What is a Player’s Coach?

In the media, on fan message forums and twitter, and in conversations in gyms across the country, many feel that this generation of players need a more player-friendly coach. This term is thrown out frequently, but rarely defined. What is a player-friendly coach? Essentially, what do players want from a coach?

In the public, some suggest that players need to have more fun; Bill Walton has been beating this drum during every game that he has covered this season. I am a proponent of fun. However, what is fun for a college player?

Listening to the popular opinion, I feel that many are confusing fun with being easier on players or lowering expectations. It is almost like people feel that these college players are fragile (maybe they are) and cannot be challenged, like those who blame the good teams for winning by too many points. Rather than raising expectations and demanding high standards, the answer appears to be lowering expectations: Stop asking players to move the ball for a good shot – jack shots quickly with no regard. Do not demand players to defend and box out – play them regardless. I am all for playing everyone at developmental levels, but I also believe there have to be some standards and expectations.

We seem to have lowered our expectations for a talented player. Here is a common refrain:

The players would excel more in a free-flowing, up-and-down environment because they are not great decision-makers with the basketball or great shooters, and they lack some strength and balance to battle with bigger players in the paint. Therefore, a game in open space suits their talents more.

However, while you agree with the logic of the last paragraph, re-read the paragraph and see what that actually says about the players: It says that they are not very good. Rather than being talented, they are limited. They excel at things in open space, like running, jumping, catching alley-oop passes, and blocking shots, but struggle with minor things like shooting, making good decisions, and posting up. How is someone who does not make good decisions, cannot shoot, and does not post considered a good, or even elite, player? Have our expectations fallen so drastically?

I think a good player should be able to excel at any tempo, in space and in the half-court, on the perimeter and in the post. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe my expectations are outrageous.

However, in my experience, players think more like me than the public perception would believe. Sure, players enjoy pick-up games and running up and down. However, most desire something more.

A number of players who I have trained previously now play in college, and I check in regularly with them, as well as the players who I see on a weekly basis where I teach and where I work. Because I am independent and have relationships with these players in some form, they tend to vent to me about their basketball lives.

The players’ (D1, D2, D3, JC; males and females; starters and reserves; winning teams and losing teams) complaints about their coaches have almost nothing in common with the perceptions of what these players want. The three biggest complaints can be described as: (1) lack of discipline; (2) lack of consistency; and (3) lack of communication.

Whereas the perception is that players want to take the easy road, I have had numerous players complain about too many days off, the lack of practice intensity, the lack of defensive focus, the lack of accountability for players, and similar things. This subset of players may differ from the average college player – that I don’t know. However, these players show up on their days off to work out on their own. They want harder workouts, whether in the off-season, at practice, in the weight room, or conditioning. Whereas they enjoy the open-gym type workouts and pick-up games some of the time, they desire something more. They want to feel as though they are improving. They want to work. They want to be coached. Just playing is not enough for them to have fun – they want to improve, they want to accomplish their goals, they want to win, and they feel the days off or easy workouts or lack of discipline is cheating them.

That desire to be coached, however, can be affected by the other two. Many players complain about the coach’s lack of consistency. One of my favorite examples is the coach who preaches to players about the importance of nutrition and eating healthy, yet buys the team pizzas after a game or takes a team to McDonald’s for a pre-game meal. If you are going to preach about eating healthy, shouldn’t you ensure that the meals that you pay for on road trips are as healthy as possible? I am not a huge Subway fan, but if the choice is McDonald’s or Subway on a road trip, is there really a choice?

Players also complain about coaches who say one thing and do another. For instance, the coach tells a player to shoot when the player is open, yet yanks the player from the game if the player misses. Where is the consistency? The player follows the coach’s directions but still ends up on the bench. Along the same lines is a player who plays 25 minutes in one game, and does not make an appearance in the next game, but receives no explanation. That has something to do with communication, but also consistency – how is a player supposed to react to wild variances in playing time?

Consistency between players is also something that troubles players. Nobody likes to be taken out for a mistake; however, it becomes worse when only some players are taken out for a mistake, whereas others appear to do whatever they want without any repercussions. This tends to show, consciously or subconsciously, what the coach thinks about the player, and players notice. In some cases, even the players who benefit from this treatment – the ones who get to play through mistakes – are affected because they feel uneasy about the lack of consistency, but the ones negatively affected definitely suffer in their confidence and motivation. How could you not? Even the most confident, motivated players are affected by a coach when there is a lack of consistency within the coach’s treatment of a player and between players.

Players also notice when a coach contradicts him/herself. Coaches introduce a new play or press or zone with one set of rules or expectations, but the next day they change the rotations or slides or whatever. Now, a coach can change his or her mind; maybe you want to change a slide in your zone or change the angle of a screen. However, if the coach acts like that was how it was taught originally, players lose confidence in the coach. If you are going to change something as the coach, acknowledge the change, or the players see the changes as a lack of consistency and do not know whether to follow the original directions or the new directions.

Finally, building on consistency, is the overall lack of communication. Some players complain about not having a set schedule or the schedule changing frequently at the whims of the coaches with little regard for the players’ schedules. Players dislike being called out in front of the team. I have heard of players transferring because the coach used a derogatory nickname for a player for the entire season rather than his actual name. A nickname based on a player’s appearance generally does not endear a player to his or her coach.

Other communication issues are more subtle. Some coaches seem afraid to talk to their players, whether the conversation is about players skipping class, not playing hard enough, not following directions, playing time (see above), or whatever, which again reflects on the lack of discipline. If a coach is afraid to talk to the players, what kind of relationship is there between coach and players?

Looking around college basketball, there are very different personalities that manage to be successful. I don’t know what makes one a player’s coach. I don’t know if that is something that one should strive to be or a label to try to avoid.

However, I do know that great players like to be challenged; they want to be coached; they want to improve; they want to win. They are competitive. They are not complacent. They enjoy work. They believe a tough workout is fun. They get annoyed when there is no challenge or the workout is too easy. Often, they are their own worst enemy, and a coach has to force them to take a day off. Great players are not looking for the easy road. They do not want lowered expectations; they want more and greater challenges.

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

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