Every coach, I think, wants to have players who make good decisions on the court. We want players with a high baskeball I.Q., which I have defined as a player who has the “capacity to make the right decision given a certain situation and to execute the play, (McCormick, 2009). This is the perception-action coupling: the perception is the skill to read the play and make the right decision to act, and the action is the execution of the decision. For instance, in the play of the summer above, Lindsay Whalen read the defense, saw Maya Moore sprinting the floor, and decided to make the underhand pass, which was the perceptual skill. Whalen then delivered the underhand pass to Moore in stride, which was the action.
Despite our desire to have players who make good decisions, we coach in a way that limits the ability to make decisions. I am refereeing varsity high-school soccer this fall, and every game, I hear coaches who talk to their players non-stop. Yesterday, I was the assistant referee in front of the bench. The visiting team employed a sweeper (whether intentionally or not). Throughout the second half, the assistant coach would yell to the sweeper: “Take two steps back,” “Move forward one step,” “Let the ball bounce once then attack it,” “Make your line right there,” “Step forward one step,” “Give yourself another six yards,” etc. For the entire second half, he directed almost every one of her movements, and she was one of their experienced players.
How does a player to learn to make decisions when the coach tells the player exactly what to do in every moment of the game? The visiting team led the entire game, and the home team may not have taken a shot on goal in the entire game. If you cannot allow a player to learn in a game that you are dominating, what happens in a more competitive game?
The player was able to perform all of the actions: she was fast, used both feet, and knew how to use her body when necessary to shield the ball or bump an attacker off the ball. However, her coach essentially acted as her brain, doing all of the perceptual work for her. How will she learn to position herself? How will she learn how deep to drop? As long as her coach yells out instructions every few seconds, she will not learn. She will follow directions, and she may be successful, but she will never learn.
This is not coaching. Coaching is teaching players and empowering them to make decisions. Coaching is trusting that players have learned in practice and allowing them to play during games. Standing, yelling, and directing the action for the entire game may look like coaching, but it is poor coaching. It is generally an example of an inexperienced coach or a very controlling, power-hungry coach.
As a young coach, I directed the action too much. Even last season, there were times when I got excited and tried to control the action from the sideline. Despite common perceptions, that is not good coaching. The players have to be able to make decisions.
The biggest compliment that I have heard about a coach was said about Bob Hurley. It might be from The Miracle at St. Anthony by Adrian Wojnarowski. One coach said to watch the St. Anthony players. It was during a summer tournament. He said that the players would enter and warmup and carry themselves just like Hurley was there to watch them, except he was not there. They were well-coached on how to behave and how to warmup, and the coach’s presence did not affect this behavior. That is coaching. When you can trust your team to go to a game without a coach and know that they will behave and play just as if you were watching, you know that you have prepared the team well.
My happiest moment last season was in a game that I was tossed for a second technical in the early second half. We won in double OT. I did not have an assistant, and the players had to coach themselves. We scored in the last five seconds of regulation, overtime, and the second overtime to prolong and then win the game. Many, including the club manager, saw that as a sign that my coaching was overrated; they could win without me. I saw that as a sign that my coaching was working because they could win without me. Different perspectives.
By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League