Game Adjustments in Basketball With the O.O.D.A. Loop

fighterpilot-620x360I bristle when I hear comments comparing any game or sport to an act of war or fighting on a battlefield. We’re playing a sport, for fun and competition, but it’s not life and death and we shouldn’t cheapen the acts of valor of those fighting for our freedom and security. However, there are many lessons from the military that have direct correlations to competition on the basketball floor and can help players and coaches develop.  One specific lesson comes from an unsung military strategist, John Boyd, who in the early 60’s revolutionized the art of aerial combat and the training of fighter pilots to deal with the uncertainty of all that can happen in pressurized situations.  His explanation of how humans react, called the OODA. Loop, has been employed by military strategists throughout the world, but has also been adapted in athletics and the fast-paced world of business and finance.
Read Tracy Hightower’s article Boyd’s OODA Loop and How We Use It and Brett McKay’s article How to Master the OODA Loop to gain a deeper understanding, but in a quick summary, the OODA loop describes a process of thinking and decision-making that deals with uncertainty and provides a competitive edge.  We all react to situations, but we do so according to four steps:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

Our brains take us through these steps in micro-seconds, but how quickly and how efficiently we react often determines our success.  When we understand that process, coaches and players can develop through practice, ways to improve efficiency, especially in reacting to the unexpected.


Getty Images / Streeter Lecka

Getty Images / Streeter Lecka

Let’s consider the OODA loop from a coach’s perspective, but it can easily be applied to players as well. Regardless of how well you plan and prepare for a specific game, something unexpected will occur at some point in any game. Expect the unexpected.  An opponent may completely change from the tendencies you scouted.  A non-shooter suddenly becomes a “hot” shooter.  Officials may call the game completely different from what you’ve experienced in recent games.   All of these, however, make the game great. Coaches who quickly and efficiently move through the steps of the loop, often gain an upper hand.

Observe:  Have an open mind without judging or predetermining your response.  Too often, coaches go into games with judgement, rather than observation.  When coaches only look for what they expect to see, adjustments happen more slowly.   Coaches and players who simply judge outcomes are more likely to blame circumstances and will fail to find solutions and make quick adjustments.

Orient:   Adjustments to consider, come from coaches drawing on their experience and understanding of their team.  The more time you spend in expanding your knowledge prior to the need for adjustments, the more resources you can use.  And sometimes, it means doing something different.  In Duke’s championship run last year, traditional man to man proponent Mike Krzyzewski switched to a 2-3 zone to beat Louisville in January.  He observed his team allowing too many points in the paint and recognized that UL was a poor shooting team and through his experience as a coach, was able to orient and adjust well to changing circumstances.

Decide:  Once you make sense of what you observe and relate it to the present, a coach must decide to act, but that can often be risky and prevents many of us from making adjustments.  It’s “easier” to play through it and often times, change may not be what’s needed.  However, when called for, decision is better than indecision.  Roy Williams took heat the other night for not calling a timeout during the final possession of their nail-biter with Duke.  Williams “decided” to let his team play out the possession on their own, which is how he usually plays it.  The Tar Heels looked indecisive (see this story from and could have benefited from regrouping, but when Williams went through the loop, his decision was to stick with what he’s done.  It may have cost them the game. Here’s an overblown discussion, with a few good points, on ESPN:

Act:  Even worse than indecision is a failure to act.  Frequently during the course of a game, players and coaches proceed through the OODA loop only to stand by and do nothing – think of players having trouble inbounding the ball.  They observe and orient as teammates and defenders move, make a corresponding decision, but fail to pass the ball. Even if you fail when you act, you gain an opportunity to grow and learn.

Decisions in the heat of competition are essential to the game.  Coaches and players who are trained through practice become more effective at making adjustments.  The more times you can teach and practice the process, the more effective you’ll be!

LIFE & FAITH – The Word

For the Christian life, the OODA loop is an effective process to practice implementing God’s Word in our lives in the ever-changing and pressure-filled world in which we live. It’s not enough to just read or hear God’s word; we need to proceed through the loop.  James encourages us:

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.   (James 1:22)

If applying God’s Word to your life is difficult or empty for you, you may have a OODA problem.  Far too many times, when we observe by reading or hearing, we start with what we want to hear, rather than by listening and observing what GOD wants us to hear.  And too many times we lack enough background and understanding to orient our lives to apply it to every day circumstances.  Furthermore, far too many of us avoid making any kind of decisions about what we hear and read – we leave it to others to explain to us or even worse, we mindlessly follow non-threatening traditions.  And lastly, rather than acting on God’s Word, we play it safe and simply continue doing what we always do.

I’m not saying that one needs to live life like a fighter-pilot in the heat of a dog fight or, for that matter, a college basketball coach in the final possessions of the game, however, each of us will have those moments where we either process God’s word and act on it, or we don’t.  Maybe applying the steps of the OODA loop is a good idea after all.


The All Time Best NBA Players

1nbaplaybookThere are times when my mind wanders.  I may be in the car, at my desk, in the shower, who knows?  During many of those times, I’m thinking X & O’s.  I can get completely lost in my thoughts and time quickly slips by.  The other day, though, it wasn’t simply X & O’s. I had heard a discussion about where Steph Curry fits on the list of all time great NBA players – not just as a shooter, but as a player.  He does some amazing things, but are we ready to put him up there with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, or Oscar Robertson?  And that’s just the guards!   How does he rank when you consider Russell, Chamberlain, and Jabbar?  Comparing players of different eras is a difficult proposition, but no matter what your opinions or biases may be, it can be an enlightening process as you discover the traits and qualities that you believe are most important and in doing so, it also helps reveal an element of gratitude that each of us should experience and possibly, act upon!


One of my favorite basketball analysts, since I rubbed shoulders with him outside the old Milwaukee Mecca Arena when I was youngster and he was the assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, is Hubie Brown.  You can tell from discussions with George Raveling on Rav’s Conversations With Coach that not only is Brown an incredible teacher, but he’s a terrific historian of the game.  In this additional interview with BBall Breakdown, Hubie discusses his thoughts of the NBA’s greatest players and how some of the players of today will be considered:

As Hubie says, “Everybody’s got an opinion.”  Is it based on scoring?  Defense? Championships?  The criteria you use, more than likely, displays what you value most in the game.

LIFE – Impact

Back in 1971 as a starry-eyed hoops junkie, not only did I bump into Hubie, but I also got a high-five from the basketball savior of Milwaukee, Oscar Robertson. After drafting Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the trade for Robertson who even though he averaged a triple-double, had never won a title, was the difference maker in leading a small-market team to the NBA Championship.  In my opinion as an innocent young kid, Oscar was “the man.” After the one game I got to attend that season, we waited for the players to leave the court and Oscar slapped the hand of the little kid yelling “Way to go, Big O!”  And after the Bucks went on to beat the Bullets in the finals, I pulled out my large-ruled school paper and wrote a letter to Robertson thanking him for coming to Milwaukee.  Since we didn’t have ESPN and all I looked at in the paper were the box scores and the photos, which I routinely clipped and pasted in a scrapbook, I had no clue of the trade or any of the discussion that brought Oscar to the Bucks.  I just knew that he saved the franchise and we won!

That’s why it’s important in life to look back to the people who influenced your life – not just your sports heroes, but those people who truly impacted your life.  Oscar impacted me at a time when basketball, and other sports, were my way of dealing with the breakdown of my family – but so did a multitude of teachers, coaches, and the parents of many of my friends.  As I consider their impact, I also know it’s important to express gratitude.  There’s nothing better than reconnecting with those folks and letting them know specifically the impact they had.  I encourage you to do the same.  Are there coaches or teachers who have left a mark on you?  Are there military veterans who have sacrificed for you?  Each of us may have different opinions and criteria for who the great people of our past may be, but taking time to consider their impact is an enlightening exercise!

FAITH – The Great Ones

Daydreaming about the NBA greats led me to another daydreaming theme as I considered the heroes of the Christian faith.  I’m a huge fan of Old Testament heroes because so often, the examples of faith mirror my life and experiences.  Scripture shows how God can use any of us, with whatever baggage we carry, to live lives of faith and impact the world.  Pastor Rick Warren once wrote about some of the greats of the Bible by describing what God helped them overcome:

  • Abraham was old.
  • Jacob was insecure.
  • Leah was unattractive.
  • Joseph was abused.
  • Moses stuttered.
  • Gideon was poor.
  • Samson was codependent.
  • Rahab was immoral.
  • David had an affair and all kinds of family problems.
  • Elijah was suicidal.
  • Jeremiah was depressed.
  • Jonah was reluctant.
  • Naomi was a widow.
  • John the Baptist was eccentric to say the least.
  • Peter was impulsive and hot-tempered.
  • Martha worried a lot.
  • The Samaritan woman had several failed marriages.
  • Zacchaeus was unpopular.
  • Thomas had doubts.
  • Paul had poor health.
  • Timothy was timid.

So, discuss amongst yourselves – which of these are the greatest examples of faith? Who inspires you the most?  I’ve been a fan of Jacob, Gideon, and Jeremiah.  And because of what they overcame, I contemplate their stories and I’m thankful for their example.

“Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.” (Philippians 1:3)

Those stories and examples continue today and throughout history.  Fellow believers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and Corrie Ten Boom would creep up on my list of Greats in the faith.  It’s difficult to compare eras, isn’t it?  But no matter who you choose, consider the criteria you used and while you’re at it, thank God for their inspiration!




Reaching Up Like Stephen Curry

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It took me a little while, but I’m warming up to this year’s NBA Playoffs, mostly because I enjoy watching Stephen Curry.  Last night against the Pelicans he certainly did not disappoint in a 40-point performance!  As a coach, I love his mechanics and his work ethic.  As a fan, I love his knack for big plays and his intriguing underdog story.  And as a Christian, I love what he represents and I love the jolt of inspiration I experience every time he points his finger to the sky. These days those types of gestures are reviled by many, overlooked by most of us, and typically accepted as commonplace in the “me-society” we live in. But for me, as Curry reaches up, I’m reminded in my life that God is not far away and all I have to do is acknowledge it. Continue reading