Look closer. There are many, many factors that can make a difference. You just need to find one or two to exploit.
Level One - Physical
For players facing a tough matchup, make a quick comparison with yourself. Some significant measures you can tell instantly are the physical ones: height, weight and quickness. Other important measures will reveal themselves soon after the competition starts: conditioning, experience, poise and temperament. If you're opponent is taller, you may be quicker, for example. Try to draw the height away from the basket where it is less effective.
Is your opponent hurt? Look for finger splints, braces, bruises (especially on the thigh) or other impairments. Sometimes you notice things in warmups such as a player not jumping or favoring part of their body.
Is your opponent tired? The symptoms are easy to spot. Hands on the knees, lack of hustle, cheap defensive fouls and displays of temper are all signs of fatigue.
Level Two - Skills
Perhaps you don't see any weaknesses yet, but keep looking. After watching some more, you can rate the opponent's skills: shooting, passing, ballhandling. What's the shooting range? How effective is the ballhandling left and right? Look closer. Watch for footwork errors. Does she cross her feet on defense? Does she forget to sag into the key when the ball is away? Does she have a hard time making longer passes? Does she forget to box out for rebounds?
Level Three - Habits
Now the best part, study your opponent's playing habits. When you are being defended away from the ball, does your defender take his eye off you to watch the ball? If he looks away, you should go somewhere else! Does he always pass when he drives left and shoot when he drives right? Does he always use the same fake before passing inside? Is she a compulsive shot blocker? Does the player bring rebounds down low? Why jump for a rebound of the taller player will catch it and bring it down to you?
Every player has habits that can be exploited. By halftime, you should have your matchup understood pretty well. By knowing what he will do before he does it, you can be proactive on defense and get away with it. When a star player is forced to change old habits and play a different way, he may no longer be a star!
Level Four - The X Factor
After you have played against someone a few times, try to see what is different today. For instance, you may compete against an excellent shooter and realize that on this particular day her shot is off (for whatever reason). Knowing that, you can cheat more on defense and help. Your shooter will get good looks, but the shot won't go down which adds to her frustration. Be smart enough to change your plan if the situation changes! There is a flip side to this. Sometimes when you haven't seen someone play for a few weeks you may underestimate them. Perhaps that last encounter was one of their bad days or maybe they just got a lot better. Sometimes you may note a special gleam of confidence in their eyes and know you better do your best to keep the ball out of their hands.
Coaches who are working up a game plan follow the same observations players do when matching up. Coaches can help players recognize individual opponent weaknesses. They can also observe the other team as a single entity. Chances are their coach has been working on similar things as your team. It should be possible to recognize the areas that they have not yet mastered. If it isn't obvious, then use your coaching toolbox to test, poke and prod them until a weakness exposes itself. Take risks. You may lose some baskets as you try different gambles, but if you don't take those chances and find the weaknesses, you are sure to lose.
The other team's habits are very important. Maybe they always bring the ball down one side of the floor or maybe their press is only really effective on one side. Perhaps they are slow to get back on defense. There are a hundred traits that could possibly catch your eye.
The important thing is always dare to win. If you try, you have nothing to lose but the game. If you hang your head and give up you may also lose your self respect. There is always a way to win, so go for it. The game is not lost until you have simply run out of time!