I 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:
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.
BASKETBALL – OODA
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 ESPN.com) 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.