Intro to chaos theory

Researchers studying chaos theory should leave the lab and try coaching fourth-grade basketball.

If you want a good look at how random elements affect dynamic situations, look no farther than a basketball tournament for 10-year-old boys. Check out a game sometime: You’ll find 10 beginners attempting to play basketball, but succeeding primarily in developing a hybrid of rugby and amoeba soccer, where everyone keeps stealing the ball from one another and at any given time half the players are laying on the court crying. You’ll also find two sets of coaches popping Advil like Skittles.

Beginner basketball is an exercise in chaos. Try though the coaches might to teach fundamental principles and install an offense, it takes mere moments once the opponents are swarming and the parents are shouting and the pregame Mountain Dew is hitting the bloodstream for the game to devolve into something out of ‘Lord of the Flies.’

The problem here, clearly, is coaching. This winter I made my debut as a basketball coach, volunteering to help lead my son Drew’s team. I was an obvious choice, given my unparalleled basketball resume: It begins with being a mediocre backup junior varsity point guard in high school. It ends with playing in a weekly men’s pickup game without suffering a major injury for several consecutive weeks. (Consider that streak officially jinxed.)

My co-coach and I watch from the bench (in this area, I have considerable experience) as our best-laid plans crumble. As we look on, I imagine what it would be like if they broadcast these games on the radio, and the play-by-play announcer had to keep up with the action: Here’s Caleb bringing the ball up court for the Eagles, and oh my, he just had his pocket picked by the Wildcats, who are fast-breaking the other way. Wait, the kid just dribbled the ball off his foot, and now it’s up for grabs. Four players are face-down on the floor, vying for possession. Jacob emerges from the pile and is dribbling furiously toward the Eagles’ hoop. Whoops, he just tripped over an opponent who is laying prostrate and bloodied at midcourt, and now the ball is rolling free. Dylan swoops in to pick up the loose ball and, even though there’s no one between him and the basket, he launches an 18-foot shot over the backboard and out of bounds. The coaches have called timeout. They’re running to the concession stand to replenish their Advil supplies.

I know fourth-grade boys’ basketball isn’t entirely analogous to chaos theory. There are differences. For one, I have at least a passing understanding of youth basketball. Chaos theory, not so much. For those who don’t have Wikipedia handy, chaos theory studies how changing conditions affect dynamic situations. This is popularly called the butterfly effect, as it asks whether the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas.

I don’t know about all that, but I do know that starting a defensive drill in practice has the immediate effect of 10 boys claiming they need to use the bathroom. And that a sure way to get an entire team to ask who’s in the starting lineup is to lay down an edict stating no one is to ask questions about the starting lineup.

Don’t get me wrong, these are good boys. After months of repetition, they’re getting the hang of basic offensive and defensive principles. (Somehow it’s easier for kids this age to set up a website than learn a back-door cut.) They’ve won a few games, and even took third at a tournament Sunday.

It’s this sort of progress that helps coaches make sense of the chaos. We realize there’s no sense in trying to control a universe that’s full of random events. All we can do is tell the boys what they need to know (after insisting that they remove their iPod earbuds, of course), send them onto the court and hope for the best. Oh, and reach for the Advil.

Follow columnist Ben Bromley on Twitter at ben_bromley. You can also reach him at A former Lillie Suburban Newspapers editor, he now writes for the Baraboo News Republic.


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