Reader Coach Mike Allen of Capital Heights, Maryland (@HoopDreamChaser on Twitter) asked what the difference is between “Soft Focus” and “Hard Focus” (if you like), and when and where do you use the two.
Most will be familiar with the concept of “Soft Focus” from defence, where in order to “see both” in a “Ball-You-Man” situation you look into the intermediate space between ball and man and utilise your peripheral vision to track both. This requires “Soft Focus.” It was in this context that I heard New Zealand Tall Ferns Assistant Coach Jody Cameron utilise the term and thought it encapsulated an offensive concept I was learning about and developing well.
”Soft Focus” involves keeping your eye muscles relaxed and maintaining a wide scope of vision. For example, when dribbling the ball prior to and during running a middle pick and roll (or pop) the ball handler should employ “Soft Focus” in order to see the whole floor, from corner to corner - where, usually, two shooters are stationed. This allows the ball handler to see all of the defensive rotations, and early. Similar to seeing both on defence, looking into the in between space allows the offensive player to see both corners.
Off the ball the player is able to see his team mates and the defence by keeping the ball on one edge of his peripheral vision and looking into the intermediate space. This allows the player to see opportunities to backdoor cut his man if he catches him ball watching (see Masters of moving off the ball), to set a pin screen on a shooter’s defender if they’re overhelping, and a host of other possibilities.
”Hard Focus” or “Narrow Focus” involves contracted eye muscles leading to ‘tunnel vision.’ This causes the player to lose sight of the floor and either see the rotations late or not at all.
There is a place for “Hard Focus” when one is shooting and needs to focus on a specific target. Therefore when running a ball screen a player will begin in “Soft Focus” but if they read that the appropriate decision is for them to shoot, then they must quickly get their feet into position to shoot and narrow their focus to a “Hard Focus” on the target.
It is imperative that players utilise the correct focus for the situation and usually this involves a “Soft Focus.” Too often off ball players stare at the basketball like they are Gollum and the ball is their Precious! This causes them to not see a lot of opportunities and make misreads. For example, if a post player is running the floor in transition and has a lead on his man he should rim run. Whereas, in many systems, if his defender is back he should go into a drag screen. He must run with vision. Another instance occurs when a player is sprinting into a ball screen. He must know how his defender is playing him to determine the screen location, how long he should stay in the screen, and what read to make in terms of diagonal dive/roll, straight dive/roll or pop. Utilising “Soft Focus” allows players to make on time, on target passes that arrive at the same time as the player arrives in the space. This is because the “Soft Focus” allows the receiver of a pass to know what his option will be prior to or as soon as he catches the ball. They can therefore touch pass the high-low for example. Whereas if the off ball player has “Hard Focus” then he will catch, then he will look, and then he will apologise to the cutter who he can tell was open but the opportunity has now come and gone.
It does take practice to get used to not staring at the ball (“Hard Focus”). A sequence of closed, and then open, drills should be utilised to allow players to become comfortable with having “Soft Focus” off the ball and timing when to shift to a narrow “Hard Focus” in order to catch the ball when a pass is thrown. For each player the timing they require will be slightly different so experiential learning here is necessary. There should be a gradual progression from closed to open, gradually reducing the scaffolding, until the players are able to apply “Soft Focus” when appropriate in game situations.