The cost of overcoaching

When I was younger and nobody took me seriously (before my books, PhD, and professional experience), I made two comments on a Yahoo! coach’s forum that generated plenty of derision from the other members. The first was that we should coach players as if we were preparing them to play pickup games on the playground. The second was that many coaches would have a more positive effect on their teams if they walked into practice, dropped a ball at center court, and left the building, allowing the players to organize themselves and scrimmage. 

After watching a recent varsity girls high school playoff game, I maintain that both of these statements remain true.

In the game, one team had at least five players who will play college sports. Their leader was a senior who has signed to play D1 soccer and is the best player on the team right now. Their other senior is headed to play D2 college basketball. Their most talented player was a freshman who should be playing point guard and should be starting, but instead comes off the bench as a wing. She is considered one of the best freshman in the state. Another player off the bench, and another freshman, is a burly post player who will be a mid D1 player if she grows at all. Finally, their starting post is a lanky sophomore who will play at some level in college.

This team played against a glorified J.V. team. The first team had at least 7 players better than any player on their opponent’s roster. They were bigger, faster, more athletic, and more skilled.

The first team led for the entire game, and their coach had them waste clock at almost every opportunity. At the end of each quarter, their coach attempted to hold the ball for the last minute. When the coach needed a shot at the end of the quarter, he went to a 1-4 low with the freshman-should-be-PG, and nobody could guard here. She got wherever she wanted on the court. For the rest of the game, the team patiently ran Flex, barely looking to score. Even when the player using the baseline screen was wide open for a layup, they rarely made the pass and instead recycled the offense to use more clock. Eventually, the coach would call out a play, and they would run the play for a shot.

If these teams walked into a gym and played a pickup game with no coaches, no scoreboard, no fans, the first team would win 15-4 in a gam to 15 by 2s and 3s. They were better at every position. After one game, the players would agree to mix up the teams to make the teams more equitable and the game more competitive. However, with jerseys and coaches and fans, the coach essentially made the teams more equitable and the game more competitive with his presence.

Why do you need five assistant coaches when your team is so much more talented than the opponent? What’s wrong with allowing your most talented player to make a mistake without immediately being sent to the bench?

I left before the game ended, and despite the first team leading by four points with three minutes to go, I predicted that they would lose. They did. The superiorly talented team blew an 11-point lead in the 3rd quarter because the coach essentially tried to stall for the last 14 minutes of the game, and his players missed shots because they hesitated and over-thought the shot. Every shot was tense.

If these girls played on their own, without a coach, I imagine that they would have pressed the other team. They were able to get the 11-point lead by forcing a couple turnovers near half-court because their opponent’s point guard could not create space against her defender. Additionally, they would have played faster. The open shots that they made tended to come off quicker shots in semi-transition rather than within the flow of the offense. If they played in this manner, they would have won by 25 points. If they ran any kind of simple attacking offense (DDM, ball screen, Princeton-style pass and cut, etc), they would have destroyed their opponent. They were bigger and more athletic at every position. The Flex offense allowed the defense to keep four girls in the paint at almost all times, and negated any driving lanes for the more athletic, quicker guards.

Their coach overcoaches, and through his overcoaching, their season is over. They lost to an inferior team. Sure, the players missed shots, committed turnovers, made silly fouls, etc., but none of that should have mattered. They should have been ahead by 20. Their coach is an example of pseudocoachingPseudoCoaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learningand any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is, that very little learning is taking place.

When the players ran their Flex offense, they looked organized. They knew what they were doing. They set their screens and made their cuts. When they had the ball in the fourth quarter, even the parents acted like the coach, yelling at the girls to slow down and run through the offense. Who wants a layup in a 2v1 fastbreak when you can run 35 seconds of Flex, miss a 10-foot jump shot, and commit a foul on the rebound?

When I said that we should teach the game as if we were preparing players to play pickup games, my point was that players need adaptable skills. Around that time, I was playing pickup games and I tended to be one of the older players on the court. The younger players were frustrating because they did not know how to play basketball outside the confines of their offensive system. Players constantly ran in the way of an open drive or stood right under the basket clogging the lane. They set screens and stood still rather than rolling or popping. Some of these players were good high-school players, provided that they played with their high school within their high-school system.

To me, that’s not the goal of coaching. I may use a specific system with a specific team, but I want to teach players to play without the system as well. If I used the Flex offense, I would want to teach players to use the screens and to read the defense rather than running from point A to point B regardless of the defense. I also would introduce other skills such as handoffs and on-ball screens so the players were aware of their usage as well. I spend more time at practice out of system than within the system because my focus is skill-building. I want to develop skills to enhance our offense, but also because we have to defend these other actions too. If I use the Flex offense, and we are preparing to play a team that runs on-ball screens all game or a DDM team, and we have never practiced anything but out system, defensive preparation will be difficult. However, if the players already know how to execute the skills, showing them how to defend will be easier and less time-consuming.

I honestly believe that this team would be alive in the playoffs if it did not have a coach, and practicing as if they were preparing to play pickup games would have broaden their skills.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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