Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by using the Pistols Position

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When I first heard the concept of a “defensive pistols position” I thought it sounded like a crutch to help a help-side defender focus on both the ball and their opponent.  Then I was listening to an episode of the Shot Science YouTube channel and the coach said that the goal was to watch both the ball and your opponent via your peripheral vision.  He said the player should look straight ahead, locate the ball out of the corner of one eye and the ball out of the corner of the other.  I couldn’t believe it.  That just didn’t make any sense.

I went looking on the web and found these references that said the same thing.

At Coaches Clipboard, I found this:

“Help-side defenders should never lose sight of their man and should use their peripheral vision to always see the ball and their man. Some coaches call this the “pistols position” pretending that your index fingers are pistols, with one pistol pointing at the ball and the other pointing at your man.”

At Basketball 4 All, I found this:

“Point one hand to your man and the other to the ball and maintain a position that allows you to see both your man and the ball.”

Then I found a YouTube video from the venerable Michael Jordan where he explicitly advises you to look straight ahead and use your peripheral vision so you can see the movement of both your opponent and the ball without  having to “keep your head on a swivel”:

Here Michael’s pointing at the ball and his opponent:

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Here Michael’s advising you to look straight ahead:

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How can anyone disagree with the great Michael Jordan and all these other coaching resources?  It’s actually pretty easy.  Watch the teams involved in the NCAA tournament.  These are the best players on the best teams.  Not one of them looks straight ahead and watches their opponent and the ball out of the corners of their eyes.

Let’s think about why.  Here’s a camera’s view of the court as a help-side, post defender (click the image to see it at full size):

Slide1

I’ve enhanced the ball in this image to make it easier to spot.  Your field of vision is about 180 degrees (90 + 90).

The camera can keep everything in focus across its entire field of vision but you and I can’t.  In fact, only a small area of our field of vision is in focus at any point in time.  The further you go from the center of gaze the blurrier things get.

Here’s what the same image would look like if you were taking Michael’s advice and looking straight ahead  (click the image to see it at full size).

Slide3

 Both the ball handler and your opponent are out of focus.  What you can see clearly are a couple of relatively unimportant players.

Here’s what the image would look like if you were looking directly at the ball handler  (click the image to see it at full size).

Slide2

Your opponent is even more blurry but you can clearly see what the ball handler is doing.

What I’m going to say at this point is purely speculation.  I’ve checked the scientific research and even contacted a few university researchers but they didn’t know of any research in this particular area.

Anyway, here’s what I think.  If you want to be able to intelligently evaluate a scene and predict what the individuals in that scene will do next, you have to focus on them.  I think that our vision is the result of millions of years of evolution. Peripheral vision has evolved to warn us of danger and central vision has evolved to help us be the best predators we can be.  We use our central vision to locate and out-think our prey and we use our peripheral vision to warn us about the presence of our own predators.

So peripheral vision is good, and only good, at helping us recognize whether something is moving, what direction it’s moving, and how fast it’s moving.  Central vision is good at identifying small cues that we can use to predict the actions of our opponents.

Now put all this together and think about what you need to do as a help-side defender.  You already know that only the ball can score.  So you look at directly at the person with the ball and look for small cues about what he might do next.  Will he attempt to drive to the basket, put up a shot from the outside, or pass?  You can get those cues by watching his body position and where he’s looking with his eyes.  You can use your peripheral vision to monitor the location and movement of your opponent.  Your brain is already wired to alert you to his movement.

I suspect if someone did the research, they’d discover that the central portion of vision is wired to the higher regions of the brain where intelligence is located while the peripheral portions of vision are wired to the lower regions of the brain where reaction, rather than intelligence, is emphasized.

If you simply stare straight ahead you have to watch both the ball and your opponent out of the corners of you your eyes you can’t “think” about what you’re observing.  You can’t bring your experience and basketball intelligence to bear.  You can only react out of fear.

I think there’s a lot of evolutionary support to say that the “defensive pistols position” is nonsense.  I also think that Michael makes a good argument that “keeping your head on a swivel” is dangerous.

The correct approach, however,  is relatively simple:

  1. Look directly at the ball.
  2. Watch your opponent out of the corner of your eye.
  3. If you sense your opponent moving toward the ball (and I think “sense” is more the word than “see”), move to cut him off.
  4. If you can’t look at the ball and still see your opponent out of the corner of your eye, back up until you can.
  5. Use your hands as another set of eyes to feel for your opponent and other members of your opponent’s team who might be coming to screen you.

Proof that this is the correct approach is visible in every NCAA tournament game.