Coaching a pro women’s team: First Game

Originally published by Full Court Press Online in October 2002.

Ten Swedish women playing an American football game quarterbacked by their American coach succeeded in bringing the team together when other team-building activities had failed. Last weekend, the last before our season opener, the team traveled to the island’s other, more secluded side as opposed to the bustling city of 26,000 where we live, for a team-building retreat and to establish our season goals. 

After a Saturday morning practice (we practice as much as possible when our starting center who attends a mainland college is home), we carpooled across the island, and the team participated in some activities led by a Board member who is a Swedish military officer and cadet trainer. However, it was the Sunday morning football game that managed to wake the players and get them to work together and have some fun.

I explained the game as much as possible, but it is amazing how much we take for granted, and how hard it is to explain football to people who have seen only brief highlights. I did not try to teach the team how to throw a football and played all-time QB instead. The 5-on-5 game went into double overtime, and everybody enjoyed the experience; three post players spent the rest of the afternoon  learning to throw the football, and another player tried to schedule another game of football instead of our Sunday evening practice.

During the retreat, we established our team goals. Through the conversation, I was amazed that more than half of our players have never thought much about their goals, personal or team. As a team, we set the finals as our ultimate goal, and  the top four to secure a quarterfinal home court advantage as our regular season goal. These goals seem optimistic as no reports from throughout the league have mentioned us among those in contention for the top four.

I was the first to say out loud that winning the championship was my goal, and my purpose for moving to Sweden. After all, I believe it was Jimmy Valvano who said, “ The problem is not in setting goals; the problem is in not setting goals high enough.”

After last weekend’s retreat, we showed a glimpse of our potential with an outstanding Sunday evening practice, but as I awoke for our pregame shoot-around this morning, I did not feel good about our final week’s preparation. We failed to accomplish much; I felt we were tired, mentally and physically, and did not want to wear the team down, but I also felt we needed to cover too many things to take off a day, especially because we had to practice early in the week when our center was in town. With all the distractions — radio interviews and the newspapers at practice, players’ families in town for opening day, etc. — our practices lacked focus and intensity and left me sleepless.

This was the 24th practice, plus two practice games that we won, since I arrived 33 days ago, and we needed a game to break up the monotony of practices and to evaluate our progress against an opponent. I was pleased with the shoot-around, the crispness of the plays and the looseness of the players. I left the shoot-around confident, and hopeful, and I expected a 20-point win, especially  at home against last year’s 11th place (of 12) team. My main concern was getting an early lead so all 10 players could get meaningful minutes. Usually, I prefer an 8-player rotation, but I am not set on the rotation, and I wanted to get everybody meaningful minutes to evaluate every player’s game performance.

As I left for the game, the sun broke through the clouds, which I took as a positive omen. Games here are different; there was a local old-man Dixie band dressed in red and white striped blazers that performed throughout the pregame, and a local tuxedo shop had men dressed in tuxedo’s opening the door for fans. The pregame is different as well; the players arrive 90 minutes before game time, but my assistant told me to be there 30 minutes before tip off. I arrived an hour before tip-off to find players not dressed; apparently the team gathers early to go for a walk outdoors as a team before getting dressed (they are big on walks here). I sat on the bench and waited, as the first player hit the floor 40 minutes before game time. At 15 minutes before tip-off, we went to the locker room for the pregame talk. The team had requested individual game goals, and we talked briefly about our goals and covered a few last minute things. I used another of my favorite quotes: “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra,” and that little extra is loose balls and rebounds, the little things that we have to do to win.

After the 81-62 win, I was unsatisfied. As I talked to the press before I had a chance to say a word to  our players, I was haunted by two series of plays, one offensive and one defensive. In the first half, we managed to allow six offensive rebounds on one possession. In the second half, after they inexplicably turned to a zone defense after we hit three consecutive three-pointers, we committed six consecutive turnovers on six consecutive skip passes stolen by the same player on all six plays. This despite a timeout where I instructed them not to throw a skip pass, as the match-up zone was baiting us into the pass, and we continually fell for it. I was supposed to be happy about winning a game, but I was frustrated that we continued to err in the two areas where we focus our attention most: protecting the ball and protecting our defensive backboard.

On the positive side, I was not sure all of the players knew the plays, but, when we kept our composure and ran one of our sets, we got a good shot every time. Unfortunately, we did not get into our sets as often as we would like, as our guards made too many turnovers. We do not have a true point guard, and we have four players with marginal to good ball handling ability and basketball IQ running the point. Really, we have two point guards, but they tend to run away from the ball and allow the other guards to run the show. We lack the take-charge player who wants the ball and wants to attack the opponent’s pressure. In the half court, we attack well from the wings and we shoot well, hitting 9 three-pointers.

Due to the 24-second shot clock, I have instituted six set plays that constitute the bulk of our offense, instead of a motion or continuity offense. This has given us some problems, as last year they had two plays all season. We look to keep the middle of the floor open and penetrate, as from the tapes, it seems that nobody in the league likes to penetrate, and nobody is great defensively stopping dribble penetration.

For a while, our most athletic player kept us in the lead by catching the ball and attacking the middle of the floor to create shots for herself, get to the free throw line or create shots for a teammate.  In the second half, we settled down and ran our sets so well that they turned to a zone midway through the third quarter. We stretched a four-point half-time lead to 17 in the first four minutes of the second half, due to greater offensive efficiency. Only a highly skilled Russian post player who scored at will against my stubborn, no double-teaming philosophy, kept the game within 20 points, and everybody managed to play, something that happened infrequently last season (my 10th man played almost as many minutes in game one as she did last season).

It is nice to win, especially in one’s head coaching debut. However, I am far from satisfied as next weekend we play the defending champs on the road, a team we are unprepared to face. We have four practices to improve and prepare for a tough game, one that will be a good early season measuring stick.

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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