Choosing A System Of Play

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I have always found that one of the most intriguing coaching questions is the one about systems of play.  Namely, ‘Do you choose a system of play to fit your team, or do you impose a system on your team?’  Like every other coaching question there is not necessarily a clear answer and you could name examples where coaches have chosen one or the other answer with success.  I personally tend to fall on the ‘fitting a system to your team’ side of the equation, although you must have a set of standard principles.  In the NBA it is a hot topic right now because a coach famous for a particular system, Mike D’Antoni, has become coach of a team that clearly doesn’t have the right players for that system, Los Angeles Lakers, and are subsequenty losing quite a lot.  I don’t know enough about basketball to have an informed opinion personally, but luckily Bill Simmons is available to inform me.  He also falls on the side of ‘fit the system to your team’ side but much more amusingly.

Quote 1 –

“Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re a professional basketball coach and your system is telling you, “I should play Earl Clark more than Pau Gasol,” you need a new system.”

Quote 2 –

“There are two types of coaches …

1. A coach who looks at his players and says, “How can I put these guys in the best position for them to succeed?”

2. A coach who looks at his players and says, “How can I use these guys to make my system succeed?”

Now, think about the mind-set driving Coach No. 2: He’s basically saying, I’m here only because of my system. I can’t actually coach. If you give me the wrong players for my system, it doesn’t matter — I will keep using the system anyway, because Plan B would be coming up with a more inventive way to coach these guys. And I can’t do that. I’m not good enough. So if it’s OK with you, I’d like to go down in flames with my system.”

The VP of Common Sense** has spoken.


** One of Bill Simmons’ theories is the many of the decisions sporting franchises (clubs) make may make sense following some convoluted sport specific logic, but do not pass a simple common sense test.  He therefore proposes that sporting clubs should have a ‘Vice President of Common Sense’ whose job it would be to review all decisions and veto the the ones that do not pass that common sense test.

I can’t find fault with his theory.  It will never happen.


  1. Sounds like a good idea ;-). Funny you write this just at the moment. I’ve been trying/design to find a system to fit the team I am coaching at the moment. Finally found some footage of the 1976 Japanese Gold Medal Olympic team who seems to have played with only two blockers when their setter Katsutoshi Nekoda was in front court. Admittedly the back row attack only became popular in the 1980 Olympics, so it was easier to ensure that you still had two blockers against two attackers back then, but still… good example of “working with what you’ve got”.


  2. I am considered a bad coach by many of the players and parents in the small remote community I live in because I don’t coach the same “system” that is used by ALL the high school and community college coaches here.

    I don’t have a system I coach. Sure there are certain offenses, defenses and rotations, that I prefer, or like, or that I am more comfortable with. But I go with whatever works best for the players that I have on the court, and it changes from season to season as my players change. Sometimes it changes mid-season because the team changed.

    @Tristan – you don’t always find a system to fit your team – sometimes the system finds them. Teach them how to play multiple offenses, defenses, etc and watch what system (or combination of systems) highlights their strengths, and minimizes their individual weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to be creative, to be a little different, or to be a “bad” coach.


    1. The only thing I would say to everyone is when choosing a system for developing players to choose a system that gives players the greatest chance to develop and not the system that provides the greatest short term success.


      1. Absolutely! That is why my teams usually don’t have middles, outsides, or opposites. I have volleyball players who in this rotation happen to be playing middle, etc. The next rotation she may be an outside or an opposite. I am willing to let my setters hit middle or outside when in the front row.

        Right now, I have a girl who has a bad case of positional tunnel vision – she only thinks of herself as a middle. So in addition to playing her as a middle I keep making her occasionally hit outside and opposite, and she has to play at least one rotation of defense in the back row.

        The single most common question my players get asked during practice is – “Why?” and the only unacceptable answer is “Because you told me to.”


  3. Its a really interesting question, and I think part of it is answered by the role of the coach. Is the organisation hiring the coach to win, or hiring the players to win. If they are hiring the coach, then the coach has the leeway to coach in the way they do best. If they are hiring the players, the coach has to coach them in a way that they do best.


    Of course, the only coach I know of who can coach ‘his’ way regardless is Phil Jackson.


    1. I think ideally there should be a combination of two. Each coach has a his own strengths and weaknesses in all areas and the organisation needs to be cognisant of those, otherwise they are wasting their money. Similarly coaches need to be flexible in allowing their players the best chance to succeed.
      I’m not sure I agree about Phil Jackson. His four series of wins were each with a different style utilising the strengths of his players. Unless you say that ‘his’ way was inherently flexible.


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