How to improve your ability to quickly read on-court situations

There have been some really interesting studies in the last few years that have examined what exactly is going in the brains of elite performers. What scientists have discovered can directly help you improve your basketball game.

In one of these experiments, pictures of various volleyball situations (I know…volleyball…but stick with me because the conclusion is what matters) were flashed from a projector onto a screen. The pictures showed real action shots of players on the court. In some of these pictures the volleyball was visible, while in others the ball had just left the frame and therefore didn’t show up in the photo.

Thousands of action shots like this were photographed and flashed on the screen for very brief periods of time, and subjects ranging from non-volleyball players to elite performers had to say whether the volleyball was actually in the frame.

The study found that the more volleyball the subjects had played, the better they were at correctly identifying whether the ball actually showed up in the picture.

Elite volleyball players were far superior at the task, with some of them being able to consistently answer correctly even when the picture was only flashed on screen for 16/100ths of a second. (Compare this to the novices who had trouble correctly identifying pictures flashed on the screen for 3 times as long.)


Because the pictures were flashed on the screen so briefly (a few hundred milliseconds), subjects didn’t actually have time to shift their  retinal focus enough to actually SEE the ball.

Instead they had to rely on the clues that the overall picture presented such as reading of the players positions and postures. The study found that in a split second, elite performers can accurately read the subtle clues of their sport in a way that less experienced players can’t.

This reading of cues happens almost instantaneously and subconsciously.

Also, this skill can be learned. The experiment clearly showed that the more time subjects had spent playing and watching volleyball, the better they were at the reading of situations.


This study proves that with practice, you can learn to size up situations more accurately and much more quickly. Getting a split second advantage reading game situations is HUGE.

Watch on TV. Go to a game. You’ll learn different things watching your 4th grade team playing defence than you will watching a Greg Popovich’s team rotate. This is why sporting hotbeds exist. Watching better players helps to train the minds of young players.

Train your subconscious mind by consciously paying attention to basketball situations. When you become an elite player, many of the judgements you make will be done in Split Second by your subconscious mind. You can help train this process by consciously studying players and situations.

Pay attention to players posture and positioning. What clues do players give right before they are about to pull up, or cross over? What does the ball screener’s defender look like when he’s about to aggressively hedge on the screen? What opportunities does this open up for you, the ball handler?