Game Management: What Part Science? What Part Art?

I was watching the Detroit Tigers @ the Baltimore Orioles baseball game last night and the Tigers were precariously holding on to a 9-8 lead in the bottom of the ninth, after blowing a 9-2 6th inning lead. With two out, the Orioles’ Chris Davis singled to center, meaning of course, that the tying run was on first base and the winning run was at the plate.

At that point, local Fox Sports Network analyst Kirk Gibson of Tiger and Dodger Fame said, “The Tigers’ outfielders will now play deeper, trying to cut off doubles. The Tigers will try to force the Orioles to get two singles to score the tying run by keeping the ball out of gaps.” This principle has always been vaguely on my radar, but when a real baseball guy put it succinctly, it really hit home.

This episode reminded me that in managing any type of game (interesting isn’t it-that in pro baseball the name is manager and in every other sport it’s coach?), there are a number of pre-determined strategies that are tried and true and are universally almost always utilized. For purposes of this article, let’s call that side the “science” of game management. That thought led me to the human or intuitive side of managing a game and let’s call that the “art” of game management.

With that prelude as background, let’s delve into some of the key game management principles we’re likely to encounter on a regular basis, knowing full well that we’ll never cover in one day the myriad of possibilities that we can encounter.

OFFICIATING MANAGEMENT: Before the game even starts, it is incumbent on every coach (and his staff) to have an excellent working knowledge of the applicable rule- book. While officials don’t need to know a coach’s X and O’s guidelines, a coach has to know an official’s guidelines. Ignorance in this area is inexcusable. While arguing judgment calls with a crew isn’t directly productive, pointing out an incorrectly administered rule is not only acceptable, but it’s also expected. I would characterize rule-book knowledge and application as “science”. Another scientific aspect of officiating management is having a history of the calls individual officials make over a game, season or a career as charted by various interested parties. Knowing that an official tends to lean in one direction on block/charge calls, or whistles an excessive number of traveling or lane violations can be important pieces of information to coaches and players alike. This practice is trending strongly in the profession.

Conversely, I would classify the general communication and interplay between a coach and an officiating crew as “art”. This is a topic that itself would actually warrant an article or two. The number of factors that can enter in this equation is infinite. There can be a good or bad history between the parties; there can be personality conflicts or not; there can be regional or district assigning issues and a plethora of other factors that determine in-game interplay between coaches and officials. In a perfect world, each game would start with no adverse history and intentions of professionalism and fairness by and to all parties concerned. Keep in mind several givens. Just as the coach is trying to manage the official, the official actually has a mandate to manage the bench. The less either has to manage the other the better. Also, there is generally greater communication latitude in college than HS as well as greater latitude when officials are assigned by a central office for all schools rather than by districts. No matter the case, the “art” of coach-official relationships is centered on adjusting. A good coach reads the situation and makes the necessary adjustments. Good officials aren’t above adjustments either.

CLOCK MANAGEMENT: This topic is very different for coaches whose play is governed by a shot clock and those coaches whose play isn’t. Quite simply, shot clocks make clock management decisions more frequent and therefore, more complex. For instance, “two for one shots” is a pro and college shot clock decision but never is discussed in HS play because it’s a moot point. Intentional fouling when behind is very different for college and HS play. Sometimes college teams will gamble on not fouling the entire shot clock because they know they will get the ball back- stop or not. HS teams often can’t afford not to foul and stop the clock. Some key clock management questions for staffs follow:

Do you always try to take the last shot of the quarter or half? If so, with how much time left are you prepared to make the move? (Keep in mind that teams can lose offensive momentum and flow with this tactic).
In general, when do you start fouling to stop the clock when you’re behind? Sometimes discussing a sliding scale with your staff in the pre-season can be helpful. (As a hypothetical example-If down 4 with 1:00 to go; down 3 with :45 left; down 2 with :30 left). Then, whom do you foul? Of course, there are situations when you can’t be fussy and have to foul the first available opponent. (Quick story: We were playing Dayton one year and were behind by a few late and had to keep fouling (before shot clock). They had a guy who was about 5th in the nation at 92% or so. We told our guys to foul anyone but him. They didn’t and his teammates hit every FT. With 3 seconds left, we had to foul the good guy; he missed the front end and we hit a half court shot to win.)
In general, if and when do you force defensive tempo and gamble with larger deficits? The same sliding scale approach can give you a general guideline so that you’re not totally winging it when games start.
In general, if and when do you force offensive tempo and get away from patterns and long developing action and change to quick hitting action?
If ahead, when do you “take the air out” and how do you do it? No shots? Great shots only?
When do you totally ice the ball and are in a “get fouled only” mode?

Questions 1-6 are designed for non-shot clock play. With the shot clock, the same decisions need to be made but the shot clock takes out a good chunk of the desperation factor. Science and art are co-mingled in questions 1-6. Generally the pre-plan sliding scale is science oriented and the individual game unique circumstances and feel is art oriented.

PLAYER MANAGEMENT: Who is on the floor for you at any given time can be very scientific (43% FT shooter sitting with 3:00 left ahead by 2) or intuitive in nature. Regardless, each coach has pretty good reasons for who to play and why to play them. Opponent’s matchups, style of play and tempo will dictate a lot of adjustments but score and clock are huge factors. Again, pre-season staff meetings discussing possible scenarios can make this process a bit more calculating.

BENCH MANAGEMENT: This duty is usually best served by an assistant. The head coach can’t be expected to monitor the bench and the game. Once the staff determines the desired bench decorum in all regards, the assistant manages this aspect like it makes a difference-because it does.

Some coaches are better in games than others. Sometimes coaches just have a knack; sometimes experience weighs heavily in a coach’s favor. As with anything else, pre-season organization and preparation can significantly improve one’s game management skills.

What are other Game Management skills that should be discussed?


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2 comments

  1. Discuss shooting restrictions as a close game nears the end: under 5:00, under 2:00, last shot, etc. I’m thinking how much control does a coach exercise? At what point does the coach draw it up for either one of two players and the others may not shoot unless rebound or kick out? That sort of shot-management.

    1. Shot management is really coached day to day in practice. I don’t think in the heat of the game you can tell your lesser players not to shoot. Inevitably, defenses are going to take away your best players options and your lesser players will have to take and make shots. They will act instinctively in the heat of a game. There is a real fine line here but it can mostly be addressed in “special situations” practice.