Do the Little Things Really Matter? Questioning Coaching Dogma.

“The philosophy of 'Don’t sweat the small stuff?' Yeah, that was never his philosophy."

The above quote is from Jim Schwartz, former personnel scout under Bill Belichick. This philosophy of focusing on the little things is a well-worn cliche in sports and some of the most famous coaches have harped on it. 

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” - John Wooden

But why? Why are the little things so important? Why not focus on the big things? Why waste our time on the little things when we can work on perfecting the big things? 

It may seem heretical to coaching dogma to question the value of the little things, but I think it’s important that we constantly question our assumptions about what makes great coaching.

In the book Game Changer by Fergus Connolly, I found a well thought out answer as to why Belichick, Wooden and other great coaches focus relentlessly on the little things. 

To answer the question of "why do the little things matter?” we must take a quick detour into the realm of chaos theory and the butterfly effect. 

If we take a step back and just look at the game of basketball as a whole, it’s incredibly complex. The rules may not be overly complicated, but the actions that occur on the court are unpredictable and dynamic. 

Every action that occurs (both on and off the court) has a ripple effect beyond that action itself.

In the game, Josh is guarding #24 on the perimeter. #24 gives a shot fake and causes Josh to rise out of his stance by a just few inches. As Josh stands up, #24 attacks the rim with a slight advantage. That slight advantage forces the help side defender to rotate over fully in order to prevent the layup.

The other offensive players move to open spaces depending on where the other defenders rotate. One player cuts hard to the front of the rim, while the other slides along the 3 point line to create a passing angle. #24 kicks to the open shooter and he drills a 3.

All of this activity is impacted by the initial shot fake and reaction by the on-ball defender. The ripple effect of that one play is big. Big enough to swing the outcome of a game.

However, it’s impossible to predict the exact chain reaction of events that occurs as a result of that simple shot fake. In an alternate scenario, perhaps Josh doesn’t bite on the shot fake. He recognizes that #24 isn’t a dangerous shooter and stays in his stance. The defense doesn’t have to rotate over and the offense doesn’t gain a significant advantage during the possession. The result is a poor shot at the end of the shot clock and 3 less points on the board for the opposing team. 

In the example above we can see the amplifying effect of a single minuscule action. We start with that single shot fake and follow it’s possible outcomes.

But when coaches look back on the game as a whole, it’s often much more difficult to diagnose the root cause of an outcome. 

Let’s say Josh shot 3/4 from 3 point range. Why did that outcome occur? Was it because he got up extra shots in practice the day before? Was it because he visualized himself making shots before the game? Was it because a teammate offhandedly mentioned that his shot looked great a few hours before the game and therefore Josh came into the game feeling confident? Was it because the opposing team’s least attentive defender was guarding him and left him a half second more open than normal? Was it because he made 2 free throws early in the game and felt good about himself?

The truth is that it is probably a combination of many factors and it’s impossible to know exactly what caused it.

This is what Connolly means when he says the game is unpredictable and dynamic. It’s unpredictable because impossible to predict the rippling effect of a single action. For example, we don't know whether #24's shot fake will cause Josh to rise up out of his stance and create the chain reaction that ends with an open 3.

And the game is dynamic in that the actions are always changing based on a huge number of conditions such as time, score, mental fatigue, player positioning, player performance etc. Using the example above, the helpside defender's actions are all impacted by Josh's ability (or lack thereof) to keep the ball in front of him.

As humans, we simply don’t have the cognitive ability to fully understand the complex web of actions and reactions that exist in a given game. Although many coaches would like to think that they know exactly why their team won or lost, they’re just informed guesses at best. In reality, who can definitively know what tiny action caused a chain reaction of events that turned a win into a loss?

This is what is popularly known as the “butterfly effect” which describes the phenomena of how a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in China. It doesn’t matter how minuscule the initial action is, the resulting outcome can be much larger. 

As Connolly puts it, “The butterfly metaphor is used to illustrate the importance of context and timing...In other words, the quantity of the initial action is inconsequential—the wind generated by the butterfly’s flapping its wings is almost negligible, yet it can end up causing a hurricane."

The key phase here is context and timing. In a dynamic system the result of tiny actions can be massive, but only if the context and timing amplify it to be so. This is what Chaos theory is all about.

Again from Connolly: “The whole point of chaos theory is that the fate of the system is determined by small factors that become magnified over time. These factors are too numerous to pin down and too small to fully comprehend, meaning that the system we see in sports is unpredictable. This is why we see a non-league team upset a Premier League high-flyer in the Football Association Challenge (FA) Cup, a small-college team defeat a Division I powerhouse in the NCAA basketball tournament, and an underdog team like Japan upend mighty South Africa in the Rugby World Cup.”

The truth is that any single action can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of a game. We just aren’t great at figuring out specifically how that happens. This is exactly why the little things matter. 

Every time a player misses a box out, it could be the difference in the game.

Every time a player sets a solid screen, it could be the difference in the game.

Every time a player encourages a teammate after he misses a shot, it could be the difference in the game. 

Even though we can’t know with complete certainty how each action effects the outcome of the game, we know that they absolutely can impact the outcome of the game. And that immense power is why the little things matter. 

This impact isn't limited to players' actions on the court. The little things matter just as much for coaches.

A coach’s influence on the game isn’t restricted to strategic adjustments at halftime or a heroic end of game sideline out of bounds play (although that’s what the media often considers great coaching). A coach’s influence extends way beyond that. A coach can influence the game simply with the tone they use to communicate with their players, the environment they create during practice, and the facial expressions they make on the sideline. 

From Connolly: "It may seem like an unusual statement, but good coaches do not know how exactly their teams will win. They simply know that the win will occur through the evolution of the complex, adaptive system. The more we can model, the less is left to chance. Jim Schwartz once said of the Patriots and Bill Belichick: 'Probably the biggest thing I learned from Bill is that there isn’t anything that is not important. Anything that touches the team is important. That philosophy of ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’? Yeah, that was never his philosophy.’”

Just like the butterfly effect can magnify the effect of a player’s action, the butterfly effect can also apply to team culture. A tiny action if improperly handled can completely undermine team cohesion and unity. 

I love the phrase Schwartz uses: “Anything that touches the team is important.” It suggests the immense importance of small things that occur both on and off the court. The team is constantly being “touched” by people (staff members, coaches, teachers, family, media) as well as images, slogans, facilities, etc. 

Although Connolly mostly applies chaos theory to the game itself, it’s also a great framework for understanding team building and team culture. The best coaches are somewhat maniacal in managing what “touches” the team. Belichick was maniacal about doing the little things right because he knew that every little thing had the potential to swing a game and even a season.

In sports, the margins between winning and losing are incredibly thin. And the butterfly effect tells us that the potential impact of a small action can be massive. As a result, the philosophy of “don’t sweat the small stuff” doesn’t fit with the reality of what drives successful teams. On the contrary, the little things really DO matter, we just don't know exactly how.