The Competitive Cauldron -
Win More Games With These 7 Tips For More Competitive Practices
Brian McCormick

Here is an excerpt from Brian McCormick's book The 21st Century Basketball Practice: Modernizing the Basketball Practice to Develop the Global Player.


"Competition measures people, but also develops them." — Anson Dorrance


When the effort in practice does not transfer to game performance, something is wrong. Often, the disparity between the intensity of practice and the intensity of the game is too great, and players are unprepared, despite rehearsing all of the skills at practice.

Increasing the physical demands of practice is not difficult, as the coach can increase the duration or intensity and decrease rest, but this does not make the practice more game-like. Increasing the psychological demands is more difficult. Games have a clear purpose, an external opposition, an audience, and the scoreboard, which are absent at practice.

Reconciling the need for a variety of activities and the need for intensity is challenging. One tool that I have used is the competitive cauldron. "One of the best ways to ensure that people perform at their best in important and pressure-filled situations is to ‘close the gap between training and competition’".

The important aspect of the competitive cauldron is the competitive matrix. "The purpose of the matrix....is to create a climate of competing, and also of self-evaluation and accountability". My matrix lacked the same depth or sophistication. I adapted some ideas and created some of my own. I devised my own rules:

  1. I tracked winners for every competitive drill.
  2. At the end of each practice, the daily winner avoided any post-practice conditioning.
  3. I kept a running total for the season.
  4. The running tally decided my starters.


Tracking Winners

Every competitive drill had a winner and a loser. When I wrote out my practice plan, each player had a row, and each competitive drill had a column. All wins were equal. When we played 1v1, we played to a certain number of baskets — between three and five. There were many individual wins, but I awarded one win to the player who was first to three baskets. When we played 5v5, the five players on the winning team received a win. I kept track of the winners in tag, passing drills, transition drills; anything that involved competition, which was the majority of practice.


Daily Winners

After each practice, I summed the wins to determine the daily winner. The winner skipped conditioning. With girls, the daily winner always chose to do the post-practice conditioning with her teammates. For the girls, the daily winner was a public acknowledgement of a good practice; for the boys, it was more competitive and involved more ego.


Running Total

After each practice, I added the day’s totals to the running total for the season. When I wrote out the practice plan for the following day, players were written in descending order. When I made teams for games, I picked in order; with 12 players, I divided the team into two teams to play 5v5 by picking odds and evens based on the running tally. Players played with different players (rather than the more typical starters versus the bench) and adapted to different roles; two point guards played together or the top post players played together because I based teams on the rankings, not positions. Players had to adapt to different roles, which forced players out of their comfort zones and increased the opportunities for skill development. Furthermore, players could not ascend in the rankings by playing with a dominant player.


Starters

When I used the cauldron initially, I was a junior varsity head coach, and the varsity coach demanded that every player play in every game. I was unaccustomed to playing everyone, but I saw it as an opportunity. Because every player was going to play, I used the cauldron to decide the starters, as it gave the cauldron a purpose. Others have argued against using the cauldron to determine starters. In some ways, basketball lends itself to this system better than volleyball or soccer. I have started three post players or three point guards, and they can play together, but playing without a goalie or a setter would be difficult. From a competitive standpoint, constantly changing the starters is not the best approach, but developmentally, it gave more players the opportunity to start, which may enhance motivation, and ultimately skill development.


Implementation

At our first team meeting, I explained the rules. I answered questions, and there was no dissent. The matrix was outlined and applied to each player equally. Most players embraced the opportunity and the novelty, whereas some were motivated by the competition. Most importantly, players liked the system because there tended to be more playing and less lecturing.


Positives

The matrix alleviated many headaches. Nearly every player started at least one game. Nobody complained about not starting because he or she knew that it was within his or her control: Win at practice and start. Nobody viewed me as biased or playing favorites because the matrix picked the starters. I did not punish players who missed a practice. They knew that they had missed a chance to accumulate wins. Arguably our best player went on vacation for several days when we practiced over winter break, and missed so many practices that she never started again. Whereas she was disappointed not to start, she was motivated to dominate in practice and move up the ladder. She was not mad at me, and the punishment was greater than anything that I would have done on my own.

Competitively, using a different starting line-up and playing 12 players was not the best approach for developing cohesiveness and a set rotation, but our depth became our strength. Because my five best players rarely started, there was little drop off when I substituted, and players on the bench made an impact. We extended our lead because our bench was better than their bench or more fresh than their starters. Every player was engaged on the bench, and different players stepped up in different games; I never knew who the key player would be. The players who played better, played more, and those players changed from game to game.

Because I changed two things at the same time — implementing the competitive cauldron and playing every player in every game — it is difficult to determine which strategy caused the positive changes. The four positives that I identified — control, motivation, skill development, and opportunity — likely derived as much or more from playing time. However, the competitive cauldron had some effect.


Control

Players often complain about their coaches playing favorites. Right or wrong, many players feel as though they have no control over their playing time because their coach does not like them or their coach favors another player. With the cauldron, players were in control. It eliminated excuses. The process for choosing the starting lineup, if not playing time, was transparent. Every day, they heard their ranking within the team, and every practice, they had the opportunity to affect their standing.


Motivation

Positive outcomes in sports are associated with intrinsic forms of motivation. One aspect of the self-determination theory (SDT) is autonomy, or the desire to be in charge of one’s own life or to have control. The control felt by players may have enhanced their intrinsic motivation.

In Drive, which expanded on research related to SDT, Daniel Pink argued that people want "autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” Many players feel as though their practices fail to meet these desires. They have no control, they are not improving, and the drills have no purpose. Because most of our practice activities were competitive, their relationship to the game was more direct. Even drills such as tag with a less direct relationship had a purpose, as they contributed to the win totals, and ultimately the starting lineup.

By creating an environment that enhanced intrinsic motivation, players were engaged in each practice. Greater engagement leads to greater effort, and greater effort creates the potential for more improvement.


Skill Development

With motivated players, and a competitive environment, everyone improved. When I took jiujitsu, my instructor, Bart Beattie, preached about the importance of training partners. In jiujitsu, training without a partner is difficult: One cannot practice a sweep or a submission without someone to sweep or submit. Beattie emphasized the mutual learning curve: The more that your training partner improved, the more that you improved.

In many teams, players settle into roles. The roles create differences in practice and game repetitions, which affect the rate of development. When starters play 60-70% of the minutes, and receive 60-70% of the practice repetitions, they improve at a faster rate than the substitutes. They have more opportunities and receive more feedback. Small differences between players at the beginning of the season grow into big differences at the end because of the difference in repetitions, opportunities, and feedback.

Because my lineups changed constantly, there was no differentiation in practice. Playing time fluctuated based on the cauldron, and there was never a set rotation. There were some negatives (below), but in terms of skill development, it was a positive. Every player (theoretically) had the same opportunity, same motivation, and same number of repetitions to improve. Rather than a few players (starters) showing a big improvement and others only minimal improvement (or regression), every player improved his or her skills throughout the season, which increased competition in practice. The more that each player improved, the more that the others improved because of the mutual learning curve.


Opportunity

In addition to skill development, the absence of roles gave every player an opportunity. By the end of tryouts, the coach often has her rotation. The last players to make the team have little opportunity to earn playing time or a starting position, unless there are injuries or other unforeseen events. It is hard to change a coach’s opinion in two minutes of garbage time or a few practice repetitions.

When I coached freshmen boys, I was hired in the middle of tryouts. There was a 6’0 player who almost had been cut on the first day because he was out of shape and terrible at the three-person weave. He made the team and, at the end of the season, he started consistently and finished third in wins. As the season progressed, we were noticeably worse when he was on the bench. In a typical environment, he would have been the chubby, slow kid stuck behind our best player. His practice wins made me pay closer attention and earned him a starting position and playing time.


Negatives

There are potential negative effects to a competitive cauldron. An emphasis on competition in practice could lead to a fixed mindset. According to Dweck, people attribute their failure or success to innate talents which are fixed (fixed mindset) or to their effort (growth mindset), which can grow or expand their ability. Those who attribute failure to a fixed lack of talent are demotivated by mistakes and fear failure because it suggests that they are not good enough. When they change their perceptions and see that effort improves their performance, mistakes become a part of the learning process. A learning-goal orientation (growth mindset) positively affects effort, task choice, and performance, and is linked to lower levels of tension and worry about performance. An outcome or ego orientation (fixed mindset) leads to a greater sense of pressure, tension, and worry, three states associated with the fear of failure.

Because each practice activity has a winner, players may develop an outcome orientation. This would affect motivation and skill development, as players must risk mistakes to improve. When players concentrate solely on the outcome, they may be unwilling to risk mistakes. Fortunately, I did not notice this among players, but it is worth monitoring.

Another negative is injuries. Is it fair for a player to fall behind his or her teammates because of an injury? I did not have a player miss more than a day at a time due to injury, so the missed opportunities for wins were not a huge factor. However, if a player missed two weeks with an injury, there would have to be some manipulation, as it would be unfair for a player to lose an opportunity to start due to an injury.


Future Ideas

During the last season in which I used the cauldron, I had intended to try out some new ways of using the data, but I never did. Below are several ideas that I will implement when I use the cauldron again.

  • Differentiate drills. When I used the cauldron, every drill and scrimmage were lumped together to create one win total. Dorrance wrote about using the matrix to show to players their strengths and weaknesses in numerous categories. I would separate nonspecific drills like tag and keep away from SSGs. I would separate 1v1, 3v3, and 5v5. Differentiating the drills would enable me to provide specific information to the players, and to monitor trends.

  • Weight the Matrix. After differentiating the drills, I would create a weighted system. In terms of wins, tag should not count the same as 5v5, especially when the competitive cauldron determines starters.

  • Rotate the Wins. Herbert suggested dropping one score from the total for every time that a score is added. If 10 days were the critical amount, when adding the wins on day 11 to the running tally, the wins from day 1 would be dropped, leaving the most recent 10-day period. This would emphasize the most recent practices, and overcome the problem of injuries.


Conclusion

The competitive cauldron is not for every coach, but it is an idea to ponder as coaches think about their team and season plan. Use the cauldron and/or the matrix when it has a purpose. When I changed schools and moved from one girls' team to another, teaching competitiveness was my initial emphasis. I wanted to foster that mentality, and using the cauldron and rewarding the winners fit with this mentality.



The 21st Century Basketball Practice: Modernizing the Basketball Practice to Develop the Global Player

From the seven-seconds-or-less offense to the pack line defense, the sport of basketball has experienced major changes over the last 30 years. The game is always evolving as coaches and players are doing anything they can to gain an edge.

One thing, however, that has not kept up with the times is the basketball practice. One look at a typical practice and you will see drills that closer resemble the peach basket age rather than of the app generation.

Unlike common drill books, the 21st Century Basketball Practice demonstrates a new approach to practice.

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Aaron Edlund says:
1/20/2015 at 10:50:49 AM

I love this idea and use a version of it myself with my Jr. High teams. We call it Free Throws = Playing Time. The basic idea is the same. Everything we do in practice, from coming on time (50 free throw points) to winning a drill (10 free throw points) is awarded with a certain number of free throws. The difference between your plan an mine is that my kids can also shoot and track actual free throws before school (I open the gym at 7:30) and at lunch time. I created a little score card for them and they turn them in to me so I can add it to the spreadsheet.

Whoever has accumulated the most FT points plays the most and whoever has the least FT points plays the least, but everyone gets to play in every game.

The payoff has been fantastic! Not only do I love the system for all of the same reasons you listed above, but also because my teams are always fantastic shooters...and not just from the foul line! Some of my Grade 7 girls are shooting close to 1000 FTs a week and there is nothing better for shot mechanics than practicing FTs.

Every Monday the FT numbers are reset to 0 and everyone starts again. If someone had a bad week, Monday brings a fresh start.

I too have had weird combinations of kids on the floor at different times. I've also lost a few close games because on a particular week a weaker player earned a lot of FT points. I've always reminded myself that the weaker player won't be weak for long if they continually are earning the most FT points. And by season's end, there aren't too many teams in our area who can beat us.

Thanks for sharing Brian. Keep it up!

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