The Players-First Approach to Coaching

The old-school coaching style that I describe in The 21st Century Basketball Practice is a coach-driven approach to coaching. When I played, every coach use that style to some degree. Rarely if ever did a coach ask for our opinion. The coach decided, and we followed directions. 

Is there a better way to coach? What is our goal in coaching? Is the purpose to teach children to follow directions or to teach children to think, make decisions, and be creative? Ultimately, the values that a coach wants his or her players to learn and develop will influence his or her coaching style.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote about the Golden State Warriors practices prior to the Western Conference Finals because the Warriors are an anomaly: They are ranked first in pace and defensive efficiency, despite being characterized as a jump-shooting team.

“We don’t run wind sprints here,” coach Steve Kerr says, beaming, as he looks over the Warriors practice facility in Oakland….Now that he has the power, he wants to remove the things he hated.

Years ago, I read an article about an NCAA D3 football coach named John Gagliardi. He retired as the winningest coach in college football and espoused a similar philosophy.

“You know that expression ‘No pain, no gain’?” John Gagliardi asks. “Well, I like to say, ‘No pain, no gain, you’re insane if you believe that.'”

Gagliardi has basically eliminated all the things football players traditionally don’t like about it. There is no calisthenics or lap running, and no drills designed to build agility or quickness. There isn’t even any tackling—instead, the Johnnies line up 11 on 11 and play touch football for 90 minutes, the way most of them have since they were little kids tossing around footballs in their backyards. And if you happen to mess up, don’t sweat it—Gagliardi isn’t likely to get up in your grill.

Of course, by traditional football standards, Gagliardi’s approach to motivation is pure heresy. But looked at another way, it makes perfect sense, because he has essentially created a football program powered not by his own threats or intimidation or screaming, but by the players’ natural passion for football.

The article about Gagliardi probably has had a greater effect on my coaching than any other article that I have read over the years. I never really cared what other people thought, but it further empowered me to ignore the staples that everyone feels are so important to developing basketball players.

Back to Kerr:

Kerr’s ethos, oft-repeated throughout the season, is “basketball should be fun.” It’s a belief belied by the ultra-competitive coach’s in-game histrionics. Kerr wants to win, desperately so. He just also happens to think that winning comes more easily to those who enjoy the game.

Why is this such a revelation? Why do people read Strauss’ article and tweet that Kerr is a revelation? Why aren’t all coaches – especially coaches below the NBA level nodding and saying, “Duh”? Why do many coaches seem to make practices not fun intentionally? Many have even admitted this to me over the years!

Kerr advocates something he calls “coaching with compassion,” the antithesis of an old-school mentality where struggle is ignored, dismissed as weakness. Actually, the Warriors constantly question players on how just how tired they are.

This is such a simple thing, but harder to implement. It requires trust. When I started as the strength & conditioning coach at a junior-college for a fairly unpleasant coach who behaved as though she hated all of her players, players would not answer truthfully when I questioned them. They believed that I was going to report back to the head coach. When I asked if they were tired, they said no automatically because the coach would not tolerate any sign of weakness. It took time to build the trust with the players that I was not going to report them, and that hurting oneself in the weight-room or on the track because of fear of the head coach was not toughness but stupidity.

An article about the MMA gym American Kickboxing Academy suggests that they are moving to a more player-centered coaching style where they question players, as a response to a number of injuries to fighters in the gym.

“I’ve been really trying to get them to talk to me,” Mendez said. “It can even be as simple as, ‘How are things at home? What’s your family life like? Is everything cool?’ Things like that are important, because especially on a sparring day, you need to know where your fighter’s head is so you can tell whether you want him to spar today. You need to know what all the variables are.”

While there are bound to be bad days during a training camp, Mendez said, and while every fighter will face adversity he needs to push through in the gym, there are also days when he’d be better served by rest and recovery.

To me, this is common sense, but then I hear about coaches. I had a soccer player tell me that she quit track, despite being a state qualifier in two events, because her coach told her that if she iced her hip after a race that she would never run for him again. I am not a big icing guy, but why is a coach threatening a 15-year-old athlete? Another girl told me about her coaches picking out a player for her mistakes in a game and all three coaches taking turns yelling at the player in front of the whole team. What is that supposed to accomplish? How is that considered coaching? I watch youth soccer games where coaches will not pay attention to their own injured players because they do not want to take their best players out of the game, even for a minute, even when they are injured. I feel bad for players when the opposing coach runs out to check on the health of a player before her own coach!

These, to me, are simple things. They simply demonstrate that sports are supposed to be fun, and coaches should treat players as human beings. This should not be a revelation. These articles should be non-stories because it is the way that ALL coaches view sports and treat athletes.

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

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