What It Means To Be A Players First Coach

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by Paul Cortes
Assistant Varsity Boys Coach, International High School
Youth Basketball Coach, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department
AAU Coach, Bay City Basketball

What is a players first coach? Now that I’ve written this post, and as I read over it before I click the publish button, I realize that it’s much longer than than I expected it to be. That’s because while the phrase “players first coach” might seem simplistic in nature, there’s so much more that goes into it than meets the eye.

Being a players coach means being excited about the young men or women I get to work with, more so than the ability they bring to the table or the number of games they might win. Far too many coaches get caught up in seeing their athletes as part of the coach’s story. Instead I try to appreciate the fact that each and every person on the team has their own story, and by coaching them for an entire season, I get a chance to be a part of their story in a positive or negative way.

Being a players first coach means being humble and self-deprecating when making a first impression to the team. The temptation is to put on airs, to present oneself as all-mighty and all-important, commanding respect from the very start. The players first coach understands that respect is something that is gained (and earned) over time, through doing things and treating people the right way.

Being a players first coach means putting in the time to prepare for every practice and game. Drafting practice plans, putting together a playbook, watching film, developing yourself as a coach by going to coaching clinics and visiting camps and practices are all examples of the kind of time that great coaches put in before the season even begins.

Being a players first coach means arriving early before practice and staying late to work with any players that want to put in extra time. When working with these players before and after practice, I want to tailor their workouts so that it reflects their individual games. I point out things that I’ve noticed in past practices or games, and I give them specific feedback to improve upon those things. This tells players that I’m always observing them and evaluating ways that they can improve.

Being a players first coach means teaching young players all the skills. The easy thing to do is to relegate the tall kid to standing near the basket and telling him that he’s not allowed to play on the perimeter, or telling the small shooter to stand in the corner and shoot if he’s open but not to try to make any plays with the ball. The truth is that we don’t know what size these kids will be when they mature to be adults, and in order to have the best chance to succeed as they get older they need to develop the all around skills.

Being a players first coach means designing practices so that they are engaging and fun. While players need to understand that it’s not ok to goof off to the point that it becomes a distraction, a sense of humor is an integral thing for players, coaches, and teams to have. You can accomplish the world in any given practice or game, but if the players have gone through the process without laughing or smiling it means nothing. 

Being a players coach means letting them play. It’s not just roll the ball out, but it’s not drill-drill-drill either. The best way to learn how play basketball is by actually playing basketball.  It is my opinion that at least 45 minutes of every practice should be dedicated to some form of competitive play, from competitive advantage transition drills to small-sided 3v3 games to 5v5. While they’re playing, I’m not only still coaching them, but these times afford me the chance to do the most effective kind of coaching—rolling back the action, providing feedback, and guiding them through the intricacies of what takes place during competitive play.

Being a players first coach means running motion offense and trusting athletes to make decisions and think for themselves. Nothing in our offense is predetermined—we try to start our offense from the side, and we want to quickly reverse the ball from one side to the other, but even that doesn’t happen 100% of the time. Players are encouraged to use their brains, to be creative and trust their instincts. When we score, I don’t want the crowd to say, “That’s great coaching.” Instead, I want them to say, “That’s great basketball”, and great basketball is played by players, not coaches.

Being a players first coach means putting them in a man-to-man defense because it instills in them a sense of trust and pride. Individually, we’re confident that we can shut down our man, and if we struggle, we’re confident that we can figure it out. Collectively, we take it upon ourselves to have each other’s back, to communicate, help, and rotate on a dime. No player is constricted to defending one area of the court. We want our man to cut and screen, to do things with the ball, and to take us all over the court because we know that when good offense does this it makes us better defenders.

Being a players first coach means opening up the transition game, that grey area between offense and defense and vise versa, encouraging them to get it and go, to look for opportunities to create and make plays. Do they get a bit overzealous sometimes? Sure. They force shots when they shouldn’t, and they turn the ball over when trying to thread the needle on a pass that’s just not there, but in doing so they begin to have a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and you can’t gain that unless you try.

Being a players first coach means recognizing that putting them in motion offense, having them play man-to-man defense, and opening things up in transition teaches all players the skills that they’re going to need if they want to play at the high school level and potentially beyond. These concepts aren’t easy to teach, and they don’t usually don’t work right away. They take time, often more time than we have in a season. With all the pressure to win that’s on a coach, delayed gratification can be a hard pill to swallow. The temptation is to control things by continually calling out set plays, sticking them in a zone, and having them safely walk the ball up the court every possession. These are all ways to get more wins and look like a better coach. On the flip side, the coach that takes a long-term approach can often look like a lesser coach in the beginning, because the process that he has invested in takes time.

While all this game action is taking place, being a players first coach means picking the right spots to give players feedback. Timeouts, halftime, and dead ball situations, get in their ears, but while action is live in a game one of the coach’s best tools is silence.  Resist the urge to put on a performance for people in the crowd—to show them you’re “really coaching”. If people are noticing me more than the players, I’ve effectively taken the game away from players. 

Being a players first coach means playing the bench. If this is a youth team, I try to play everyone meaningful minutes, and by meaningful I mean at least a quarter of playing time. If this is a varsity high school team, then this entails playing a 9 or 10-man rotation, once again with all rotation players getting at least a quarter of playing time.  In my opinion, only being on the court for 1 or 2 minutes is almost worse than not playing at all, because causes the player to look over his shoulder when he’s on the court, waiting to get pulled.

Being a players first coach means resting the best players, limiting the toll on their bodies and guarding against fatigue injuries or long-term wear and tear. A coach might think he’s favoring a player by playing him the entire game, but it does no favors for a player to be run into the ground.

Being a players first coach means protecting his players at all costs. If a player hits his head or twists his knee and is in obvious pain, but the stakes of the game are high, do you rush to put the player back in the game? If, in another situation, a player is in an unstable emotional state, do you keep him in the game even though he might be a danger to others or himself? For the players first coach both of these scenarios aren’t even a question. He does what is right for the player by making sure the player is not in the game unless it’s safe.

Being a players first coach means not getting too high when the team wins nor getting too low when the team loses. Even though I take my profession seriously and I’m extremely competitive, at the end of the day it is still just a game and there are far more important things going on in life than the outcome of the game. I try to keep postgame talks short and sweet, to focus on the positives as well as discuss what we need to do better without beating them over the head with it. Then we bring our hands in with a cheer, and after the huddle breaks I give every kid a high five and I encourage them to do the same to each other.

Being a players first coach means building on what happens during games to design meaningful teaching points for upcoming practices. There is no mailing it in and recycling old practice plans. Everything has a purpose and there is a logical progression from each practice and game to the next.

Being a players first coach means treating them with respect and dignity no matter what. If a player is screwing up in a practice, instead of being upset at him I try to ask myself why. If I do get on him, it’s a calculated measure that I feel will get him going at that point in time. However, I take care to never react because I’m angry or taking something personally. While players need to know when and how they’re doing something wrong, and that certain things are unacceptable, these things must be communicated with purpose, not purely based on the coach’s emotions such as anger and frustration. I never want to demean or embarrass a player, especially in front of other people. The coach’s golden rule might very well be to treat them as you would have them treat others.

Being a players first coach means asking questions instead of giving them all the answers. Kids are much more likely to retain information if they come up with the answer themselves. By asking open-ended questions and giving them time to answer without interruption, players are forced to think critically and to have an active role in the learning process. The answers they give might not always be the answers I’m looking for, but maybe they’ve thought of something that I haven’t. Maybe they’re looking at something in a way that I hadn’t considered. As a coach, I must make sure to stay open-minded and that means learning from my players as much as they learn from me.

Being a players first coach is being the same person on day 100 that I was on day 1. It’s easy to sell oneself as a promise and then fall short. The older that players get, the more that they’ve experienced this with adults in their lives time and time again. If I want my players to continue to battle for me, I need to continually show them that I am who they thought I was. I try to live a balanced life so that my emotions aren’t on a roller coaster from day to day, which entails being the same person even when players aren’t around. You can’t put on a coaching face when it’s time to go to a practice or a game. If you do this it’s only a matter of time before the mask falls off. How you coach needs to be consistent with who you are.

Being a players first coach means that when the season ends, I show my appreciation for the players regardless of the final result. I am appreciative that I have gotten a chance to be a part of this young man’s life, and I want him to know this. Don’t assume that all players know that you enjoyed coaching them. Hopefully this isn’t the last time I get to interact with this player, but it very well might be. While people say that you only get one chance to make a first impression, you really do only have one chance to make a last impression. Make it count.

Being a players first coach means building long, lasting relationships with each and every player on the team. It is my hope that years later, if they see me on the street they’ll be happy to have a conversation with me and let me know what’s going on in their lives. Maybe they’ll even go out of their way to visit me at an unexpected time. The thought of this is far more rewarding to me than the thought of cutting down a net or hoisting a trophy. It’s an indicator that I did something right, that they recognized that I cared for them and still do.

Lastly, being a players first coach means learning from my time spent with the last batch of players and applying it to the next batch of players. Players come and go with each and every season, and new ones come into the fold. I’ve made many mistakes with past players, and I still think about a lot of them. At the very least, I hope to use those experiences to keep the same mistakes from happening with another player. I also hope to recognize what I did well and continue to build on that and improve as a coach.

All these things are what being a players first coach means to me. I am by no means perfect, nor anywhere close. I struggle with several of these things every day, and I have to reexamine myself and correct course from time to time. When I do, I remind myself that it’s not about winning games, creating a legacy, being in charge, looking like a genius, climbing the ladder to get a better coaching position, collecting a paycheck, or pleasing the parents, administrators, or anyone else in the crowd. It’s easy to lose perspective, but with a players first philosophy the solution is ever simple. It’s about the players, first and foremost. Always.

 

4 thoughts on “What It Means To Be A Players First Coach

  1. I took your description to be that of a good coach.

    As for ‘players coach’, my understanding is such to be opposite the authoritarian. I’ll call a good coach somewhere in between.

    -JJ

  2. JJ, that’s precisely my point. The perception of a ‘players coach’ is that of a passive, nonconfrontational coach that doesn’t challenge his/her players, when in reality that’s just a bad coach. This misperception leads to more people using the authoritarian style or assuming that it is the best way.

  3. JJ, that is a good point. Unfortunately many people (including players) don’t make that distinction. I have read many descriptions in the media that describe what they consider a good or great practice. Many of the phrases you often read could be used when describing a military unit.

    Disciplined, no wasted time or movement, precision, etc.

    In other words, organized, precise and mistake free. However, learning isn’t precise, and is often messy. Giving players room to make decisions and learn from their mistakes isn’t easy for a uninformed or one time observer to see as effective coaching.

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