This basketball coaching article was written by Basketball HQ co-founder Kyle Ohman.
I wrote an article a little while ago directed to basketball players from the point of a coach as an ex-player. So I thought that it would be beneficial for coaches to receive a letter from the side of an ex-player. There has always been a natural gap between coaches and players. However, it seems like the best coaches in the game have narrowed that gap as much as possible.
As much as it is great to know X’s and O’s and every different basketball drill in the book, this article will not touch on any of that. It will focus solely on the coach to player dynamic and hopefully help you as a coach to better understand your players and where they are coming from. Because better understanding your players equals better relationships (which is what coaching is really about), better performance on the court, and ultimately a chance to do something special as a team.
When I played basketball in college, you could say I had a little bit of coaching turnover with three different head coaches in the four years that I played. Along with every head coaching change came pretty much a whole new staff of assistants, grad assistants, and directors. It was not very much fun rebuilding every year and learning a new system, but looking back now, it really helped me with my current basketball coaching and training career.
I was able to be around multiple coaches with varying philosophies, strategies, communication tools, systems, etc. It was great to see what worked and what really didn’t go over very well within the basketball program.
Along with being on the player side of things, I have also been able to be a part of several different high school programs and have done basketball skill development training with a good amount of players over the years.
I say all this not to promote myself but to help give some credibility to my following words, which will, hopefully, help you better understand and communicate with your players to build lasting relationships and teams that are remembered for a lifetime.
One of the first ways to lose your team’s respect as a basketball coach is to be inconsistent. This applies to practices, how you handle punishment, and so many other things, but it especially applies to how you handle situations from player to player. I am not trying to sell blanket punishments by any means because that usually paints you into a corner and doesn’t work out the way you want.
Many times, though, coaches allow themselves to fall into the trap of judging and punishing players based on their value to the team. A coach might look the other way if their best players are doing something they shouldn’t and then make an example of a player that doesn’t have as big of a role.
Once you start allowing yourself to look the other way for certain players, you will lose the rest of the basketball team. You need to deal fairly with every player based on their actions, not on what they bring to the team skill-wise.
Don’t get me wrong; some players will deserve leniency while others may need to be suspended or even cut for the betterment of the team. Players aren’t dumb. They understand the difference between the players on the team that continually push the limits and are purposely being difficult and a player who is a good teammate but may have made a poor choice.
In my first year as a head basketball coach, I chose to cut our two most skilled players (both players ended up playing at high-level Division 1 Schools) because I thought they were taking away from the team with their continued poor actions. Even though we took a serious hit on talent, it really helped bring the rest of the basketball team together. The other players on the team recognized that it was about putting the team first, and everyone would be treated the same way.
We beat the 12th ranked team in the nation that year and ended up losing by a couple of points in the state semifinals. It doesn’t always work out this way, but if you aren’t going to stay consistent with your convictions, nothing will work for you.
You would think that this would be a no brainer, but unfortunately, it is not for some basketball coaches. The most significant area that this shows up in is coaches talking poorly about one player to another player. As a coach, you should never negatively speak about one player to another. Even if you are just talking to another coach and there are players around, don’t do it.
It is a coach’s job to continually evaluate their players and talk it over with the other coaches on the staff, but that is a closed-door conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a coach building a player up to their face, but then overhear them say that same player is soft, lazy, can’t execute, or whatever else behind their back to other coaches are players.
It may all be true what you are saying, but other players should not be a part of these conversations. As a basketball coach, your job is to help make this player tougher, a harder worker, and someone who can execute, not tell everyone in earshot how they are not performing.
Would you want to give your best to someone talking about your faults to other people behind your back? I wouldn’t want to.
Why? I Just Want to Know Why?
One of the best tools I have picked up in my basketball training is simply explaining why a player should be doing something. I know, I know, this is mind-blowing, cutting edge stuff right here. But seriously, the simple idea of explaining why a player should do something a specific way gives so much added value to my words. It allows them to understand why it is so important that they do it the way that I want it done and not the way that they have been doing it (i.e., their way).
Not only will this give your basketball players more reason to do what you say, but it will also allow them to become better students of the game. We live in a culture where value must be explained before someone is willing to buy into something. So the better you explain why a player should space on a drive, shouldn’t catch and hold the ball, needs to cut hard, communicate on defense, have active hands, and so on, the more they are likely going to do it. Take the time to explain why.
If you don’t think this key is important, I want you to take a break from reading the rest of this basketball coaching article and research a basketball coach named John Wooden. If he can’t persuade you of the importance of relationship-building with your players, I definitely cannot.
However, if you do agree with me that this is pretty important when it comes to coaching, I have a couple of ways that you can use to help develop relationships with your team and players.
One really great way is to spend time with your players outside of basketball doing something fun. Most of the time, it is all about business regarding practice, weights, conditioning, meetings, games, etc. So it is essential that you create times outside of taking care of business where you can really get to know your players and their personalities. This is key for developing coach to player relationships, but also for developing player to player relationships.
Another way to get to know your basketball players is to schedule weekly small group and individual meetings with them. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out meeting. 10-15 minutes of checking in with your players on their family, school, etc., goes a long way. If players have questions about earning more playing time or questions about their role on the team, this is also a great time to clearly explain what you are looking for from them and how they can add more value to the team.
There are plenty of other ideas for spending time with your players, and it is up to you to find something that fits your personality as a head basketball coach. The key is to make sure that it is an intentional time to get to know your players on a level that they know you care about them outside of basketball.
Every great team has quality player leadership. The player leaders of the team are naturally established from the rest of the players on the team and also decided upon as a coaching staff. There are always going to be leaders that naturally separate themselves in pretty much any group. However, it is vital that as a coach, you help to grow and develop this player leadership into something of value.
Just because a player is a natural leader among their teammates doesn’t mean that they know what they should be doing or that they are even a good leader. It is essential that you, as the coach, are steering and helping to grow the player leadership of your team.
One of my coaches in college would have a captain’s meeting regularly where we would talk about different things that the coaches were looking for and where the captains of the team were able to have a voice. As a basketball coach, you must keep your fingers on the team’s pulse, and one of the best ways to do this is by listening to the leaders on your team.
This does not mean that you will automatically do everything that your players ask or want, but there are always areas that allow for wiggle room, and making some very minor adjustments can really help with player buy-in sometimes.
Along with the communication coming up to you through the player leaders, it also goes back down from you through the player leaders. Your player leaders can help reemphasize what you are looking for from the team in practice and even better yet when there aren’t any coaches around. This only works, though, if you spend the needed time cultivating your player leadership.
Ask your Players
One of my favorite basketball coaches of all time was an assistant coach at Liberty University named Jason Eaker. One of the biggest reasons was simply because he asked me regularly if I wanted to spend time working on my game with him. I could always count on getting this question in practice or through a text, “you want to get some shots up later?”
The answer wouldn’t always be a yes, but it was most of the time, which meant that I was in the gym working on my game. I know that he was the same way with a lot of other players on the team as well. Some of us most likely would have gotten in the gym on our own regardless, but not nearly as much as we did with him simply asking us if we wanted to spend some time working on our game and getting better.
If you are willing to put in the time, this is one of the best ways to develop your basketball players and develop genuine relationships with your players.
Know What Motivates Specific Players
One of the biggest jobs a basketball coach has is maximizing player talent. A great coach will look to squeeze every last drop of talent out of a player and make them into the best possible player that they can be. The only way this works, though, is understanding what motivates a player.
Basketball players learn in all different ways, so a coverall approach will not get the job done. If you choose to handle every player the same way, there will be a lot of players that fall to the wayside. This doesn’t mean that you play favorites and don’t get on some players because you are afraid to “hurt their feelings,” but it does mean that you are conscious of what motivates a specific player.
There will be players who are there because they want to be the best and are willing to put in the work to try and get there. There will be players that are naturally skilled but don’t have the best work ethic. Some players are there because they enjoy being part of a team. The list goes on and on.
You will find that some players respond to being called out in front of everyone, and some shut down. Other players respond better to a quiet word on the side, saying that the team needs you and is counting on you. Neither is better or worse than the other; it is just finding what will help get a specific player going.
As you are getting to know your players by developing relationships with them, you will better understand what motivates specific players, allowing you to challenge them the correct way. If you have been following along, you will again see that it comes back to building real relationships with players.
One of the most underused tools is film. Part of it in high school might be not always having the best film to watch, but if you have film of your basketball games and practices, you should be spending time watching and breaking down film regularly. It might be in a team setting with everyone, it could be a position film session, or it might be a one on one session.
Not only will it help your basketball players better understand the overall game of basketball, but it will add a lot of credibility to your words later on when you are telling a player to do something because they will remember it from film.
Also, film does not lie. Most of the time, a player doesn’t do something specifically to counter what you want as a coach; they usually just think they are already doing it correctly. For example, a player may think they are in the correct position on the help side when you are yelling at them to be in the help, but if you show them on film how they aren’t where they are supposed to be, there is no arguing that, and hopefully, this will help them better understand where they should be.
Take advantage of film and start building a program of accountability filled players that understand the game.
Open Lines of Communication
As a basketball coach, you don’t want a program where players are challenging your authority, but on the flip side, you also don’t want a program where players don’t feel like they can approach you. There should be open communication lines where a player can come to you in the right setting and air out what they are feeling; in the right way.
This goes back to having player leaders representing the team and can help talk to the coach when something is going on with the team. It also means that individual players can stop by a coach’s office to talk and ask questions if needed.
Players should feel like they can talk to you about playing time and what they need to do to earn more minutes or a more significant role. And as a coach, you should be straight with them and let them know what you are looking for. This will give the player a purpose and an understanding of what they need to do to earn more minutes.
If handled the right way, this is a win-win. The player can start working towards something, and hopefully, as a basketball coach, you pick up another player that adds value to the team. This doesn’t happen, though, if there is no communication.
Even Playing Field (Court)
One of the most frustrating things for a basketball player down towards the bottom of the rotation is a feeling that no matter what they do, they will not be able to improve their role on the team. Don’t get me wrong; I am completely fine with having a short rotation and only playing the players you believe will best help you win. However, nothing should ever be set in stone. Players towards the bottom of the rotation need to be able to earn the chance to break into the rotation.
If this is not the case, players begin to check out. Practices become slack, bench players stop competing, and players in the rotation become complacent. This spells disaster for the team. There needs to be an edge in every practice, and there needs to be the possibility of breaking into the rotation.
As a basketball coach, this is key, because unfortunately, injuries are part of the game sometimes. If a player or 2 in your eight-man rotation goes down, you need to have players that are confident, hungry, ready to step up. However, this only happens if players are consistently competing and being given a fair chance to play.
An Open Letter to Basketball Coaches Conclusion
I love this quote when it comes to coaching, “it isn’t always about the X’s and O’s, but usually about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s,” and that is precisely what this basketball article has tried to stress. If you create a culture where players feel valued through relationships and are competing their butts off because they want to give you their best, you have a chance to be special. Do yourself and your players a favor, and be this kind of basketball coach.