Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Be Mindful of Coaching Speed and Structure

This article was originally posted on the HoopSpeak Coaches Forum on November 21.

As coaches constantly cultivating our craft, we start out the season with myriad ideas concocted from a long off-season of watching, debating and theorizing. Then we attempt to integrate possible new schemes and skills into our philosophy and overall vision.

Many coaches tend to move fast, not necessarily in their physical movements, but in their teachings. The John Wooden maxim, “Be quick, but don’t hurry” that was intended for player pace has applicability to coaches as well. Coaches who move too quickly – especially when it comes to the implementation of new plays and skills – may end up behind.

According to Dr. Justin Anderson, a sport psychologist for Premier Sport Psychology in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., groups often move too fast without understanding how to connect the dots, specifically between an individuals’ intrinsic motivation, team goals, and players’ roles and responsibilities. “If a team hasn’t thought of or discussed goals, and the coaches haven’t talked about what the overall process is, they are operating without purpose,” says Anderson, “and the team is being served an injustice.”

How well we teach, how organized we are, and how long it takes our players to “get it” varies year to year. No matter what, though, Anderson emphasizes that trust and understanding of purpose exist. Don’t run drills because they look cool or because you think you need a bunch of new ones each day. Those drills might not apply to your philosophy, program, or personnel. Don’t run an offense simply on the basis that it works great for another team. Think about values your players will grasp and how to instill camaraderie. “The team has to understand the ‘why’,” insists Anderson.

We spend hours brainstorming and creating practice plans – and we attempt to stick to the schedule. For many coaches, the plan is printed down to the minute, and their goal is to stay on task. Know that it’s okay to fill up the schedule with everything you hope to get to that day, but understand that drills may be trumped – and those should be noted – to stay on a particular skill set or play until the team is ready to move on. It’s most important, especially in the first month of the season, to make sure everyone gets “it”.

The “it” doesn’t solely refer to plays, moves, and drills, but also goals and roles. Anderson says teams need to have structure in place first, a key to building any organization. From a solid foundation, process goals (i.e., action items) are created which can influence outcomes. For example, rotating and recovering on defense effectively (process) will improve field goal percentage defense (outcome). “It’s all related to the old psychological theory of forming, storming, norming, and performing,” says Anderson. [Briefly, the season begins and a team is created; players jockey for position; a hierarchy related to roles and responsibilities is established; and, theoretically, a team gels and performs at a high level.] “By working with structure, processes, and people, trust is formed and teams operate more efficiently.” And depending on the make-up and experience of the team, these -ing phases are accomplished at varying rates. Teams with seasoned veterans may make it to the norming and performing stages more rapidly than less experienced teams.

Our current Caltech team is light years ahead of where the squad was a couple years ago. It’s early, so players are competing within our system – they’re storming – and some are using skills needed to perform at a high level while understanding their particular roles (norming). We’ve been quick to get to offensive and defensive team play rather than being forced to use practice time for individual development. We hope all of this translates to “performing” quicker than ever once games commence. This season’s roster includes nine juniors – all who were recruited by the current staff – and who the coaches know very well. Prior teams didn’t have that type of experience; therefore, we focused on fundamentals that would eventually become part of our system. One could say we were still storming at the end of the season.

In any case, we thought long and hard as a coaching staff with regards to where we wanted to be a month into the season and highlighted the “why” and “how” of teaching. With varying levels of experience, getting caught up in the execution of three different defenses and a dozen half court sets ignores the people involved and the team as a whole. If we haven’t grasped a concept in practice (e.g. how to screen and seal appropriately or where to go in transition), then we stay with it and save the next drill for the next day.

“Don’t undervalue the concept of team,” suggests Anderson. “A true team is one where all individuals, including coaches, sacrifice and know what works best for the group. It takes a great deal of humility.”

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