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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Every 35 Seconds

I had watched Grinnell play at Knox many times since the mid-1990’s. I knew the basics of the “Grinnell System”- fastbreak, quick shots, taking threes, pressing all over, and subbing five for five. In the winter of 2009 I had begun to read more about the Grinnell approach and was thinking about whether I wanted to go that direction. So when I went to the Knox vs. Grinnell game in the winter of 2009, I went more as a student than as a fan. One of the things I was struck by was how often Grinnell was subbing. I knew they would sub often and five for five, but not as often as they were subbing. Everything about the Grinnell system seemed to make sense, except how often they were subbing.

Grinnell was sending in  a new group  about every 30-45 seconds. To me this seemed more like a gimmick than a practical strategy. I questioned how the players could get into the flow of the game if they were only playing 30-45 seconds and then going out. After reading more and talking with Coach Porter of ONU, I began to understand the logic of this quick subbing. Some of the logic of what Grinnell is trying to do comes from looking at the sports of track and hockey.

World Records in Men’s Track
Distance              WR                         Pct. Of Max Speed
100                         9.58                        100%
200                         19.19                     100%
400                         43.18                     89%
800                         1:41                        76%
1500                       3:26                        70%
3000                       7:20                        65%

The obvious that we all learned at some point- you cannot run as hard as you can indefinitely. For the track athlete (depending on conditioning), somewhere between 200-500 meters the event switches from anaerobic to an aerobic exercise. So we learn from experience that we can’t keep going all out- we have to pace ourselves. The longer we run, the more we have to pace ourselves.

In hockey, the players play shifts of less than one minute. They usually have 3-4 different lines that are going to go in. So in hockey, they play a shift and then they recover for 2-3 shifts before they go back in. To succeed, they have to go “all out” for a short time.

Coach Arseneault has taken these concepts and applied them to basketball. His believe is that in order to press with the energy needed, in order to trap in the half-court with the energy needed, and in order to fastbreak with the speed necessary—players must be able to go at 100% not a 80-85% of their max. He actually would choose if he is going to make a mistake in shift length that he would make the shifts shorter than necessary vs. having them longer than necessary. He would prefer that players are able to go “all out” and come off the floor not exhausted. If they go too long, they begin to learn to pace themselves.

To make this strategy work, several things must happen:
1-      The basic philosophy is saying that a team is better off having someone who has less ability going at 100% than someone of more ability going at 80%. So to make it work, you need to have players 8 thru 15 who might normally be playing in games are able to step up and perform. This can be tough on a high school level.
2-      As a coach, you must be able to actually get the players to play at 100% for the 35-50 seconds they play. This is not an easy thing to do. Our first year, we did not get to the point where players would completely let go and play with that speed. It is difficult because our entire lives we have learned to play basketball hard but at a controlled speed. In pickup games when you play to 10 baskets, you are going to play for maybe 10 minutes- you have to pace. So actually getting players to play at 100% is getting them to break a well-engrained habit.
3-      Finally, if a team breaks through to play the game at a different speed, they then have to learn to handle this uptempo. Initially many system teams that “crank it up” to a different level have some trouble shooting effectively and defending without fouling. They have to get used to the increase in speed.

Not all “system” teams use this principle of frequent subbing. Loyola Marymount actually kept some of their top players on the floor the entire time. The reason this is not practice in the Grinnell version of the system is what Grinnell tries to do at the defensive end. Defensively they are going to press full-court, and press/ trap in the half-court also. If this defense is being played correctly, it cannot be played for more than 35-50 seconds.

The interesting thing is that both Grinnell and Olivet Nazarene as they were working to develop and refine their systems, both started out by subbing players much less frequently. In some cases their subbing was more like every minute or even minute and a half. As time went on, they gradually cut the time down. And what ONU found was that when they went from around every 50 seconds to every 35 seconds, immediately their team began to scoring more than 10+ points per game. It simply allowed the players to play just that little bit harder.

A key for college teams is that they often will have the depth to be playing 15-20 players. So they will be able to play a shift and then to rest two shifts. That extra rest will allow the player to maintain the desired intensity level.

The concern about players not getting “into the flow”, is not a factor in my opinion. Players get used to whatever pattern of subbing their coach uses. The key to getting “into the flow” is determined more by how much time a player sits on the bench vs. how much they are playing. In the Grinnell System, players will sit out for about 2 minutes, still have a sweat, and get back in.

At this time, we send a new group up to the scorer’s table every 35 seconds. Depending on how many deadballs/fouls are called, that usually means each of our groups will play about 50-60 seconds. What is a challenge for many of our players is that are playing every other shift, so their rest time is limited. Ultimately whether subbing every 35 seconds is a practical strategy centers on the teams ability to play the game at a different speed than is “normal.”  

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