Published by Full Court Press Online, November 6, 2002
One key to life and coaching is the ability to adjust. Taking a job as the head coach of a women’s team in the Swedish Damligan has led to two months of non-stop adjustments: the language, being a head coach, FIBA rules, new culture, new people, new players, new league, etc. It is a learning experience, and fortunately I do not have to recruit; I have free time to process everything and see my mistakes and successes. It is somewhat overwhelming to adjust to the new role as a head coach, as opposed to an assistant, while learning the new league, culture and language simultaneously. I cannot say which is the tougher transition: going from coaching in the States to coaching in Europe or going from assistant coach to head coach.
The toughest game adjustment is the timeout rule: one per quarter and two in the fourth quarter. The timeouts are use them or lose them, and because I have a 37 year old point guard who plays 30-plus minutes, I use my timeouts to give her a break. When I need a timeout to adjust or to settle down the team, if I have used that quarter’s timeout, my hands are tied, and I must wait until quarter or halftime.
In our first loss, after my 3rd quarter timeout to end their spurt, our opponent switched to a box-and-one defense. I had to substitute three players to know that they knew how to attack the gimmick defense because I had no other timeout. It puts a premium on strategic timeout usage.
The other timeout adjustment is telling the scorer’s table, rather than calling a timeout during play. In my first international experience assisting at a South African Tournament, I hated the rule. I want the ability to use a timeout during play, to save a possession. Now, I have adjusted and prefer the FIBA rule, although I do not completely understand it; I thought I had a timeout to set up a play with 4 seconds remaining in the 1st half of our last game, but the official did not allow it. In general, it helps the game’s flow.
Another adjustment is introducing myself to people who know me from the newspaper articles and pictures. Both local newspapers have written two articles about me, and in a secluded, small town, I suppose I standout. It is weird, being almost famous. As I drive through town, I wonder if people look at my car because I am the American coach or because I still do not drive a stick shift perfectly.
The biggest head coaching adjustment is the assistant coach. As an assistant coach, I knew how to find my niche: perimeter play and offense. I led the perimeter breakdown drills and during scrimmages, I watched the guards and gave them feedback. I gained players’ confidence through individual workouts and efforts to help players off the court, whether with advice on college or classes or whatever.
As a head coach, I find it more difficult to give the assistant coach a role, especially because he was the previous head coach. If I do a breakdown drill with the posts, the guards feel ignored; if I work with the guards, the posts get jealous. My hands are tied, and I feel everybody suffers; I cannot teach as I would like, and the players cannot improve through my instruction. Also, there is no outside time to work with players, no open gym to conduct an individual workout and teach the players some specific skills to improve their game.
As a young, first time head coach, I have a hard time putting him in his place, or directing him, especially because everybody in town still sees this as his team. I am like a long-term substitute teacher; the players like the change, but in the back of their mind, they know it is not my team and I am not here for long [I have a one year contract with talk of an extension for a second year]. My assistant is also the club’s General Manager; he plans everything, he signs the players, and he is the one who found and hired me.
In one sense, he is my boss, but on the court, I am his boss. It creates an uncomfortable position, which we are learning to handle on the go, probably with too little discussion. Part of it is my fault, as I take after my mother and do not like to delegate; if my name is the one on the line as the person in charge, I tend to manage everything, believing more in myself than in others. Between the awkwardness of the transition, and my inability to relinquish control, it is difficult to work together flawlessly. We often step on each other’s toes and lack a feel for each other, a problem exacerbated by his use of Swedish when instructing, leaving me guessing as to the nature of his instructions.
The language issue is more problematic than I imagined. I have lived in Sweden previously, and I speak some Swedish and believed everybody on the team would speak English fairly well, especially because they have had an American or Canadian player for the past three seasons, and thus spoke English almost exclusively. However, it is an issue.
In our last game, we rebounded the ball with 12 seconds left and started to dribble up the court. I yelled to the players that there were 10 seconds left, and the player with the ball thought I yelled “Take it,” shooting from beyond half court with 7 seconds left, allowing the other team a final attempt. Instructing during the game is difficult, as they do not hear my English as I yell from the sideline, and timeout explanations are tough, as I feel I need to speak quickly to finish everything I have to say, but must speak slowly to help them comprehend the explanations.
The players are different as well. I have never coached players who are caught up in their position. My captain has started the last two games on fire, leading us in scoring in the first period and then not scoring in the remaining three periods. When I asked her about it, she said it was because she could not score from the “center” position. She is a three/four, and in her mind, playing the four is akin to playing center. Everything we run starts in a three-out, two-in set, but eventually becomes a four-out, one-in motion, either with a back screen or a high post flash. Despite this explanation, and the fact that she played less than 7 out of 31 minutes at the four, she takes herself mentally out of the game when playing the four. Additionally, my young post player, our biggest, slowest, worst shooting player, told me that she cannot score because she is not a post player; I had to ask if that was the reason she faded away against players five inches shorter. She said she was used to shooting on cuts toward the basket, not playing with her back to the basket; I pointed out that our two sets geared toward getting the ball into the post attempt to get the ball to the post while they are on the move, cutting to the basket, either from the high post or block to block. This revelation did not calm her nerves.
As any good coach would do, I adjusted, and instituted a four-out, one-in set at tonight’s practice. We will run the exact same plays; we are just starting in a different set and now everybody is called a guard, except the designated post player. Somehow, this worked, and the captain is excited about being a guard again, although her role fails to change in any substantial manner. Our young post player had her best practice, making all her shots, which she has struggled to do; she no longer had the frustrated look on her face either and almost appeared happy. It seems too easy that this can have an affect, but this certainly is a different group.
The FIBA rules still escape me; my Swedish language improvement has slowed, and my assistant and I remain on different pages. We are presently 1-2, losing a game in which we outplayed the opponent in every statistical category except offensive rebounds and free throws, losing by 4, despite a 16-point free throw disadvantage, on our home court. We failed to keep our composure, especially after our point guard fouled out, ending the game with four straight turnovers, as our opponent scored their last 7 points from the free throw line. As John Wooden said, “More games are lost than won.” We reached out and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and gave away a game we should have blown open in the third quarter. Right now, we lack confidence and our team isn’t close; this week, I’m holding movie week at my place and showing “Remember The Titans.” Hopefully, the movie can teach us something beyond another American football lesson.
By Brian McCormick, PhD
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League