July 17, 2017 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

Teaching players situational awareness

Situational awareness is often overlooked, and not only in basketball. We spend so much time drilling players on their shooting, defense, ball handling or passing, that we sometimes neglect the fact that we also must exercise an athlete’s abilities to recognize details that could be the key to victory.

At least a couple times each season, we painfully watch as a player makes a mental mistake at a critical moment during the game. The most famous example was in 1993, when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout with his team down two points and 11 seconds remaining in the national championship game against North Carolina. The problem: Michigan had no timeouts. The error resulted in a technical foul, effectively sealing the game for the Tar Heels.

During this year’s NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt held a one-point lead over Northwestern with 18 seconds left in the game. That’s when Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis, losing track of the score, intentionally fouled the Wildcats’ Bryant McIntosh, sending him to the line for the game-winning free throws.

There’s no worse way to lose a game than by your own hand, but in most cases these mistakes are avoidable. It’s just a matter of teaching your players to instinctively recognize and understand game situations. Here are some things you want them to keep in mind.

  • The score: As obvious as this seems, some players get so wrapped up in competition that they don’t check the score. This may not be critical midway through the first half, but when your team is down four with 30 seconds left, everyone on the court should know it and understand how to respond.
  • Fouls: And not just their own. Teach players to be cognizant of team fouls and whether the player defending them is on the verge of fouling out. I don’t need to tell coaches how many games are won or lost at the free-throw line.
  • Timeouts: This is most critical at the end of halves or quarters. It’s easy to remind players from the sidelines whether the team has any timeouts, but it wouldn’t hurt for them to recognize it automatically.
  • The clock: Especially important for those who must worry about a shot clock. Too often we see players make the extra pass when they should have attempted a jumper with two second left on the shot clock. Players must also closely watch the clock in tight games without a constant reminder from the coach.
  • Opponent habits: This a deeper level of awareness but a big advantage if you can teach it to players. Have them study opponents and exploit their weaknesses. Maybe they recognize that their opponent has trouble with the mid-range jumper, dribbles sloppy with their left hand or has the tendency to make risky passes under pressure. Ask them to be mindful on the court.

This isn’t a complete list, but the idea is to get coaches thinking about the mental side of the game and drilling it in practices or scrimmages. Don’t let a player’s lack of situational awareness cost you wins next season.