Coaching a pro women’s team: Midseason reflection

Published by Full Court, December 2002.

The newspapers interviewed me about my feelings at the season’s midway point, and it caused some reflections. At 7-3 (and in 3rd place), we have a better record than I believed possible when I watched us initially, especially because the Ladies won only 9 of 22 games last year (two teams folded, and there are only 10 teams and 18 games this year). Our play has been sporadic; an overtime win over the league-leader, a team with five National Team players and four Junior National Team players, followed by a 25-point home loss, albeit to the second-best team. The player signed in the offseason as the player to put the team over the hump and replace last year’s Canadian center, has managed to play her way to the bench, and the 18-year old center signed for the future and not expected to play any meaningful minutes this season now starts. Despite the successful record, the three months hardly has been without problems. The retirement and subsequent un-retirement of the Ladies’ icon, a 40-year old former National Team player. She practiced, quit practicing, complained to the Board, and decided she wanted to play again, just in time for an unremarkable first appearance in our 9th game. She made her comeback just as our 19-year old back-up point guard decided that she was homesick and broke her contract to move home to the south of Sweden. The newspapers went from praising our team as the club’s best in the last 6 years (when they played in the final and featured five National Team players) to calling for the club to fire me. Anonymous Internet posters flooded our website with posts saying that I should be replaced or that the 40-year old will save the season (although she was the star of last year’s 9-win team, and her contribution has not been missed).

The players voted overwhelmingly to extend my contract; I signed a probationary contract, and the club had until December 5 to extend the contract for the entire season. Of course, the same players listen sporadically at best. They tell me that playing is more fun this year, and by watching tape, I know the team is much better, despite being basically the same team, minus one wing who started half the games and the Canadian center who plays in Portugal.

I question their attitude and desire. Their individual skills have increased, but they ignore my shooting instruction, believing they are good enough shooters; the starting shooting guard complained at halftime of the last game that the posts never pass out of the post, despite her 21% FG percentage on the season and an 0-8 effort in that game. We commit fewer turnovers now, an average of 12 in our last 3 games as opposed to 33 in our first 3 games, but we fail to attack with the pass, especially against zone defenses. Despite the emphasis in practice on attacking and being tough with the ball, players pass tentatively and lack confidence in each other; certain players pass the ball only to certain people. Watching us play is nerve-racking; we refuse to put teams away and make enough dumb plays to keep opponents in the game, but we have started to hustle and fight more than we did early in the season.

For the last two years, the team stated publicly that the goal was to reach the finals, and they flopped. When I was hired, the club told me the goal was to reach the finals, and they assured me there was enough talent to do so. I believed them, and when we met to set our team goals, I said the goal should be to win the championship. I was naïve; I had yet to see anybody else play, and based my opinion on what the Board told me, as well as my belief that the team would sign an American point guard (which now seems unlikely). When talking to the team, I discovered that they lack the confidence; they said their goal was to reach the final, but they were apprehensive. Nobody actually believed it was possible. It is this skepticism that continues to plague us.

Amazingly, we probably play the league’s best man-to-man defense, and have improved dramatically from the defense played last year (amazing because I do not concentrate on defense too much and we are a slow, small team). I must be the only coach who scouts, as we tweak our defense game to game to take away the opponents’ strengths, and that helps just enough to make us tough to score against. We are one of the league’s worst shooting teams; we are very structure-oriented and have been susceptible to good zone defenses with tall players. Our biggest offensive threat is our versatile power forward, who is strong in the post and our second best 3-point shooter. We run a number of sets to get her the ball, either for her shot or to draw the defense and kick out to our guards, who are mostly stand still shooters. We do not run anything complex, but I have never coached this much structure. We give teams a few different looks — high on-ball screen, high post play, spread court and middle penetration and some post play from a box set — and it keeps teams off-balance and gives us an opportunity to attack the opponent’s weakness.

After checking the stats, and seeing the recently selected National Team players, I believe our power forward is as good as any forward in the league. I asked if she wanted to be on the National Team and she said, of course, but she does not think about it. I told her that if she started to listen a little more and work a little harder, especially defensively on the perimeter, she could be selected next time. She was hesitant, and far from committing to go for it. Similarly, our “project” center struggled all fall because of her lack of strength and balance. When I told her she needed to jump rope every day, she did it once and then stopped. I asked her later about her commitment, if she really wanted to be good, and she said yes. I asked about the jump rope, and she just smiled. All the players possess similar attitudes; in their minds, the idea of being good is important, but the extra work or commitment is unappealing. They had the same coach for 7 years, and were never pushed this hard. The Swedish ethic is one of sameness, not of sticking out or striving to be better than anybody else.

I am too intense for Swedish basketball; a disheartening realization considering my contract has me stuck her until June. The 8-9 hours a week of practice time (with handball, indoor soccer, volleyball, floor hockey, etc, it is impossible to get gym time, and we practice for an hour-and-a-half) is not nearly enough to keep us competitive, institute game plans and work on sorely lacking fundamentals; as an example, point guards not dribbling into the corner is a new concept. I want time for individual workouts and a game-day shoot-around. I want players to take the floor more than 30 minutes before a game. I want players to digest a scouting report and follow-through during a game, but these are things that they have never been asked to do.

I want more court-time because there is nothing else to do here. The two things I miss most are standing in line at Tito’s Tacos in Los Angeles after games last year, talking to my best friend (a high school baseball coach) on the phone about the game frustrations and then gorging on tacos and a bean burrito; there is nothing more depressing after a bad game than having to go home and cook my own meal. The next biggest thing is ESPN and constant sports; here, something worth watching is on so infrequently, that I plan my schedule around it. I watch Euro League (the European “Super” league with teams from all over Europe) basketball games on Thursdays, and there are some good soccer games on Sunday nights and occasionally Wednesdays. I miss waking up to NFL games on Sunday mornings or college basketball every night of the week.

I try to fill my time by practicing with the local men’s team and assisting one of my players with two youth teams, and I am involved with all three basketball organizations on the island, which is problematic to my employer. The Ladies feel they should be compensated for the work I do with other clubs because they are the reason I am here. To demonstrate their power, they prohibit me from playing in any games with the men’s team, further straining our relationship. I am free to train youth girls’ teams on a regular basis, although they are a totally different club, but when I ran one boys’ practice as a favor to a friend, the Board objected.

Coaching here is a relaxing lifestyle, as any pressure is mainly internal or can be deflected as criticism by uneducated basketball people. The number of people on the island who know basketball is somewhat smaller than the number of players on the team, as even some players have a very loose grasp of the game. As the hours of free time mount, the Board grows ever more burdensome, and the temperature rarely stays above freezing, it gets harder and harder to enjoy the experience, even when we do manage a good win, or even six of our last seven.

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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