How to evaluate the unseen aspects of coaching basketball?

As I sat through a college basketball game on Saturday night, I thought about evaluating coaches. I have met recently with a college soccer coach and a college volleyball coach to talk about the ways they teach certain things or develop certain skills in their players. So far, I have yet to find a basketball coach in the area willing to engage in such discussions.

I decided I would visit practices and see if I could glean any information by watching good coaches coach. How do I find a good coach? Is there a way to evaluate a coach?

I can look at a coach’s records. However, we know this isn’t an accurate measure. After all, I know a coach who has won over 80% of her games prior to this year, but now is struggling. Was she a better coach last year when she won a league championship than this year when she’ll probably finish last in the league? Did she forget everything that she knew? No, last year she had the most talented team in her league, and this year she has the least. It happens.

If a coach’s record is not the best way to evaluate coaches because of the disparity in talent between programs, how else can one objectively measure a coach’s ability?

While thinking about this question, I read a column titled “Thanks or No Thanks” by Joel Spolsky in Inc. He writes:

How do you pay employees based on performance when performance is so hard to quantify? The very idea that you can rate knowledge workers on their productivity is highly suspect and always problematic.

His issue was giving a bonus to an intern who developed a new software application for the software company that amde the company a million dollars. He did not want to offend the other workers diligently working on another project that indirectly doubled their monthly sales. It was easy to quantify the million dollars as a direct result of one person’s idea, but more difficult to quantify the work of the others engaged in an application that was just as important to the business.

Coaching basketball is not a knowledge-based profession. However, like a programmer, the measurables are not necessarily objective. As Spolsky writes, if you have two employees whose job is to produce something – shoes – and one produces 3 shoes per hour and the other produces 10 shoes per hour, it is easy to see the more valuable employee and the one deserving a bonus.

However, while wins are measurable, they do not always tell the story. What if the employee who produced 3 shoes per hour individually crafted each of his shoes while the one who made 10 mass-produced the same pair? Do they still bring the same value?

If we made a list of the top men’s basketball coaches, Coach K inevitably would be #1 on the list. Everyone adores Coach K, and he is ubiquitous. He is a Hall of Fame coach with multiple championships who one day will break Bob Knight’s all-time win record.

Is he the best coach in college basketball today? Sure, he has the best resume, but he also has had the most talented roster for the better part of a decade. A couple years ago, Dick Vitale said that he did one of his best coaching jobs because he did not have that much talent on his roster, but he had five former McDonald’s All-Americans. That is a down year for Duke, but a bounty from heaven for 99% of the programs in America.

How can you compare his record every year to that of another coach who has less access to high school talent, less support from the administration, worse facilities, less support from the fans, etc. Kudos to Coach K, as he helped develop these advantages over a number of years, so he might be a poor example, but the same goes for Roy Williams. Williams inevitably would be in the top five on most lists, yet he took over one of the most coveted jobs in America, and like Coach K, regularly fields a team full of McDonald’s All-Americans. Is it fair to compare him to the coach at UNC Ashville?

How do we evaluate coaches? Spolsky tells the story of a friend who worked at Microsoft:

His bosses rated him based on the 5 percent of the job they observed (his infrequent interactions with them) instead of the 95 percent of his job where he was exemplary (his frequent interactions with customers).

We do the same with coaches. We evaluate based on the 5% that we see – game coaching – and ignore the 95% that we don’t see: practice, acting as a surrogate parent, fundraising, planning, organizing, managing, etc.

If a coach calls a bad timeout or leaves a player in with 3 fouls, we automatically think the coach is bad. What about the other 95% of the job?

I am interested in the way that a coach teaches. I cannot see that during a game. With some coaches, I can. I met Sacramento Kennedy High School’s Brandon Yung a couple years ago because I made a remark about him on an internet site asking about the best coaches in Sacramento. I watched him coach in a tightly contested game and knew he was a good coach. Only later did I learn that he had a Master’s in Kinesiology and really knew his stuff. I liked his temperament and the way he interacted with his players, and I still think he is the best girl’s basketball coach in Sacramento.

How do you know? What is the criteria that we should use when evaluating a coach? Why do we evaluate a 5th grade CYO coach the same way that we evaluate a college coach? Don’t their jobs require different strengths and skills?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
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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