The ultimate cliche: We need to play harder

With a two-goal lead, Southhampton had a corner kick against Everton. After a poor clearance, and a loose ball, Steven Davis crossed the ball from the left side outside the penalty area toward the center of the six-yard box. As the ball was crossed, Southhampton’s defender Maya Yoshida ran straight toward the goal, in between two defenders who did not see or react to him, and headed in the third goal in a 3-0 win. The television analyst’s lazy, cliched explanation for the goal was that Yoshida “wanted it more.” 

Most analysts add very little to the game with their commentary. They fill up the silence with similar cliches. They tell stories of their past glories. It is expected, and therefore not a big deal.

Unfortunately, many coaches use similar cliches to explain their team’s performances. When coaches accept these lazy explanations, there is no impetus to solve the problem (no ball pressure, no communication between the left back and the centerhalf, a mistimed jump by the centerhalf, poor marking). Instead, coaches make players work harder so that they want it more.

Yoshida sliced in front of Everton’s Leighton Baines. Does anyone question Baines’ work ethic? Does anyone question his will to win? He, along with Phil Jagielka, misplayed the cross. I do not know what should have happened, whether Jagielka simply misjudged the ball or Baines did not communicate and let him know that Yoshida was there or Baines was supposed to mark Yoshida and failed.

Despite not knowing the cause, it is hard for me to believe a lack of effort or a lack of desire was the cause. Instead, to me, it is more likely that it was a momentary lapse in concentration, poor positioning, or poor communication. These are problems that can be addressed and fixed during practice with tactical exercises. Instead, most coaches blame the lack of effort and increase the intensity of practices.

Increasing the intensity or making players work harder misses the point. If the problem was poor positioning on the cross, and the solution is to run 10 extra sprints, how will that solve the problem or prepare the player not to make the same mistake in the next game? Isn’t more practice time focused on positioning in the specific situation more likely to prevent the same problem from occurring in subsequent games?

I often hear post-game comments from coaches about their players’ or team’s lack of effort because they are at a loss for other explanations. They do not know how to identify and solve the problem. They hope that making practice harder and emphasizing hardness and toughness leads to improvement because they lack the aptitude to diagnose the true problems and create practice activities to fix these issues. When the team wins its next game, coaches credit the extra work, and it confirms their statements and beliefs. When it fails, coaches blame the effort again and make practices even harder, often making threats.

When I was an assistant coach, we lost a game on the road. Our opponent shot a ridiculous percentage from the three-point line, something like 16/29. The head coach was worried about their inside player, so we started in zone. Our opponent played a four-out with four shooters on the perimeter. They passed the ball around until a shooter was open.

After the game, the head coach was irate. He broke a clipboard and got tossed during the game. He let the players sit in silence for an hour in the locker room before saying anything. Despite his anger at the players, he never switched defenses. He never made an adjustment. He blamed the players for not working hard enough on their closeouts. We always had two defenders inside against their post, which meant defending four shooters with three defenders. The odds were never in our favor on the perimeter. When players ran shooters off of the three-point line, and gave up penetration, they got yelled at. When they closed out short and the shooter hit a three-pointer over them, they got yelled at. Everything came back to their effort.

The head coach did not allow us to stop and eat on the 2.5 hour drive back to campus. Because of his near two-hour tirade (one hour of silence), we arrived on campus after 2:00 A.M., and he scheduled a 6:00 A.M. practice. At practice, players basically ran the entire time.

There was no adjustment to the zone. There was no instruction on closeouts. There was no tactical teaching. It was punishment.

This sounds extreme, but I hear about situations similar to this almost every season. Personally, I believe that every player that I have coached wanted to win and wanted to play hard. Now, some players do not know what that means or what that takes. They need to be taught the importance of every possession or how to fight through fatigue or how to concentrate late in games. They need to learn to handle performance pressures. They need experience in adverse situations, whether it be the opposing crowd, officials, travel, injuries, etc. These are lessons that players learn, and need to be taught, as they progress to higher levels of competition.

Making players run after a loss does not teach these lessons. When a team misses free throws at the end of the game, and runs sprints at the next practice because of it, they do not become clutch all of a sudden. These are reactions to problems that coaches lack the knowledge or experience to solve, so they resort to punishment.

Just as the analyst was lazy for describing a goal as “the player wanting it more”, coaching through punishment and hardness is lazy coaching. Diagnose the problems or weaknesses and develop practice activities to attack those areas. That’s coaching.

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

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