I've come across many coaches who have a great passion for their players but don't win. I've also worked with coaches who have a passion for the game itself and don't find the success they are searching for.
While I believe passion is a prerequisite for any successful person to excel in their sport or profession, I think people sometimes fall back on their passion as if it will be like a magic carpet and take them where they want to go. It doesn't work this way unfortunately.
Passion is like a gust of wind that gives you a nudge but it isn't enough to move you forward without you deciding to take a step forward.
Passion is like a gust of wind that gives you a nudge but isn't strong enough to move you forward without you deciding to take a step forward.
A second misconception is that you have to have been a great player in the past. While a person may have been a great player in their day all you have to do is look to former greats like Isaiah Thomas and Larry Bird as examples. Both were tremendous players, but neither was able to do much as a coach. I can think of several other examples of fantastic players who didn't have what it took to coach a team successfully. The flip side is also true, I know several people who were average players or didn't play at all and are tremendous coaches.
There is more to being a successful basketball coach than their passion for the game and if they were or weren't a good player back in the day.
So what exactly does a person have to possess to be a good basketball coach?
I believe there are five boxes that need to be checked in order to be a good basketball coach who consistently finds success with their players and teams.
The 5 Boxes To Being A Good Basketball Coach
Whether you are a new or seasoned coach you'll find that the following five boxes encompass what it takes to find success with any team. The areas in the boxes extend beyond sports as well, they are true in business, relationships, teaching, and anywhere a group of people are trying to accomplish something together.
One last thing before we dive in, the areas found in the five boxes are never really mastered. Just as a player works on the basics and then adds moves, fakes, and quickness to enhance their game, a coach will do the same in each box.
Recognizing that you need to put a check mark in each box is like a gust of wind, it nudges you a little, but it's up to you to take the step forward and add new techniques, strategies, and approaches to make yourself effective with each new player, team and circumstance that comes your way as a basketball coach.
The 5 Boxes
In my opinion these are the five biggest areas a basketball coach has to be able to excel in if they want to find consistent success.
The first four boxes - organization, planning, communication, and leadership - aren't covered very often and typically aren't thought about by coaches. This means most coaches are just hoping to be effective.
As an opposing coach I'm counting on this. I want to coach against coaches who neglect to improve in these four areas. The less boxes the opposing coach has check the better opportunity my team has at winning once we step on the floor to compete.
Let me give you an example:
When I coached at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) we faced conference opponent Kellogg Community College (KCC) twice a year. KCC always had great athletes and solid basketball players. My pregame speech was always the same - "Go out there an execute our game plan. Once they get tired and start arguing with each other we will make our run and come out on top."
It wasn't that their coach didn't know the game or that he didn't have talented enough players to beat us because he did. The thing they were missing was effective communication from coach to players, players to coach, and player to player. KCC's team would fall apart when things got tough on them. The coach would start getting on players and then the players would get on each other and we would surge ahead.
I don't know if the coach was particularly good in the other areas, but I knew first hand that we had an advantage when it came to communication. In my four years as head coach at KVCC I never lost to KCC for this reason.
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The last check box, the box of knowledge, is where most coaches spend the majority of their time. They aren't wrong for spending time in this area, but too often coaches spend so much time here they neglect the other four boxes. The thought that a new drill, play, or strategy would put them over the top keeps them searching. This is rarely the case. More often if the coach would have been better organized, planned more efficiently, communicated more clearly, or made the tough leadership decision more promptly, success would have found them with the current knowledge they possessed.
Becoming a basketball coach built for success requires you to visit and grow in each box consistently.
As the head of a team and certainly a program your organization is paramount to being focused, boosting overall confidence and lowering your anxiety. The more organized you are when it comes to your pre-season meetings, parent meetings, practice schedule, practice plan, game schedule, bus schedule, team building sessions, and end of year meetings the better those around you feel about what is going on and the better you can handle adjustments that need to be made.
Bottom line, when a coach is organized they can focus on what needs to be done to build their team. If the coach is constantly reacting to what should've been taken care of they are constantly rushing through things, leaving things out, and not giving their attention to their players and program.
Here are tools a coach can use to be better organized.
I can't tell you how often I use a form of each of these tools to help me be a better coach. There isn't enough room in my mind to handle everything I do day to day and year to year with my family and my other commitments. Without using these tools I would be a mess and so would my team and program.
Box #2 - Planning
Did you know that the majority of people spend more time planning their vacation than they spend choosing a college major? You'll be on vacation for a week, you'll spend the rest of your life trying to get a job with your college major.
As a basketball coach the first thing that comes to mind for me in planning is a Master Plan. The Master Plan is a document that allows you to outline what you'd like to accomplish with your team and in your program in the upcoming season.
Here is an example of a Varsity Master Plan
The benefit of having a Master Plan is you can see what you want to put in with your team. This plan is a working document where you can add and delete ideas, but you have a road map to follow.
I've found that my teams are less likely to plateau as we go throughout the season. The Master Plan is something I can visit to see what we have implemented already and what I want to implement moving forward. I also find it easier to adjust as the season progresses if I need to since everything is laid out in front of me.
Having a Master Plan is just one way a coach needs to be able to plan. Having the ability to lay out a plan to follow will help in the following areas as well:
You can see that there is a lot that goes into being a successful basketball coach and much of it doesn't pertain to what is happening on the court.
If you're a lower level coach you may not be involved in every aspect of the program like the varsity coach, but I hope you can see the time and energy it takes to run a successful program. Too often lower level coaches only see what is being done in practice and on game nights and this doesn't give a true depiction of what it takes to run a program.
Box #3 - Communication
Coaches can sometimes get noise confused with effective communication.
I remember one coach who yelled at his players constantly. He wasn't putting them down, he wasn't frustrating them, he was just yelling. I think every player on his team tuned him out to be honest. They were numb to the noise. He actually was really hard to understand. Even if he was giving them good information you couldn't understand what he was saying anyway. He made the mistake of believing noise was effective communication.
I have two rules when it comes to effective communication:
- Understandable - a coaches communication has to be understood by the players
- Correctable - a coaches communication has to be a correctable action a player can make
Let me offer a little more insight.
#1. A coaches communication has to be understandable.
The example above where the coach just yelled to yell breaks rule 1. If a coach is not understood how will the players improve, even if you aren't yelling? Take for example a coach who is in a huddle during a timeout and draws up a play for the end of the game. The team goes out and totally botches the play, they don't even come close to what was drawn up. Is this the players fault or did the coach confuse the players? The best play in the world won't work if the players don't understand what they are supposed to do.
The best play in the world won't work if the players don't understand what they are supposed to do.
#2. A coaches communication has to be correctable.
I always cringe when I hear a coach say something like "catch the ball" or "make the shot." What help does that offer the player? Did the player purposefully drop a pass or miss a shot? Most likely this wasn't the case. Instead coaches should offer instruction that is correctable - "watch the ball come into your hands" and "hold your follow through on your shot" are both actions a player can correct the next time they need to make a similar play.
One great way to make sure your communication is effective is to ask the player a clarifying question. Now don't do this as they run down the court, wait for them to be substituted out of the game or for a stoppage in play. Then ask them something along the lines of "what were you thinking on your last shot?" This allows the player to communicate with you so you know what understandable and correctable instruction you can give to them so your communication is effective.
Your communication isn't just with players though.
I remember a time sitting in a parent meeting and the parents had listed out their players stats and wanted to know why the player wasn't seeing more playing time. I explained that the stats they showed me were good but I used the Value Point Score (VPS) as the most important number when looking at stats and determining playing time. I then explained what the VPS score was and why it was a better indicator to help me make decisions. While I am not sure they agreed with me, they now knew where I was coming from because I finally communicated it to them.
I didn't fault the parents for wanting to ask me questions about playing time and stats. I actually reflected on why the meeting even needed to take place, it was because I didn't communicate effectively about how I determine playing time in my parent meeting. Whose fault it that we needed to meet, it was mine. I now do a much better job explaining what a VPS score isn our parent meeting at the beginning of the year.
One last area to touch on briefly is framing the conversation with parents and doing it early and often. No parent (or administrator) gets mad at an update or weekly email. It keeps them in the loop. After all, you see your players every day during the season and you may see your players parents once or twice a week at a game, but this is typically in passing as they go get popcorn or a hotdog from the concession stand. Send out a weekly newsletter or email, carbon copy your Athletic Director on parent emails, the good and the bad ones. Too much communication is a good thing.
Tools To Help You Communicate (I've linked examples from my program to check out.)
Box #4 - Leadership
As the basketball coach you have to know you are being looked at as a leader. You're looked at to lead your players in practice as they warm-up, as they do drills, as they learn the rules and when they go out to play the games. The way the team plays, communicates, acts, and expresses themselves is a reflection of the leadership you provide.
Recently, I was asked by another coach how often I used reading with my players. I told him I use them quite often. Sometimes the reading is out of a book or its a poem, newspaper article or quote. This is one way I provide leadership to my players by getting to think critically about a topic. I relate the topic to what our team or school is experiencing and I believe it helps them understand and adjust to what is going on.
This is actually one area of leadership I think many coaches miss out on. A coach has the opportunity to mold young people in an extraordinary way. If we just roll the balls out on the court I think we limit our influence dramatically.
One other opportunity to exert influence and leadership is when we meet with parents. So Many coaches tell parents what they can't or shouldn't do. What would happen if we started the conversation by saying I want to partner with you and here is how? If you the coach started t he conversation in agreement with the parents I think the dialogue between parents and coaches would develop differently.This would take leadership though, it won't happen on its own.
Other areas that a coach has to be ready to step up and lead are:
I'm sure you can see that being a leader encompasses many of the other areas we've looked at already. A coach has to be organized, has to have a plan, and has to be able to communicate effectively to lead their team and program in the best way possible.
If you're a lower level coach you may not have to lead in each of these areas, but you'll likely play a part in the bigger picture of the program and the leadership you provide to your team is critical in developing young people on and off the court.
If you're the head of the program you need to be able to get your lower level coaches involved and to become a part of what the entire program is doing. Your ability to get others involved and to delegate responsibility will keep you from getting burned out.
Box #5 - Knowledge
I mentioned that box #5 is the most sought after and time consuming box for coaches. It is an important box and one that a coach certainly can grow in at all times. It just can't become the end all of being a good basketball coach. The idea of analysis paralysis is a real thing for coaches. You can only implement so many ideas with your team, all the rest are just noise that distract you and take your attention away from your team, family, and profession.
Areas Coaches Need To Have Knowledge In