Coaching a women’s pro team: Experimentation

Published by Full Court Press.com, December 2002.

I may be having too much fun being a head coach. I have too much time on my hands to think of different ways to screw up my team in the name of improvement. In short, as I think about the first two months here, I experimented too much.My hands are tied in some respects; practicing with 9 players is not ideal, especially because there are 10 players on the team. I arrived on the scene and had two weeks of practice before two practice games. We played with little structure in the two games, and failed to be productive offensively. We shot the ball well, but we had difficulty getting a good shot. With no true playmaker, and no offensive post presence, I felt we needed structure to create good shots.

Three games into the season, and our offense was struggling. We shoot the ball well, but we do not attack, and we struggle to score in the second half. We are too reliant on the plays to score, and we do not play; we do not look to make basketball plays. Once the opponent figured out our five set plays, and adjusted, we failed to adjust and punish their adjustments. We spent too much time standing and watching and not enough time playing. We ran offense for the sake of running offense, and not to score, and I hate that. After a particularly frustrating loss where we failed to score for 5 consecutive minutes in the 4th quarter, I happened to receive my issue of Basketball Sense, and read an article about motion offense; an article I wrote! I bought into my article and started to teach offense that I enjoy teaching.

With limited practice time, sick players, and a player who does not practice, I picked the wrong time to experiment. I confused my players. All along, in the back of my head, I kept thinking that it does not matter what we run as long as the players buy into the system. I felt the players did not buy into the structure and a change was necessary. In my haste, I failed to consult the schedule and instituted a new offense in a short week, prior to back-to-back road games, rather than waiting until after the second game, when we had a two-and-a-half week break. Luckily, despite the confusion of running some motion out of a four-out set, with our one inside player being the one player who does not practice, we managed to win two close games and restore some confidence.

However, my stubbornness bested me again, as I failed to learn from my offensive experiments, and despite being a good statistical defensive team, I tired of watching defenders chase cutters around the court, losing sight of the ball and giving up back door cuts routinely. I started to teach a match-up zone for the first time in my life. As my best friend Bill said when I first arrived and described the team, “At least you can prove that you are versatile.”

When our one out of town player arrived on the scene for a weekend of practices prior to a weekday match-up against one of the league co-favorites, I was like a college student cramming for finals. In 3 hours of weekend practice, I instituted our new 2-3 match-up-zone, a 2-2-1 full court press and  a few offensive quick hitters. I did not intend to use the plays or the zone much in the next game, but the player practices so infrequently, I wanted to take advantage of her presence to introduce some new things.

As fate would have it, we found ourselves down 16 at the half, and had little to lose at that point. We pulled out the 2-2-1 press and the match-up-zone and managed a 7-point win. The zone was far from flawless, and the press was only somewhat effective, but it did manage to take the opponent out of their rhythm and change the flow of the game. Considering all 10 players had yet to practice the zone together, it was pretty successful.

Because the zone was proving to be effective, I decided to let loose the reigns and see if one of our new quick hitters would work. It was late in the fourth quarter, and we had yet to take the lead. I was having fun at this point. I felt like it was just a matter of time, and I was getting confirmation of FIBA rules from a referee who was sitting behind our bench. We ran our new play 4 times, and scored three times. When I called timeout with 58 seconds to go and a 2-point lead, I asked the players what they thought about trying our other new play. In retrospect, we had never practiced this play against defense, and had only run it through a few times at the end of practice three days earlier. I spent the timeout drawing up the play. Just as I drew up the play, two players ran right into each other when one was supposed to set a screen, somehow managing to get both players open, and one knocked down a free throw jumper to push the lead to 4 and ice the game.

Now, after three straight road wins in close games (to push ourselves into third place at 4-2), and the success we have shown with adjustments for our opponents, not only do we have confidence to win the tough games, but they believe in my experiments. After the new quick hitters worked so well, our point guard could not stop talking about the success of the play and how everything worked perfectly.

The fun continues. All is well and good as long as the experiments work, but I suppose they will lose some luster once they fail, or if we lose a game trying to experiment with something new. With the amount of free time I have to watch tape, scout opponents off of last year’s tape, analyze each and every one of our games, and agonize over each practice, it is hard not to experiment, to sit in my apartment and draw up new plays, or to tinker with the match-up to more effectively take away our opponent’s strengths. It is one of the luxuries of coaching here as opposed to my previous job as a junior college assistant, where there was office work, academic counseling, scheduling problems, eligibility problems, recruiting and countless other things to distract a coach’s attention away from actually coaching. Constantly changing and experimenting is not healthy for the success of the team, especially with the language difficulties that make teaching even more difficult, but as a rookie head coach, I cannot help myself.

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In addition to coaching the Visby Ladies, I assist my leading scorer, Johanna, with two youth teams, VISBY JBT (“Johanna’s Basket Tjerer”, which translates to “Johanna’s Basketball Girls”). I lack the patience to test my Swedish with the Ladies, but when I work with the youth teams, I use a curious mix of Swedish and English, going back and forth in each sentence in one jumbled mess. Besides drawing laughs, the girls manage to understand most of my instructions, even as I butcher Swedish grammar.

Working with the young teams is fun, despite the significant difference in talent and experience level between similarly-aged players in Sweden and America. Sitting on the bench as an assistant for a few games last weekend was a good time, constantly diagramming concepts that are ignored due to the lack of practice time (2-3 hours a week). Trying to get the younger team, U13s but more like a decent U11 AAU team, to understand help defense, transition defense, the use of a safety, how to attack with the dribble and avoid traps, etc. Compelling the older team, U15, but more like a good U13 AAU team, to attack the basket, look up the floor, shoot the open shot and rotate in help side defense, while spending most of my time giving tips to the point guard, the only player with a high basketball I.Q. During one of the U13 games, one player got the attention of a player at the end of the bench, and told her it was time for another of “Brian’s lessons.” After the game, two of the younger players, from a team who has never mustered the confidence to say anything more than hello or yes to me in two months, said, “Thanks for the tips.”

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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