Coaching the Individual Player in Team Sports

In You Haven’t Taught until They Have Learned, Swen Nater’s book about John Wooden’s coaching style, he emphasizes Wooden’s individual approach to each player. In The Fighter’s Mind, Sam Sheridan interviews wrestling great Dan Gable, and Gable emphasizes the same individualized approach. Sheridan interviews former All-American wrestler and current University of Iowa coach Tom Brands:

“It’s complicated but it’s simple. He steered you as you needed it…He would push the right buttons, eventually…It wasn’t innate, I think it was trial and error, hard work, study, he’d eventually figure a guy out, what he really needed.”

Understanding a player and structuring instruction to meet his needs often separates really successful coaches for their peers. I know a player who went to his assistant coach and told him that the head coach’s constant criticism and yelling was not going to motivate him to play better. However, the coach is unaware of how his behavior affects his team’s performance, even though the effects are clearly visible when watching the team play.

Gable said:

“A lot of people make that mistake. They’ve been successful so they try to apply it straight on to everyone else. A lot of great athletes don’t make great coaches because they’re already fixed on what they were doing to be great, as individuals. Because I’ve been a fanatic and an extremist, I know it works well for me. But I’ve made adjustments for a whole range of people.”

Many former players who become skills trainers do the same. They attribute their success to their training and believe their training will lead to success for other players.  However, oftentimes, these players excelled due to their work ethics or talent, not because of their training. They misattribute their success and consequently they do not see the same results from their athletes who have different motivations, talents, foundations, backgrounds, etc.

Brands continues with an important point:

“You learn the number one thing – it’s about making guys feel good about their future and the direction that they’re going…A lot of coaches will tell their guys, ‘you gotta believe in me, trust my system and believe in it.’ but the bottom line is, it’s about the damn coaches believing in the athletes.”

I watched two college games this week, and it was clear by their demeanor, their coaching style and their exhortations that the coaches did not trust their players, and the players’ lack of confidence and lack of aggressiveness illustrated this lack of belief.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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