Coaching a pro women’s team: The big win

Published by Full Court Press, January 30, 2003

The National Team coach traveled to the island to watch our team play Telge Energi, a team he picked as a co-favorite at the beginning of the year in a re-match of a game that we won on the road after trailing by 13 at half time (he picked us as one of the league’s worst teams). Telge featured three players who played over the Christmas break with the National Team, which did not count their best player, a young power forward who’s father was an American professional player, who was somehow left off the roster (we had nobody who was considered, and the National coach told my assistant he did not think my best player, averaging 18 points and 9 boards, was very good).After listening to the National Team coach give a pre-game speech to the crowd, we came out and played the best defensive half of the season, holding Telge to 6 points in the first quarter and 16 for the first half. In the three practices prior to the game, I concentrated on team defense; yes, it really did take me 80 practices to run the shell drill. Our defense has been pretty good all season, and we work every day on individual defense during our guard/post breakdown sessions, mostly while working on our offensive moves.

After watching some tape and reading Ralph Miller’s A System of Game Execution, I realized it was time to sharpen our defensive focus, put more pressure on the ball and offer more help defense. We focused on the help defense and fronted the post, forcing Telge to shoot jump shots, while not giving up any easy looks to their two best players, their post players. The help defense, the constant switching and the fronting of the post left Telge a little unsure whether we were in zone or man, and they were never able to get any rhythm offensively. It was only our offensive difficulties, missing countless open looks in the first half and turning over the ball too frequently in transition, that kept the game within 30 points, as we ended up with a 20-point win.

Unbelievably, the National Team coach and my assistant told the newspapers that we won strictly because of heart. The National Team coach criticized my best player, who went for 15 points and 16 rebounds against double and triple teams, but did praise my starting wings, selecting one for the all-star team next month (my best player and I were voted to the all-star team in online balloting) and stating my shooting guard would be invited to the National Training Camp in April, despite her inability to dribble with her left hand. Neither of these players started for the Ladies last year, but with the departure over the summer of two starters, and my benching a third, our three most productive players this year played off the bench last year. This win put us in fourth place, a position we likely will keep throughout the remainder of the season, which would meet our first goal of the season, finishing in the top four and earning a first-round home advantage in the playoffs. The win also coincided with the departure of one of our players, the girl who started the season as our starting center, who quit because of frustration caused by the inability to practice because she lives on the mainland.

After returning from Christmas, my spirit was buoyed as players asked if they could come over and watch tapes of games. I had my parents tape a number of games before Christmas and saved them to watch here when I have nothing to do; my players showing interest was a tremendous boost in my energy level, as it showed that some players do care. I started with a New Jersey Nets game, as we are trying to move to more of a five-out, cutting offense due to the loss of our only real low post threat. We also watched a Michigan State game, as they run some of the same sets we currently run and it was good to show my two starting post players the versatility of Adam Bollinger, and some of the moves and cuts he made, and the patience he shows in the post.


I cannot recall when it happened, but I am not nervous at all anymore. At first I was very uneasy coaching here. I had not been a head coach at any level above u9s, and I am over my head, as I never even made a varsity high school team as a player. Now I am confident and know that I know the game; it was my ability to teach, especially in a foreign language that had me unsure of myself as I started in September. As practices started, everything was different from last year; last year’s practices started with about 45 minutes of conditioning/passing drills like the three-man weave, followed by some shooting and some scrimmaging. They ran no plays and their defense was horrible. As I started to change everything, my assistant coach stood silently on the baseline, looking on with a disapproving glare at everything I said. Some players seemed uncertain and overwhelmed, as I put in more plays in my first 2 weeks than they had in their career, and it was just a beginning. When I started to tinker and adjust, throw away plays and add new ones, some players seemed skeptical. I see my ability to admit a mistake and adjust as a strength, whereas many people view a change as a weakness or an admission of failure. The players initially seemed unsettled, and I suppose I did appear too much like a rookie. I still am trying to find the best fit for the team, the most effective manner for us to reach our goal. The Board who hired me believes we have a championship-caliber team, and although we are, at best, the 6th most talented team in the league, the expectation is an appearance in the league finals. I change, I adjust, and I add, all with an eye to the teams I believe we will play in the playoffs. At our first practice after the Christmas break, I started working on a motion offense to aid in what remains our most important regular season game remaining, against last year’s defending champions, the Solna Vikings, who added former Stanford player Charmin Smith as a nice Christmas present.

Although many things frustrate me, I am comfortable here now. I know the players trust me and believe in me, and I pretty much ignore everybody else. I take charge of the JBT (the youth teams I assist) practices and have convinced my player who coaches these teams to get back to basics. I have convinced the players that JBT now stands for “Johanna and Brian’s Tjerer”(girls) and not “Johanna’s Basket Tjerer.” I have added two of these 15 year-old players to my practice squad, giving us anywhere between 8-11 players per practice, as players frequently miss practices due to illness, injury or work.

The Board continues to frustrate me, as they have prohibited me from playing in any games with the town’s men’s team, and they fail to ask my opinion on subjects before talking to the media. The players here frustrate me because sports are not as important; with the 15 year-olds, I am offering a huge opportunity. They currently practice only three hours a week with their team, not nearly enough to truly improve; by practicing with our team, especially because our practices are increasingly fundamental and individual skill-oriented, the players have a huge opportunity to improve by playing against quicker, stronger players and prepare to have an opportunity to make a Jr. National Team. Getting them to commit to an additional 7 hours per week of practice is like pulling arms, as they feel 10 hours a week of basketball is too much. Players have no idea of the commitment level of great players, and the fact that they fail to set and strive toward goals, makes it more difficult to convince them that more work is worth the effort.

My biggest headache, however, is my former starting shooting guard, whose playing time has plummeted. I feel she is not a strong practice player, and her defense is overrated, but she is easily my assistant coach’s favorite player. Beyond her poor practice habits, she shoots only 19% from the floor for the season and averages only 3 ppg in 25 minutes a game. After watching some tape, I played another back-up guard ahead of her, and she only played 3 minutes in our last game. I cannot see many reasons to play her. She cried in the locker room after the game (only one player on the team has not cried at some point in this season), and I stopped by her work the day after the game to talk to her. She had a huge attitude and talked poorly of other players, while telling me how to substitute. She was upset and said it was not fair that a player who missed two practices played before her; then she wanted to argue semantics when I said she missed 7 of 9 practices since Christmas, and all she could say was that it was 6 of 9. When I said I had not punished her because of work, she asked why I should punish her; I said exactly, then why should I punish another player if I am not going to punish you? Finally, I walked out of her work, irritated. The player who played ahead of her has played more minutes in the past two games (39) then she did all last year, but does not force bad shots and moves without the ball.  She has never been given a chance, and I gave her one. All year I have told her what she needed to do to get minutes, and she has shown she can do those things. I played her and benched the player who has been given every opportunity to show that she deserves to play, and responded with mediocre, at best, performances on a continual basis.

Life on the island is not without controversy. I said at the beginning of the year, and I will continue to say, that substituting is my biggest weakness as a coach. I feel I do a decent job with timeouts, and think the team is fairly well-prepared. In-game adjustments are fairly easy and uncomplicated, usually simplifying our offensive scheme to a few plays that the players feel comfortable running on that day, and small defensive adjustments to take away their frequent plays, or best scoring option. I am confident at practice, as I consider myself more of an individual trainer than a head coach, and I know I teach far more at practices than the typical coaches who run good drills, but do not really teach the moves or cuts or screens or proper defensive positioning. The amount of stuff these players do not know about basketball, especially the former National Team players, is staggering. Substituting is tough; I tend to stick to an 8-player rotation, but I am not confident with my point guard or my leading scorer on the bench, and they probably play too many minutes. Substituting will come at some point, as I gain more experience and more confidence in other players, who are improving every week.

My biggest concern is playing favorites, or appearing to play favorites. When I invite the team to my apartment, it is the same four or five players who come, and I am naturally closer to those players and talk to them more. I think I am being fair, and trying to give everybody an opportunity to prove themselves during games, but I know many people, including my assistant coach, disagree. I am the only coach in the league who would start a 19-year old rookie at center over a 40-year old former National Team center, but, in my eyes, she is more aggressive offensively and a bigger body defensively, and she makes free throws. I believe I am doing what needs to be done to win, but in the back of my mind, I worry that I see too many good things in the players I spend time with, and ignore their mistakes, whereas I find fault with the other players, and ignore their good play. It is part of the learning experience. Also, the situation is exacerbated because — living in a new country where I know few people — I spend more time with these players off the court than with any other players I have coached. The personal relationships add a difficult element to coaching and substituting, and another area to work to improve.

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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