In many ways, I feel disappointed about the way the season turned out. This may have been the hardest (least successful) season that I have coached in terms of changing behaviors. Parents and the varsity coach commented on the improvement of the team over the course of the season, but I don’t feel the same. The same basic mistakes that hurt us at the beginning of the season hurt us at the end of the season.
In some ways, we did improve. We played our two most consistent games in terms of effort and execution in the last two games. In both games, our opponents started in man defense and switched to zones after we were able to score quickly against their man defense. Our defense was much better late in the season; the only transition baskets we gave up were off turnovers high on the floor. We hedged on screens, rotated in help, and helped each other far more than at the beginning of the year. Due to the scoring system 11 0r 12 of the 14 players started a game at some point during the season, and all 14 players played in both halves of all but two or three games, unless there was a reason (missed practice) for them sitting out. All 14 players scored in multiple games.
However, we failed to block out, we missed lay-ups, we did not shoot well, and we made the occasional lazy or bad angle pass straight into a turnover. These were consistent problems throughout the year despite a concerted effort to focus on lay-ups and passing in every practice. We did a competitive lay-up drill to start every practice. In some ways, this may have been a negative, as I think there was a lack of concentration sometimes. I think I should have incorporated different drills rather than relying on 3-4 different lay-up drills throughout the season. I also went away from an old favorite, the Box-Passing Drill, in favor of drills that involve more movement (Gael Passing Drill, 7v5 Passing), and that may have been a mistake as well.
Things that I will do differently next time:
1) Post drills: I used to do post drills every practice for all players. I do not do that this season, and that was a mistake. Post play is footwork and pump fakes. All players need to learn those skills. Next time, I will do post drills every practice. These drills may have helped with our finishing and boxing out around the basket.
2) Transition: I started the season with a lot of 2v1 transition drills, but as the season wore on, I went to more 4v3 and 5v3 transition drills. I think that I should have incorporated more 2v1 drills throughout the season.
3) Leadership: I did not name a captain until 10 games into the season because I did not feel that anyone had stepped up to show that type of leadership. Instead, the person who was leading in the scoring system was the captain for that game. I think this was a mistake, as nobody took the initiative and stepped up to fill the void. My eventual captain led more by actions than words. By choosing a captain, and empowering him to be the leader, he may have stepped up and filled the void. Maybe it was my encouragement that was lacking and left the void open throughout the season.
4) Details: I tried to stress the details and the small things, but I should have learned from John Wooden and done them from the first practice. I should have done a loose-ball drill on the first day to develop the habit of diving for the loose ball. I should have taught the players how to huddle at free throws and communicate with each other. I should have instructed the point guard to look at me and run to the bench on a free throw or other dead ball if I needed to instruct something.
5) Be First: I worked a summer camp one summer and from our first meeting with my assigned team, I told them that we would be first everywhere. We would jog to lunch while everyone walked, and we would sprint between stations, and we would sprint to the head coach’s sessions so we would sit in front, and we would be the first to loose balls during games, etc. I should have used that with this team as well. Be the first team to set up for out-of-bounds plays. Be first to pick up a teammate that falls or takes a charge. Be first to the bench at timeouts. Be first to the loose balls. Be first to the free-throw line to huddle up.
6) Camaraderie: I should have done more to build a team environment. I talked about Steve Nash and his impact on his team not just from a skill standpoint, but from a high-five standpoint. He always picks up his teammates, pats them on the back, high-fives, etc. Teams that do this tend to be winning teams. We often looked like a pick-up team, not a true team, which is a reflection of the coach. Early in the season, I should have done more to try and build that team spirit.
7) Play more cut-throat: As the season wore on, our “motion” offense, looked more and more like we were running one play because we went to the same option almost every time. I think that I went to 5v5 too quickly to prepare for the games because some guys had never played organized basketball before this season. I should have retained cut-throat and developed more freelance play throughout the season rather than getting stuck in one way of running our motion offense.
Those are the first things that come to mind. There are probably plenty of others.
I think the hardest thing about coaching is rewarding the players who do the right things even when they are not successful. My player who understood the game the best and was always in the right spot was also my smallest player and he was not the quickest either. He just understood the game. On most teams, he probably would have been cut. We intended to keep only 12 players, and he likely would have been one of the ones who did not make it, but he was too smart to cut. at the freshman level, I thought that he deserved a chance to stay in the competitive stream in the hope that he grows before next season. The problem was that he could do everything right, and the opponent could score right over him or grab the rebound or whatever. I always wanted to play him more because I knew that he knew the right things to do, but he was not always able to do them. Other guys were more athletic, better ball handlers, better shooters, etc., and ultimately those things tended to lead to success more often. However, I felt like I was not rewarding what I wanted when I took him out of the game or played him less minutes than someone who did not do the right things, but made up for his mistakes with quickness or aggressiveness. It was probably the hardest decision every game. Is the process still more important if the production does not follow? Or is production more important regardless of the process? If I have a player who plays terrible position defense, but blocks every shot, is that worse than the player who plays perfect position defense, but his man scores over him every time? Who should get more playing time? The one who appears to do the right thing or the one who gets the better result? There is no right answer, which makes it hard. If you play the one who does it right, how does the shot blocker learn to play better defense? By sitting on the bench? I tend to enjoy training more than coaching because of these dilemmas. It isn’t fun to look at a player after the game and now that he tries to do everything correctly, but I still did not play him as much because of his lack of strength, size, shooting ability, or whatever. That part sucks.
At different levels, it is easier to justify. When I coached professional teams, it did not matter. You could show up and practice hard every day, but if you were not going to help us win, you were not going to play. That’s the reality of the game. However, at the freshman level, there’s both the desire to develop players and give players a chance, and the desire to win and teach players how to win.
I like the freshman level for that reason. I am happy that we kept players who most teams would have cut – guys who had no experience in organized basketball or guys that were too small or guys who were out of shape in tryouts. One of these guys ended up a regular starter and probably was our best player on the last game of the season.
The glimpses of improvement were there: the 9/10 from the free-throw line in a close game for a player who shot 30% from the FT line early in the season; the perfect hook pass on a pick-and-roll; the three passes and a lay-up to knife through a zone press without a press break; the perfect execution of the entry and high-low pass against the zone; our tall, skinny forward ripping through and taking a guy along the baseline and finishing through contact; our tough defender drawing what should have been two flagrant fouls because guys were so frustrated trying to handle against him.
I expect the group will fare much better next year, as none of the players who project as the better players has grown into his body yet. As they develop strength and coordination, I expect some of the missed block-outs and missed lay-ups to be eliminated just due to the strength and balance. As some of the guys who had never played organized basketball gain more experience and mesh their skills within the team, they should flourish. As the guards get stronger due to basic maturation, they should improve.
Hopefully they learned something that they take into the offseason, and they come back ready to play next fall. I know there will be a couple games marked on their calendars of losses that they would like to avenge.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League