Saturday, March 15, 2008

Psychology: Scouting in pickup games

The other day I was waiting for next game at the gym, talking to a teammate-to-be about this teenage kid that was playing and that I would have to guard. The kid was fast and had some good moves, but he didn't seem to be able to shoot from the outside, so we decided that I should go underneath every screen and dare him to put it up. When we came on, I went with the scouting report and cut under every pick, letting the kid have any three he wanted. It worked. He had been the leading scorer in the previous game, but we held him to one basket.

I really enjoy scouting other players in pickup games, but I feel sort of alone in this. Not only do I find it hard to get others to talk about player tendencies and good counter-strategies, but many people look at me like I'm a nutcase when I start developing scouting profiles of opponents. And it's not like I'm doing Sabermetrics or anything out there, I'm just saying stuff like:

"He can't shoot with his off hand. Force him left."
"He's really out of shape, so you should run."
"He always spins to the middle."
"He won't shoot from beyond 12 feet."
"Watch his hips. That's where he's going."

Sometimes I engage in more psychologically-oriented scouting, like:

"He's mentally fragile. If you show some toughness in the post, he'll shut down and stop playing hard."
"His ego is bigger than his game. Let him shoot and freeze his teammates out."

I love this stuff because it takes the game beyond the physical aspects of play and introduces interesting strategic and psychological considerations that can be exploited. But again, it's hard to find players who are willing to have these discussions with me. Don't get me wrong, other players are usually gracious and they listen to me ramble, but no one ever seems as enthused as me about this facet of the game.

Why not?

I think that part of it is laziness. Many people just come for recreation and exercise, so they don't feel that they have to engage the game at this level--fair enough. Some other players just don't possess enough basketball knowledge to have these discussions. But I think that there are some, particularly alpha male types, who think that the game is really truly about physical dominance, and that if you can't beat the other guy with your game, you don't deserve to win. Thus, there is no need to talk about the strategic stuff. Just get out there, bust your man's ass and walk off like a stud.

Or maybe I'm just going about it wrong. Maybe I have to introduce scouting insights more gently and not seem like I'm taking the game so seriously. Whatever it is, I'm not going to stop scouting at the gym. Not only do I believe it to be effective, but it's really a lot of fun for me.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comment. I've briefly spoken to people who are at about 1 1/2 year mark, and they say they still seeing improvement even after all that time, so I think it'll continually get better with time and physical therapy.

Can you tell us more about your rehabilitation protocol and your experiences with physical therapy?

Many of us are only a few months into the recovery, and I think it'll help us a lot if you could share your experiences with us. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


This is an interesting post. I definitely have scouting reports on people that I play with. (I used to play at Columbia, NYU's Cole's and the Palladium gym so I might have run into you at some point.)

I think it's the only way to play as it makes playing that much more interesting.

It works on offense as well when you know your teammates' tendencies. I play the point so I like to find out where people like to get the ball, what they are good at, what their basketball IQ is, etc.

If they know how to pass and pick away, then it's "great, I can play the game at a higher skill level".

If a teammate is athletic and loves to go one on one, then pass the ball and isolate when appropriate.

If a guy loves to shoot from a particular spot, then get him the ball there.

I think that is what makes pickup basketball fun for me. It's getting to know the people and
finding out their habits, strengths , and weaknesses and integrate that to my game and get the maximum output. ;)

billter said...

In my experience it's not getting people to listen to you that's hard, it's getting them to apply what you talked about during the game. You'll be there going "This guy is an aggressive rebounder, you'll need to box him out," and your teammate will be nodding in agreement. Then the game starts and right away he forgets to box out.

One way scouting can be real useful though is in creating matchups. The most obvious size matchup is not necessarily the best--depending on how people actually play the game, as opposed to what they look like, apparent mismatches can actually be to your advantage.

billter said...

Actually, I didn't mean to use the word "actually" twice in that last sentence.