Coach development, not coach education or certification

I imagine the following is based directly or indirectly on the writings of Mark O’Sullivan, Mark Upton, Richard Bailey, Stuart Armstrong, and others.

If you spend enough time on social media and basketball blogs, someone will suggest that the United States is falling behind in basketball because of a lack of coach education. Now, there certainly are issues with basketball in the United States, just as there are issues with just about everything, but I am unsure of the narrative that the U.S. is falling behind. Game 3 of the NBA Finals reportedly was the most watched Game 3 on ABC in NBA Finals history, and nearly every important player was developed in the United States (Kyrie Irving is Australian and Tristan Thompson is Canadian, but Irving went to all four years of high school in New Jersey, and Thompson went to three years of high school in the U.S.; LeBron, Curry, Play, Durant, Draymond, J.R., Love, Igoudala, Livingston, Korver, Shumpert, McGee, McCaw, Clark, etc. are all products of the disastrous U.S. development system; only Zaza Pachulia was not influenced by the U.S. system in his formative years).

Beyond the debatable premise is the idea of coach education as a panacea for whatever perceived ills there are in the United States. Many point to Lithuania or Canada as models of how the U.S. could improve, and there certainly is room to improve. As I wrote in Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, with the amount of money invested in basketball in the United States, our goal should not be to be better than other countries, but to create the best possible developmental system. However, I am unsure if coach education is the answer.

Some believe that coaches in the United States should have a degree in coaching, as do many coaches in Europe. This is not practical. I have two main problems with this:

  1. The vast majority of coaching jobs in the United States are volunteer or near-volunteer jobs. Does it make any sense for someone to get a Bachelor’s in coaching in order to get hired as a high school coach who has to teach a different subject as his or her primary job to earn the $1500 stipend to coach basketball? Until there are numerous full-time coaching jobs, requiring a degree makes little practical sense.
  2. If we believe that a coaching degree should be a requirement for youth or high school college coaches, professional and college coaches who make far more money should be held to at least the same standards, if not greater standards. To me, it is quite disingenuous for college and professional coaches to complain about the lack of coach education for youth and high school coaches when there is zero coach education requirement for a college or professional coach. College and professional coaches are hired in the same way as youth and high school coaches: Some combination of who you know, previous experience, and playing experience. These are dozens of recent college graduates hired as first-year assistant coaches for next season. They may or may not have majored in kinesiology, physical education, or coaching. They are hired primarily because they played college basketball, and their coaches recommended them to another coach or hired them on their own staffs. How does that in any way qualify them to be a coach? They coach for 10-15 years as an assistant, then get hired as a head coach, and that gives them the authority to complain about coach education for youth coaches? If coach education and coach certification and academic requirements are important for youth and high school coaches who are barely compensated for their time, surely they should be a requirement for those who are making full-time incomes from coaching.
  3. Teaching and coaching are not the same thing. Please do not respond that teachers have to have degrees in their subjects and a teaching credential. I understand. They also are hired as full-time employees to teach. As soon as coaches are hired as full-time coaches with no teaching responsibilities on top of their coaching schedules, I will agree that coaches should have a Bachelor’s in coaching and a coaching credential.

In the United States, we need more coaches, not less. Rather than raise the bar to entry, as many suggest, we should welcome more coaches. Rather than complain about fathers and mothers who are willing to donate their time to coach a youth team, we should thank them. Rather than complain that they do not have a certification, we should help them.

We need to encourage new coaches to try coaching, and once we get volunteers in the door, we ned to work to develop these coaches. Rather than putting up barriers of education and certification, we need to recruit new coaches and mentor them. This is coach development.

How do we develop the skills of players? Do we sit them in a classroom, lecture them for a few hours, and send them on their way? No. We work with players day by day; we organize drills to attack weaknesses and build strengths; we provide feedback; we review practice at its conclusion and set goals for future practice. Why don’t we develop the skills of coaching in the same way?

Rather than organize a one-time clinic, most of which covers basketball strategy not coaching anyway, or requiring degrees and certifications, many of which are completed online, we need mentors or master coaches to guide and mentor new coaches.

Practically, this is difficult; however, it is more practical than requiring Bachelor’s degrees for all coaches or forcing volunteers to pay for clinics that may or may not be good.

As an example, imagine a local YMCA or Parks & Recreation league; let’s say there are 5 age groups with 6 teams per age group, or 30 teams. That is 30 coaches. For those 30 coaches, there should be a master coach who acts as a mentor. This master coach should be a paid position. If we can pay teenagers to walk up and down the court and barely blow a whistle for $15/game (x2), we can pay a master coach to mentor coaches.

The master coach could attend a few practices per week, making sure to visit each coach at least once every few weeks, to offer advice and feedback. Rather than running a pre-league clinic where a speaker goes through his press break and motion offense, the mentor can offer direct feedback to the coach. Why did you do this drill? What are you hoping to achieve? What about your feedback?

Years ago, there was a name trainer in Los Angeles who paid me to mentor him. He had dozens more private clients than I did, but he wanted to improve, and he felt that I could help him. I attended a workout on a Saturday, and we met on the Monday to talk. We did this a handful of times. Most of my feedback was directed to his feedback. In his case, most of his feedback was general; it was so frequent, it became white noise in the background. Nobody had told him this. He had trained hundreds if not thousands of players of all levels, often had dozens of parents watch him on a weekend, and directed camps around the world, and nobody had given him this feedback. He decided he wanted to improve, and he sought out someone who he felt would give him this feedback.

That is unusual. Few trainers or coaches seek out feedback in this manner. Few leagues, schools, school districts, or organizations provide coaches with this type of feedback. Most coach education focuses on safety (CPR, safe environment, etc) and basketball strategy (run this offense, attack a zone like this). Rarely do we focus on actual coaching: how do we instruct? How do we offer feedback? How do we progress a drill? However, these are the things that matter most. If you have the best zone offense, but you cannot teach it or provide feedback during or after the players run it, how good will the offense be? We focus on the outcome, not the process because the process is hard.

Coach education has a place or a role, but we should place a higher emphasis on coach development. How can we help coaches to improve? How can we develop coaches?

Many teachers have problems because they get their degree and their certification, enter a classroom, and have no support. The neat and organized powerpoint presentations and theories don’t necessarily work exactly the same way in the real world. Some teachers thrive; some manage; many quit. Would the same scenario play out with mandatory coach education or certification?

Coach development should be an on-going process, not a one-time session or a program with a definitive endpoint and certificate. Leagues, schools, and organizations need to identify the master coaches and use them as resources; use them to develop and mentor the next generation of coaches.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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