When coaches talk about the difference between a number 9 and a number 10 in soccer, a point-guard and a shooting-guard in basketball, a fly-half and a centre-three-quarter in rugby, a quarter-back and a running-back in American Football or a goal-attack and a goal-shooter in netball the focus tends to be on the differences in either the skill sets or the physical attributes of the players.
Usually, netball goal-attackers are shorter and faster than their goal-shooting team-mates. Quarter-backs are much better passers than their running-back buddies. In soccer, number 9s might be stronger and have better shooting skills (off the head or foot) than their number 10 counterparts. Usually fly-halves will not have the pace or size of centre-three-quarter players but will have great vision and accurate passing skills.
Is it just about physical attributes and acquired skills?
Is it all about the physical attributes and skills of the players that determines their ideal roles? I might be getting into dodgy and subjective areas here but could it also be true that personality has a role to play in determining what players make the best scorers and who is more suited to the playmaker role? I think so.
I have been coaching and watching a range of sports for many years and it seems to me that some players take to the play-maker role more naturally than others… others who are no less valuable to their teams because they are such a natural scoring threat. Whether these tendencies are created in individuals through nature (their genetic make-up) or nurture (the entire sum of experiences of their lives) it still seems to me that the position we are most suited to in a sporting team is at least, to some degree, determined by our personality and personal motivations.
Is there a scorer’s or play-maker’s instinct?
That’s not to say we should line up athletes, give them a personality assessment, then brand them as one specific kind of player until kingdom come. That would be way too simplistic. An individual’s tendency to want to be either a play-maker or a scorer could exist anywhere on a broad continuum. Some athletes might have an 80-20 preference towards scoring (putting them at the extreme end of the scale) while lots might have a 50-50 balance between their desire to be a play-maker or a scorer. Using basketball as an example, Mike Jordan would make a good example of an 80-20 scorer who was ideally suited to the shooting-guard role. While his gut instinct was to take on the opposition, directly, wherever possible, his ability to organize play could not be denied either. Steph Curry, the Golden State point-guard probably sits closer to the 50-50 split… something a little unusual in a point guard who might normally tend towards the play-maker role preference. Curry can swing back and forward between devastating natural scorer and play-organizer depending on the needs of the game. Every player, their personality, their motivations and their desires is a little different.
At the other end of the scale would be the 80-20 play-makers. There are players like Magic Johnson, in basketball, or the late-career Pele, in soccer, who were driven by the ambition to make their team-mates look great! When they wanted, they could be mercurial scorers, but it was the assist, in the end, that really turned them on!
Secondly, an athlete’s tendency towards preferring one style of play over the other might shift with age or with the learning of a new range of skills. I have known lots of kids in soccer who destroyed oppositions with their goal scoring ability early in life but discovered, as they matured, that they preferred working their mischief from the number 10 role then laying off to someone else to score the goals and grab the glory. Such players normally have enough scoring skill to bag their share of goals as well, when their team needs them to.
So, the personality situation is far from black and white. Athletes can have a strong, medium or weak preference for one style of play over the other. Also, that preference or tendency might change over time.
Does it matter?
Why should preference or personality tendency be a concern to coaches?
It seems to me that many talented athletes could be playing in positions that are not psychologically suited to them or their preferences… just because they have the right body, the right physical attributes and the right set of skills that the coach thinks he or she is looking for in a role. Technically skilful attacking mid-field players, that couldn’t find a team mate open if their lives depended on it, are as common as hell in soccer. When every cell of a player’s being is screaming out to beat your opponent and score it’s hard to be an effective play-maker. If such a player were driven by the overwhelming desire to put the ball in the back of the net, then I reckon they are in the wrong position. I know some awful number 10s who might make devastating number 9s or wingers. Such players often have good scoring averages but poor goal to assist ratios. By playing them out of position, their careers are being held back and the team is disadvantaged!
The Golden State Warriors basketball team is an interesting case. I suspect that there are lots of NBA teams where Steph Curry (Golden State’s superstar point-guard) would struggle to be as successful as he is. His GSW role of being part-time point-guard and part-time small shooting guard might not be possible in teams that don’t have such an abundance of play-making talent throughout the remainder of the roster. In other teams, he might continue to pull outstanding individual scoring numbers but I doubt whether the team would be as overall successful. An NBA coach with a roster full of great scorers but short-on for play-makers would not be making a smart move, in my view, by forking out millions for a player like Curry. What he or she needs is a player like Stockton! The same might apply in other sports. Some soccer, rugby or netball teams may not need a specialist play-maker if their team is full of players who love to set up their mates. But if you have a team in which every player just loves to score, coach, you better find an Aaron Mooy or Jonathon Thurston.
There must be thousands of basketball teams in the world where the most talented and natural scorer has managed to talk themselves into the point guard role. Why a coach would allow a team’s most obvious “go-to guy” to also be the team’s play-maker seems to me beyond comprehension. Why a natural scorer would want to negate their scoring talent by sitting back in an organizing role, I have no idea. To have a single player responsible for three-quarters of the team’s productivity (especially when some of those responsibilities are somewhat conflicting) doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. It might work for the Golden State Warriors but they are a very special and unusual outfit where most of the roster are genuinely multi-faceted players. Few teams are so blessed.
When an instinctive play-maker and an instinctive scorer come together… wow!
In any sport, it’s great to find a natural scorer and natural play-maker partnership. The scary thing for opposition teams and opposition coaches when having to face up to a combination like Karl Malone and John Stockton is that, if you are silly enough to try to stop the scorer by stacking the defence on them, the brilliant play-maker will have plenty enough scoring ability to burn you for leaving him or her open. A great play-maker and scorer double-act has way too many options up their sleeves to be troubled by a basic defensive response.
We saw something similar last week-end with Bassett and Wood from the Sunshine Coast Lightening in the Netball Super League Grand Final giving nightmares to the Sydney Giants defenders. With super-scorer Bassett looking unstoppable drawing extra defence, play-maker Wood flicked her shooting switch on, forcing the defenders to come back to her, thus opening up Bassett again. Wood and Bassett were almost impossible to defend!
How can coaches react to this personality issue. I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. My guess would be that if a player’s behaviour, on the field, court or at practice gave a strong indication that they have a natural tendency to want to attack their opponents goal or try-line then don’t be suckered into forcing them into a play-maker role no matter how appropriate their skills or shape might seem for that role. Every team needs players who lust to “find the back of the net” and to place them elsewhere seems wasteful to me. I would add that if they are desperate to score it seems likely to me that they would stuff up the play-maker role, often, anyway. The counter is also probably true. If you have a player that looks and seems like a scorer but behaves more like a play-maker my tip would be to shift them back deeper. They will more than likely continue to score for your team from a deeper position but will also bless your team and their team-mates with lots of assists.
The moral to the story? When constructing a balanced team, coaches need to think a little further than the traditional skills, physical attributes criteria when deciding on positional responsibilities and making team selections. I reckon coaches need to think about raw psychological make-up of players as well. Some athletes have a natural tendency to want to score and others prefer to create. When an athlete is pushed into an inappropriate role they, and the team, will suffer.