Systems Need Rule Breakers

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One of the (many) aspects of a successful team is a system that guides all the moving pieces. Certain rules that dictate expectations. In sports that looks like the set of plays, defenses, lines, etc. that are run routinely. Being consistent in practice and consistent in execution will lead to more victories (note, no team is infallible, though). As Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” That one kick, is a system. Sure, fighting is one-on-one, but the same quote can readily apply to teams by replacing “man” with “team.” The addition of teammates, though, calls for the addition of more rules to ensure predictable behavior, all acting towards a common goal (namely, victory). 

Most teams have a dedicated “rule breaker” though, and that’s a good thing. A single player that has the ability to change their role in the system when a rare opportunity becomes available. In most cases, it’s the best overall player on the team that has the freedom to break the rules as they see fit. In basketball, it’s often the point guard who is the rule breaker since they generally have a full view of all the players. They can see the holes in the defense and take advantage accordingly. In ultimate frisbee, it’s often a handler for the same reason- they have the best perspective of the whole field. Both of those positions are offensive players, though. Defenses need rule breakers as well. Using basketball again, the rule breaker on defence is often the center, because they are closest to the basket. They can see how an offensive attack is coming and adjust accordingly to minimize the odds of a score. In ultimate frisbee, the defensive rule breaker is generally in the deep space (near the endzone), or poaching an obvious lane (near the handler). 

The rule breaker serves a few purposes. The first being to avoid being totally predictable as a team. When a system is figured out by the opponents it becomes easier to beat (note, it may still be difficult to beat the opponent, but knowing what they will do does make it easier to develop a strategy). In any game where the objective is to win by scoring more points, this is clearly an issue. Having some type of deviation from the rules is necessary to being harder to understand. This applies to both offense and defense. Second, the rule breaker is there to shed light on new routines that can be adopted. Having one person able to change things up will open the flood gates to new plays. By taking a routine play, running it in a new way because the rule breaker found a different path to the goal, the coach and team gets new data. That new data can be turned into new plays, making your whole team better. Third, the rule breaker keeps things interesting for both players and spectators. Imagine how bad sports would be if we knew exactly what play was coming, what it would look like, and how the defense would respond to it. There would be no entertainment or suspense. For the sanity of everyone involved, the rule breaker is a vital piece to a team. 

Having multiple rule breakers, though, defeats the entire purpose of having a system. In general, the system makes it easy for players on the same team to know what to do and what to expect from their teammates. If I know a called play means I’m getting the ball, I know to get ready for it. If I know I’m not getting the ball, I know what to do to open up space for a teammate. A single rule breaker in the system can be tracked fairly easily. A player can hold a few expectations simultaneously. If play X is called, then I do Y. Potentially, I do Z if the rule breaker changes X. Throwing in more than one rule breaker adds new interaction effects that make predicting your own teams behavior more difficult. Teams with multiple rule breakers will do less well in the long run (if there is a long run). Recall Kyrie Irving leaving the Cavs because he wanted to be the guy. The rule breaker. He didn’t get along playing with Lebron, because Lebron was the guy. 

Having two or more rules breakers playing together (at the same time) makes the system of rules obsolete. The ability to run a set play, make the right moves, and play the role you need to play all go out the window when you’re no longer sure what to expect. There might as well be no system in place at all. This is why all-star teams tend to underperform based on expectations. All the teammates are trying to run the called play slightly differently, resulting in an awkward execution. 

How does a coach determine the rule breaker? Is it always the same person? These are undoubtedly hard questions to answer, but necessary to answer if you’re running a team. In some cases, there will be a best player that is an obvious choice. In some cases, the two best players might have to be split between offense and defense (if that’s possible). In some cases, a cut and or trade becomes necessary to protect egos. As for the latter question, a specific person is generally the only rule breaker for the sake of “consistency.” Not consistency in the sense that this rule breaker will always do the same things (not really breaking rules at that point), but consistency in the sense that the team can know who to expect to make deviations from the standard.

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