Why is the coach always right?

Nearly every day, on one message board or another, I read a forum posts complaining about parents or players. The general consensus from coaches is that they know who should be playing, and the parents and players do not. How do they know? 

I play everybody in every game. I track wins in practice to determine my starters and my captains. I still don’t know who should get more minutes and who should get less. It tends to change from game to game and week to week.

Some teams have some obvious choices and some obvious divisions. However, how are those divisions made? Is the division because the top 5 get 75% of the repetitions and playing time? Is the division because the top 8 get 100% of playing time?

Coaches often say that parents do not watch practice, so they do not know who deserves to play and who does not. As someone who has worked for several coaches in an unofficial capacity, but has no real input on playing time or other team decisions, I have had a unique opportunity to watch several coaches in and out of practice. I disagree with their assessments of their own players. Who is right?

I could be wrong. My point is not that I am right, and the coach was wrong. My point is that we disagree. If two coaches disagree about the personnel (with an assistant offering a third opinion), how are so many coaches certain of their infallibility?

I talked to a player over the weekend. I know the player well, probably better than the head coach. I have watched nearly every game and many practices. I am convinced that the coach views the player as she was 3 months ago, and not as she is today. Three months ago, she was out of shape and could not move laterally; she also was not cleared to play basketball, as she was closing in on six months post-ACL surgery. When she first returned to the court, after the start of practices, she was behind her teammates in fitness, quickness, sharpness, etc. However, she could do things that nobody else on the court could do because of her feel for the game.

Now, 3 months later, she has nearly caught all of her teammates in strength and fitness. However, the coach believes that she is slow. The coach believes that she does not move well. The coach believes that she is a defensive liability. She isn’t. She is not the best defender on the team, but the best defender does not play. She is not the best defender of those who play. However, she is no better and no worse than the player who plays ahead of her. Two rational coaches could make an argument for either of the two as the better defender. One might like the slightly more vocal, slightly more active player who tends to make more mistakes, whereas another might favor the better help defender who is always in the right spot and smart enough not to get beaten. However, the coach’s perception is that one player is a strong defender, and the other is a liability. To me, this perception is built on a perception of the player from three months ago, not of her ability today.

Coaches suffer from the self-fulfilling prophecy. When I drove home from my game yesterday, I asked my coaching friend who watched the game if I was missing something on a couple players. We disagreed on 2-3 of my players. Who is right? I am in practice every day. The player who I favored is 4th in practice wins, and the player who I did not favor is 13th (of 13). Does that mean that I am right? Maybe my behaviors have caused the one player to excel in practice, whereas the other may not excel because of my behaviors. Maybe I am too quick to see one player’s mistakes and he becomes demotivated, whereas I give the other more room for errors.

Playing time is hard. Coaching a freshman team, it’s not only about this season. For some, this will be their last basketball team; for others, this is a learning period for higher levels. Should those who will not make the team next year play less so the others gain more experience? Should those not likely to make the team play more because this is likely their last competitive experience? Will playing less affect who makes the team next season, either because it plants a seed in the mind of the next coach as to who is good and who is not or because the player does not improve as much due to the reduced repetitions? Who is to say what is and is not correct?

I don’t know if I am playing the right guys the right minutes. I think that I am. I ask input from my assistants and play who they say. I ask input from other coaches after games. I use the wins and losses as a guide. But, I make mistakes. I play one player too long and cheat another player. I notice one mistake and not another. I relate more to one player than another. Whatever it is, I know I am not perfect. My issue is with those coaches who believe they are infallible and who believe parents are evil. Sure, I can be critical of parents. However, I understand that parents want the same as I want: they want their child to have a great experience and to improve. I want that for their child too. For all of their children.

We may disagree on their child’s talent level or amount of PT. We may disagree on where basketball should fall on their child’s list of priorities. However, in the end, the parent has to juggle his or her child’s schedule in a variety of activities, whereas I have to juggle numerous players in a singular activity. But, the goal is the same: To create a great experience for the child. As long as parents are willing to meet on that common ground, what is the problem?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

11 thoughts on “Why is the coach always right?

  • Coach:

    Love your stuff. Re-read 180 shooter, and taught my team (10 to 12 yr old girls) your BELIEF system. Had a great practice.

    Wondering about your keeping track of wins at your practice. Are you doing 3 on 3 games? Wondering about the logistics – do you have a spread sheet, some way to manage this information.

    I am be missing or inaccurate on my assessment of players and thus their playing time in games. Would love some basic feedback about organizing individual player wins/losses at practice.

    Pete Dawson

  • When I write my practice plan, I write down all the players names in one column and across the top I write the competitive drills, so each drill has a column and each player has a row. If I was smart, I’d do it as a spreadsheet, but I like index cards. I track wins for every competitive drill that we do: transition drills, defense drills, scrimmages, passing drills, tag, 1v1, etc. After each practice, I add up the daily wins; winner doesn’t have to do the token conditioning at the end of practice. I keep a running total for the season. As an example, my leader has 71 wins right now. 13th place has something like 33.

    This alleviates certain things. I don’t punish players for missing practice; they just miss points. One of my regular starters missed two practices for a vacation, and now he’s middle of the pack in wins. The number of wins depends on the day. I plan to create a database to see who wins in what kind of activity, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Right now, all wins count equal. If I coached a college team, I’d have a manager keep track and create formulas to weight certain activities more than others.

    That’s basically it. Let me know if I failed to explain something.

  • Thanks Brian. And you determine a “win”? My girls struggle to score, so a win may not be a scoreboard win.

  • Pete:
    Yes, a win for me uses the scoreboard. However, I play 3v3 for defense; team has to get 3 stops in a row to get off the court. Team that gives up the fewest baskets during their defensive turn wins. Also, I keep score for passing games that do not involve scoring and track wins for those. Same with things like Team Tag (Speed Tag). Occasionally I do shooting competitions too.

    But, if they struggle to score, you could use more process-oriented wins based on your goals. Team with the fewest travels wins. Team with the fewest jump balls.

    I’ve played games based on shot selection. I use the ideas from Devenzio. If they make a shot, they get the number of points that it’s worth. So a lay-up is a 10-point shot; that’s the shot that we want the most. A contested 19-foot fade away is a 1; we don’t want that shot. Now, I award points only for a make. with players struggling to score, you could award points for getting good shots using something similar.

  • I believe that many coaches have never seen their players play. How can that be? They’ve spent countless hours with their players in a practice or game setting, but have never seen their players play.

    They HAVE seen their players do (or try to do) what the coach wants, but have never seen what the player would do naturally.

    I saw a kid play the other night for his HS team. He was on my summer team, in which we have no set offense. They are encouraged by me to just play and be aggressiv and confident but also play together. This kids “natural” game, the one he practices and is good at, is a perimeter style that takes advantage of out of position defenders to drive to the basket and finishes around the rim. He consistently is at the FT line and many times makes the tough shot for the three-point play. To complement that he takes and makes deep three pointers when he doesnt hesitate and has a mental green light.

    I was sad to see his HS coach force him to be a back-to-the-basket post. He’s only 6ft tall, maybe 6’1.

    But then i thought, “I bet his coach has never seen him play” Its certainly reasonable that every iunteraction with this player or team has been a coach controlled drill or scrimmage.

    It’s sad.

  • Coach,
    I appreciate your great article and consideration for you players. I wrote about an experience I had from the other side–as a player, many years ago, that I think will give coaches another tool to help their charges be the best they can be. It can be seen at http://muddypuddles.blog.com/2012/12/08/tell-them-plainly/. One thing that I didn’t include in the article, for sake of space, but that would have fit it perfectly was the time the coach told me that my fast break bounce passes to the wing men were a little too far out in front due to the fact that my body was moving forward while I was making the pass. I needed to make allowances for my forward motion. It’s simple and you would think, obvious. I can’t believe that my mind had not processed that fact. But, rather than ignoring it because it should have been obvious, he told me plainly and fixed the problem. Sometimes you have players that would make whatever sacrifice you asked of them, but continue to make little mistakes because it just hadn’t occurred to them what those mistakes were. Once they understand, problem solved.
    Keep up the good work. You are impacting lives. Dennis

  • Josh:
    Interesting comment. I tried to fit a system around my players after watching them during tryouts and early in the pre-season play without any structure or anything. Once we got in games, their natural instincts to cut and move and be aggressive changed to a lot of dribbling around looking at each other. So, I put in some very basic early motion to get them started.

    I have a taller player (6’0) who played some PG last night. He’s now played all five positions. I asked him after tryouts what his position had been. He said he’d never been on a team before (he’s started every game so far). I asked how tall his dad was, and he said he was taller than his dad. Once he said that, he changed from being our center, as he played in tryouts, to being a 3/4 (which is basically a perimeter player).

    I watch a freshman on the sophomore team. I hear adults ask why he keeps bringing up the ball because he’s probably their tallest player. He’s also their best point guard. He’s a PG at the varsity level, imo. Why make him be a big guy? I have a tall kid that plays games with us and practices with the sophomores. I keep trying to play him as a 3 because I think that’s the best use of his skills now and for the future. However, he always slides into the post.

    I really haven’t told players positions. They naturally gravitated to them. Everyone is free to dribble. Our biggest post stole the ball at 3/4 court and attacked the front of the rim for an and-1 last night. It was awesome. I hear parents yelling for him to pass. Why? The only time our “bigs” make mistakes is when a “guard” yells for the ball, the big picks up his dribble to pass, and the guard isn’t open. It’s happened 3-4 times. When they just go and keep dribbling up court, we’re fine. A team pressed us this week, and I looked up, and we had the two biggest guys on our team dribbling through their 2-2-1! It was awesome.

  • Dennis:
    Good stuff. I think the comment about the OL is especially important. Coaches have to remember that they are essentially experts, and what they think everyone knows, everyone does not know. I see this with college coaches – great players, but they struggle with freshmen who have never been taught things or who have been taught different vocabulary.

    Butler University makes a tape for all incoming freshman with the verbiage that they use and clips from practices or games to show what the terms mean so that incoming freshmen can study before practice starts. That’s genius. Simple stuff, but huge impact that I imagine few other programs do.

  • Thanks Brian. I like the pressure it puts on kids to show up for practice, and rewards kids that do show up everyday with opportunity for points. I struggle with this, as my kids have other stuff going on, but I feel like they need to practice, and I don’t want to punish kids for having other stuff going on, but I want to concretely reward the kids that always show up. Would love to see a photo of an index card you use so I can use it as a model for my team. All the best.

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