Coaching behaviors: What is game coaching?

After my last game, I apologized to my team because I felt that I was probably too complacent during the game. Until the final shot hit the rim, I never thought we were going to lose, even when we fell behind by 14 in the first half. I felt the whole game that we were one play away from taking control; we just never made that play. 

As usual, I hardly slept the night after the game. I thought about what I should have done or could have done and planned practices for the next week in my head. Mostly, I thought about coaching styles.

I have tried to be less involved on the sidelines. When I was young, I paced the sidelines, yelled throughout possessions, and did many of the things that we associate with game coaching. I was always ready to call a timeout to prevent a turnover or a jump ball. I was visibly into the game.

As I have coached more, I have tried to yell less. Even with younger teams, I allow them to call the plays, whether during the action or out-of-bounds plays. Last season, as a freshman coach, I paced less: I tended to squat in front of the bench. This season, for the first time ever, I think, I have spent most of most games seated. Occasionally I stand up to get a player’s attention or instruct or call a play or question a call, but I generally sit and observe.

As I questioned whether or not this is the best way to coach, especially after my best player spoke to me after the game and told me that he needs me to yell at him when he is not playing well, I read about the juxtaposition between former Detroit Pistons’ Head Coach Maurice Cheeks and interim head coach Jon Loyer after Loyer’s first game:

He [Cheeks] could be a meager sideline presence, sitting in his chair (or, in a quirk, the vacant seat of an absentee fan farther down the sideline) with looks of disgust.

Rather than following his predecessor’s lead, Loyer — whose last multigame head-coaching stint was at Wabash Valley College — jumped into his new post with aplomb and a refreshing passion. He roamed the sideline, encouraging his players to run offensively and demanding they close on shooters defensively.

The Pistons responded, playing with extra bounce while building a lead that peaked at 23 points over one of the NBA’s top teams.

The characterization has flaws. First, it was one game; many teams see an initial improvement after a coaching change, often because the players realize that their underperformance cost a person his or her job. Second, can we attribute the extra bounce to Loyer’s standing and yelling? Third,will the players have the extra bounce when down by 20 with their coach pacing and yelling? Regardless, the article brought up a familiar viewpoint, and one used to argue against Phil Jackson’s coaching acumen: sitting down isn’t real coaching because the coach isn’t doing anything. Roaming the sidelines and yelling is the way to show one’s passion for coaching!

The counterargument, of course, is that real coaching occurs in practice, and a well-prepared team should not need a coach to yell and pace and instruct on every possession. However, does the roaming and yelling help from a psychological standpoint? Does our belief that these behaviors demonstrate passion for coaching affect players psychologically?

When I coached in Ireland, we had a close game against the defending champions in our second game of the year. We had lost our first game against the defending runners-ups, and I did not want to start 0-2. Toward the end of the game, I was squatting near the sidelines and directing the defense. I was visibly into the game, encouraging players, and barking orders. After our third game, when I tried to remain seated and allow the players to play, one player told me that the team needed me to stand and yell and be into the game. Therefore, I tried to be more vocal and active because he felt the players would respond better to that behavior than to a coach who sat and allowed the players to play.

However, over the last 6 years of watching other coaches, and coaching at lower levels, I have thought the opposite. Players tended to respond better when the coach was calm, and layers could play with confidence because the coach was not going to make emotional decisions, especially with regards to substitutions. Much has been written about former UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland’s use of timeouts, but I always appreciated it. He had a plan for timeouts; to me, this was better than coaches randomly calling timeouts based on their gut feelings.

This past weekend, I did all of the normal coaching things. I substituted liberally trying to find a line-up that worked. I used all of my timeouts in the first half, and saved two timeouts for end-game situations in the fourth quarter to set up the plays to get us the looks that we wanted. Out of both timeouts, we got pretty good looks and had other players open.

Could I have yelled more? Sure. I pointed out mistakes and got upset at an early timeout without calling out anyone by name; maybe I should have called out my best player if it would have gotten him to play better, although he was not the problem. Could I have thrown my clipboard to make a point of showing my frustration as I did once earlier in the season? Sure. Could I have ranted and raved and kicked things at halftime? Sure. Is that coaching? I was fired up at halftime because our opponent was talking trash on their way to the locker room. I was also very confident. I used some choice words, but I told our team exactly what would happen: our opponent was not good enough to continue to score at the same rate, and we had finished our worst half of the year and could easily score in the high 40s or low 50s for a half (we scored 47 in a quarter last week). I told them that once we stopped gifting them lay-ups off our turnovers, they would struggle to score, and we would make our shots and be fine. I was right. After scoring 44 in the first half, they scored 29 in the second half. I overestimated our offense, as we scored only 40 points, not the high 40s. However, we were back into the game with 5 minutes to play and had chances to take control. We just didn’t.

Would it have been different if I paced and yelled? Would that have given my team the extra bounce? I don’t know.

The media, fans, and players tend to favor whatever fits their impressions. Boston’s Brad Stevens was universally praised for his calm demeanor when he was at Butler, and Marquette’s Buzz Williams is similarly praised for his sideline exuberance. When Howland stood and yelled at UCLA, he was criticized for being too controlling and not allowing players to play. There is no one coaching style that works all of the time or that fits every player or every team.

The good coaches know what their teams need and how to get the most from individual players and the collective unit. It’s not that Loyer roamed and yelled; maybe he simply appeared more positive and that had an effect on players who may have been struggling psychologically from the disappointments of a down season. My team likely did not lose because I was too complacent or sat on the bench too much; we lost because we made stupid plays and missed some easy shots, and I don’t see how standing and yelling about it would have changed that. I don’t think my players intentionally passed the ball to the other team or missed layups. Would standing and yelling make it easier for them to hit their targets or make their shots?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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