Coaching a pro women’s team: Dealing with losses

Published by Full Court online, March 2003.

After two lackluster performances, and a lack or practice time due to a big indoor soccer festival and the Damligan All-Star Game, we had 10 days to prepare for our very important match against the defending champions, Solna Vikings, and their new American player, Charmin Smith.

The schedule is different here, as our 18-game season started in the middle of October and ends March 1; we played 3 games in the entire month of January. In the ten days between games, we had only 8 hours of practice, as gym time is scarce. There are two gyms associated with the high school and junior high school, but we share these facilities with the youth basketball teams, Visby Basket (Men’s Division II), Visby AIK (Women’s DII), men’s and women’s floor hockey, women’s volleyball, men’s, women’s and youth handball, indoor soccer and table tennis (possibly more that I have yet to see). Although we are the only team that plays at the highest level of its respective league, we get no special treatment or extra time, as everything is divided evenly and run through the Commune (like a county).

Our last loss put us in a bad position, forcing us to win our last three games in order to secure a top four finish, and one of the coveted first-round home play-off series (our goal). The last game, against Brahe, a team featuring the league’s most talented player, the 6’3 Helena Safarikova (University of Dayton) from the Czech Republic, exemplified everything that can go wrong on a road trip. Because of the club’s debt, we travelled all day on the day of the game and drove most of the way; because we are on an island, we fly to away games; after arrival in Stockholm, the rest of the journey depends on distance and expense. To get to Huskvarna, in Southern Sweden, we rented two cars, packed in the team, and drove more than 5 hours in what seemed like a blizzard to my California born and bred eyes. After leaving the Visby airport at 10:00 A.M., we arrived at the gym at 5:45 P.M., a little over an hour before tip-off.

The game started badly and got worse. On the first possession of the game, we were whistled for a technical foul when our point guard yelled, “Shot!” as she closed out toward the shooter. I tried to explain to the official that it was good defense and not poor sportsmanship, but he disagreed; after 5 months of trying to get the team to talk and communicate defensively, one technical foul silenced the team once again, as not another word was spoken defensively all night. Just for good measure, they banked in a 3 on the ensuing possession after the free throw, and I had a bad feeling from the outset.

Tired from the journey, and playing a lethargic first half, we did not even go to the locker room at half time, as there were no real adjustments needed. We held Safarikova to 6 first half points and only trailed because we failed to block out on the perimeter and could not execute simple fundamentals such as catching the ball and free throws. Although we should have led by 10, we trailed 28-27. After a few brief comments about strategy, I had them warm up and get ready to play the second half. We had numerous opportunities to take control of the game, but our feet were stuck to the floor and our hands failed us. The few times we penetrated to the basket and looked to our post players for easy baskets, we dropped the ball; loose balls that could have been steals and easy layups ended in jump ball nightmares. We were off our game and I was confident that if we could wake up, we would be fine.

As I watched warm-ups, I was struck by the sluggishness. Fearing a loss caused by laziness, I resorted to dire measures, huddled the team together, had them put down the balls and we did a defensive footwork drill that we do occasionally called “2-Minute Defense”, where players dive for loose balls, take charges, slide their feet, close -out, etc. It is one of the 2-3 drills used to begin practice because it gets the team going quicker than a normal warmup period, and with one to 60 to 90-minute practices, we cannot afford to waste time waiting for the team to be ready to play. As I sat debating with myself whether or not to use the drill, I decided that we needed something, and I would rather lose trying something different than ask “What if?” after the game. I wanted to lose to a team that outplayed us, not because we were too lethargic.

Either way, it backfired, as we lost by 10. We fell behind early, roared back to tie the game at 51-51 and then lost 72-63. Once again, it was the double-edged sword that killed us; we fought from down 10 to tie the game on the strength of three 3-pointers, but once we were in the lead, we kept firing away and shot ourselves out of the game as quickly as we shot ourselves back into it. With foul trouble plaguing my only true available post player, and long rebounds and turnovers contributing to their fast breaks, their defense became their best offense, and we struggled to maintain our composure. The difference was evident in the leadership at the point; we kept running and gunning, but their point guard grabbed the ball after a foul, huddled her team together and yelled at them to calm down and realize they were in the lead and in control; our point threw away a home run pass on the next play.

The toughest thing about this season (and the element of coaching where I most need to improve) has been motivation. With such a long season, it is hard to stay motivated for practice every day, and I suffer from doldrums as well, especially during the long dry periods between games or after a bad practice or game. Nothing I have done has succeeded in motivating the team, during the games or in practice. I have passed out information, hand-outs such as “How To Tell a Winner from a Loser” and “Gonzaga’s Mental Skills;” we have eaten pre-game meals at player’s houses as a team the night before the game; and I showed “Remember the Titans” and the team has come over on several occasions for basketball games I have had sent from the States. During games, I have tried yelling; I have stayed calm and composed and simply explained what needed to be done; I have had short half-time speeches and long half-time speeches, etc. Nothing seems to work. I am lost.

This may be the biggest difference between coaching in Europe and coaching in the States. Obviously there is the language barrier and some other basketball differences, such as American basketball is predicated more on the dribble, penetration and getting to the foul line, whereas European basketball is about passing and open jump shots. In terms of coaching, the motivation and the players themselves provide obvious differences. Basketball is more important in the States than it is here; it provides opportunity, hope, diversion, entertainment, and exercise: it is part of the culture. Here, it is more of a fringe sport enjoyed by a few loyal people, but largely ignored by the greater population, somewhat like lacrosse in the States.

In the States, it is always possible to get a game; here there is no such thing as pick-up basketball, especially on the island. Everybody who enjoys the game plays on one of the teams and that does not provide enough bodies to have a good pick-up run, like at a decent park. The players only exposure to the game is structured, whether it is organized practice or games. Many lessons I learned playing basketball came outside of practice or games in pick-up games on the playground: pride to stop my player, the ability to create your own shot, movement away from the ball to get yourself open, desire to win to stay on the court, etc. Without a similar experience here, I find it difficult to reach my players, to motivate and inspire them to their best.

Of course these players want to win; all things being equal, everybody would rather win than lose. There is a distinct difference between wanting to win and doing everything necessary to win. I cannot get my team to see the difference. These players enjoy the game and play hard, but in more of a recreational way, like a competitive intramural experience. They laugh during games, chat with opponents, skip practices, forget plays, ignore timeout discussions and go for stretches of games where they look like they have never played before. Nothing that I try seems to work; it is the most frustrating coaching experience I have encountered.

Due to illness and one player’s hospitalized child, we had one practice in the 10 days with all 9 players in attendance, and there was not much we could change or add, although Solna is the only team that presses full court and switches all screens, as all five players are essentially the same height. With Charmin Smith running the point, they play four wings and a post, and their posts are mobile. Despite knowing this, it was hard to prepare because we were never able to play a competitive 5 v 5 game. We started strong and played the first 18 minutes of the first half even and then gave up 3 three-pointers in the last 2 minutes of the half to trail by 7 at half time. After the half, we cut into the lead and trailed by 3, 43-40 when the team went into a funk, one of those times where we look as though we have never played basketball, and Solna rattled off 23 straight points.

I called timeout early in the run, at about an 8-point game and decided to go zone. We had worked all week on a match-up zone, and it looked good in practice, albeit against sub-par competition; and, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that the only other times we played zone were in the big comeback when we beat Telge Energi and in our huge upset against 08, the league’s top team. I was hoping that we could stymie the run, get back the lead and the zone would give us a little magic. I also called for a set play, as it was our ball after the timeout. In retrospect, I should have kept things simple in the timeout and focused only on defense or offense, as trying to cover both failed miserably.

On our offensive position, our point guard never touched the ball, and we did not come close to running a play. On defense, two players played man and three players played zone, and they hit an open 3. We had another miserable offensive possession followed by another 3 and finally on the third offensive possession after the timeout, the point guard got the ball and called a different play that failed. They missed, got a rebound, missed and kicked it out for another 3 and a 17-point lead and the game was done. I yelled at the team to get out of the zone and pick up man, as in international rules you are allowed one timeout per quarter.

Although we have lost by more points before, and Solna is the defending champions, this loss was demoralizing because we still are unable to make adjustments. We talked about the switching defense and where to look offensively for four straight practices, but we were never able to execute in the game. When push came to shove, and they started their run, we were unable to muster a challenge; we lack that leader, the player who steps up and puts her team on her shoulders and guts out a tough basket or rebound. We are a team of role players and when everybody plays their role really well, we can be pretty effective, but we need all five players playing really well, and that rarely happens. We cannot depend on one player to bail us out, like some great teams depend on their great players. We are certainly a team in that respect, but if we do not all bring it for 40 minutes, we lack the individual talent to compensate for a less than stellar team performance.

On the flip side, Solna hit 11 of 16 three pointers and Charmin Smith was the game high scorer with 21 points and four 3-pointers, while holding my point guard and second-leading scorer to two points; all while playing with a twisted ankle suffered early in the game.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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