When I conducted coaching clinics in Canada last month, several coaches asked how I ended up different than most coaches. There is, I suppose, a presumption about most coaches implied in that question, and my answer obviously reflected my bias of a stereotypical coach or the representative of most coaches. Despite these implications, I feel confident that people who know me from coaching or my writing about coaching put me towards a different end of a spectrum than most coaches. So, how did I become different?
I have never met a coach with a similar background. I am sure there may be some out there, and parts of my experiences are familiar to many (didn’t play high-level basketball, started by coaching young children, worked with non-English speakers, coached Special Olympics, coached other sports, started at a young age, played and coached in Europe, etc), but the totality of my experience is fairly unique, I think.
I attribute most of my different-ness to my early years as a coach. When I was in high school, I was the head coach for a middle school team. When I moved to Sweden at 19 years old to be an exchange student, I was the head coach of an u15 team. When I started to coach again in college, I was the head coach of elementary and middle school teams. I had roughly 7 seasons of head coaching experience before I became an assistant coach with an AAU program while still in college. Because I started as a head coach, I had no mentor. I did not copy the things that I had done as an assistant coach. I created everything from my philosophy to my coaching style to my drills.
Beyond starting as a head coach, I started young. When I graduated from college, I had something like 8 seasons of head coaching experience with youth teams, 2 seasons of head coaching experience with high school J.V. teams, 1 season as a high school varsity assistant coach, and 2 seasons as an AAU assistant coach. Several (3) years ago, a high school administrator told me that I was unqualified for a high school coaching position based on my resume; my experience prior to my college graduation is more experience than many coaches have when they are hired for their first high school jobs. By the time that I was 23, I had spent a lot of time coaching, and this does not count the four years that I spent coaching Special Olympics.
Not only did I start at a young age for a coach, but I coached children. I feel that coaching children provides an advantage for coaches with career ambitions at any age. I have said this all summer and all fall, but coaching a college team is easier than a youth team because a college team is far more homogeneous than a youth team in terms of skill level, motivation, emotional maturity, biological age, size, etc. The difference between a highly-motivated, experienced 13 year old with a biological age closer to 15 and a barely-motivated, not experienced 13 year old with a biological age closer to 11 is enormous, but these two often play on the same team!
Coaching with these differences forces one to problem solve and be creative. Every player cannot do the same thing, and expectations should not be the same for all of the children. Coaching children, and especially beginners, and especially at a school where few parents put a lot of athletic pressure on their children, reminds you that sports are fun, and they should be fun.
I also coached boys and girls. Many coaches tend to get pigeon-holed into one or the other. I coached both. When I coached AAU, I initially started with boys, but moved to the girls’ side because I liked the girls’ director better. When I returned to the program after some time away, I moved back to the boys’ side because the girls’ director had left, and there was a new boys’ director. It was the environment that mattered to me, not whether or not it was males or females.
When I was 19, I was an exchange student in Sweden. I played on a 2nd Division team in my town, which exposed me, in a small way, to European basketball. I still use some of the ideas that I remember from that season, especially playing 2v2. However, more importantly for my coaching career, I coached an u15 boys team. Many players on the team were recent immigrants, having fled from the first Gulf War or the Balkan War. English was often their third or fourth language, and I learned new ways to communicate. I developed more patience, and I entrusted players to translate for their peers. Although I was the only coach, I relied on the players.
When I returned to coaching in college, I coached Special Olympics. Throughout my four years at UCLA, I coached the student-run Special Olympics program and eventually co-directed it for my last two years. Our athletes were primarily African-American and Latino. Some communicated verbally; a few did not. Many spoke predominantly Spanish. Most of the athletes were adults, although we added some younger athletes during my last few years. We had high functioning, very good athletes, and low functioning athletes. Coaching Special Olympics takes a different type of creativity, as common instructions often do not work, and you have to find modifications to assist the athletes to be successful.
Next, I coached volleyball. I never played volleyball on a team until intramurals in college. I never participated in a volleyball practice as a player. I did not realize that I had signed up to coach volleyball, as I accepted the job as a favor to a friend who worked at a Catholic school and did not have a coach although the season had started. I showed up to coach basketball and found out it was a volleyball team at my first practice. With no volleyball experience, I made up stuff. I created drills. I created formations. I taught skills in ways that made sense to me. I listened to other coaches and stole analogies that I liked (my favorite was to imagine that you are chugging a 2 Liter bottle of soda pop; that’s where your hands should be when you set). Years later, I met John Kessel of USA Volleyball, and he confirmed that many of my thoughts about traditional volleyball, things like peppering and coaches setting to hitters, were flawed, and drills that he argued against in his teaching and writing. His version of Fake Fundamentals, I suppose, and I managed to ignore most of them because I was an outsider and not entrenched in the right way to do things.
I believe that these early experiences influenced my development more than later experiences such as being a college assistant coach or varsity high-school head coach. I started as a head coach rather than an assistant. I coached in fairly unusual circumstances: non-English speakers, Special Olympics, a sport that I had never played. I had no mentor. I had nobody to call for help or advice. In my first year of coaching, I had never heard of the Internet. I trained coaches to coach Special Olympics before I took my first class on teaching individuals with different abilities.
After my junior year of college, I began to work basketball camps throughout the summers. I traveled throughout the west coast: University of Arizona, University of Oklahoma, University of Utah, Gonzaga University, UCLA, Pepperdine, USF, Santa Clara, Stanford, Cal, Snow Valley, and Sly Park. I skipped my last week of college to work the University of Oklahoma basketball camp; one professor did not understand and dropped an A- to a B for missing those two classes. For two summers, I had no permanent residence. I drove from camp to camp for roughly 6-8 straight weeks. I had fun at these camps, met a lot of people, and learned a lot because I was able to coach many different players, ages, and skills, and I could experiment with my own coaching.
It was during this time that I truly developed confidence in my coaching and learned that there was not much separating a college coach, who I had assumed had some special knowledge, from a youth coach. I came to this realization during the first college camp that I worked: Cal’s men’s basketball camp. Ben Braun was the head coach, but he was never there. I met him once on the first day as he stopped by camp before rushing to his tennis game. This week did as much as anything to change my career trajectory, as I realized that there was no reason that I could not coach college basketball. Something that previously appeared unattainable now seemed like a reasonable possibility. I felt just as competent as the coaches that I was around, whether they were AAU, high school, or college coaches, and I changed my career goals, and looked at coaching college basketball as a reasonable goal.
In that pursuit, I worked dozens of camps, as that was the advice that I received from others. Working these camps probably led to my stereotyped beliefs of most coaches as much as anything else. At Stanford’s women’s basketball camp, I sat at lunch with other coaches. The other coaches complained the entire time about the players. They didn’t do this. They couldn’t do that. Finally, I snapped. I picked up my tray to walk away, and said, “That’s your fucking job as a coach.” I never ate with coaches again.
They blamed everything but themselves. It was never their fault that a player did not understand; it was the player’s fault. They had excuses for everything and spent the entire meal blame-shifting to deflect from their inability to coach. Near the end of a 5-day camp, many could not name every player on their own teams! During games, they would yell out “Pass it to her,” because they did not know her’s name. How hard is it to learn 8-10 names when you spend 8 hours a day with them for 3-5 consecutive days? That is apathy and disrespect. I knew the names of nearly every player in our division. I despised these coaches. Several coach Division 1 basketball today!
The final two situations that heavily influenced my coaching occurred after college. After graduation, I was an assistant coach for an NAIA team. My primary role was to work with the freshman who eventually became the starting point guard, and later, after transferring, a DIII All-American. Much of our work together is covered in 180 Shooter, as he had a deep desire to become a great shooter, and he did. As soon as the season finished, I left. I returned to Los Angeles and the AAU program that I had coached during college. This time, I coached the boys, and Jerome Greene oversaw my team because I coached his son. I started with a traditional, fundamentals-first mindset, copying many of the drills that I had used as a college assistant (which I had transferred from my time as a private coach during the end of my college years). Every day, Jerome implored me to play more. Practice by practice, we played more and more. Eventually, we organized practices around the Blitz Basketball ideas, and created many of the drills that I use today, such as 2v2 Rugby.
Eventually, after two years as a college assistant coach, and summers crisscrossing the west coast working camps, I was hired to coach a women’s team in Sweden. At the time, colleges and high schools told me that I was too young to be a head coach. The team in Sweden never asked my age. We exchanged nearly 70 emails before the club eventually hired me. This was an amazing learning experience in many ways: I coached players much older than me, players with more experience, and players who knew the league better than me. I had an assistant coach who was married to my point guard. There was wildly off base gossip about my personal life with players on my team and an opposing team that eventually shut down the teams’s Internet message board because of the volume. We were covered by two local newspapers. The national team head coach basically said that we had no talent in a national newspaper the day before we beat one of the championship favorites by 29 points. I coached in the All-Star Game, and met players from other teams, and learned that that team had no idea what type of defense that we had played against them. Eventually, my coaching stint ended primarily due to a language barrier, a lack of communication between the players and board, and drama created by my PG being married to my assistant coach, who was entrenched in the club and basically the general manager. Most of it was stupid, and much of it was my fault in not understanding cultural differences and the like, but it provided a great learning experience on and off the court. I returned to the States convinced that I was prepared to be a head coach at any level, although it took a few years for my next real job, as interviewers seemed not to value the diversity of my experience.
Of course, subsequent experiences directing clinics all over the world, coaching in Europe again, writing books, and earning a doctorate influence my coaching and my beliefs. However, I recently read through many of the newsletters that I began to write in January of 2007, and I could see the seeds of ideas that became SABA: The Antifragile Offense and Fake Fundamentals, although it took 7 more years to focus the ideas and write the books. I certainly do not think that I am stagnant, and I constantly search for new ideas and better ways to do things. Lately, Harri Mannonen’s ideas have heavily influenced my re-design of drills, especially with regards to shooting.
However, when I think of the experiences that made me different, whatever that means and compared to whomever most coaches are, I think about the early experiences coaching children, coaching boys and girls, coaching at a young age, coaching a professional team at a young age, Jerome’s influence in playing more, coaching Special Olympics, coaching non-English speakers, coaching players who were deaf (first time was at the Superstar summer camp), and other non-traditional experiences compared to a more traditional coaching journey.
Unfortunately, as much as I feel that these experiences have made me the coach that I am today, and there are few experiences that I would change, when asked for advice recently by an aspiring high-school coach, I was saddened to realize that I would not recommend my path. Unfortunately, there is a difference, in my mind at least, between the best path for learning to become a good coach and the best path for getting hired to be a high-school head coach.
I recommend something similar to my path for becoming a good coach: Coach children, coach boys and girls, coach in as many environments as possible (demographics, schools, camps, countries, special populations, etc), coach as much as possible (school, AAU, YMCA, camps, etc).
Based on recent experiences, however, my suggestion for getting hired to be a high-school head coach was to be a high school assistant coach. More specifically, coach in the district or league in which you would like to be a head coach. Preferably, coach boys, because it is easier to go from coaching boys to coaching girls than it is to go from coaching girls to coaching boys, so coaching boys gives you an opportunity to apply for twice as many jobs (This is not something that I believe should be true, but I definitely believe that it is true). This is the path that I have seen recent hires take.
When you have a diverse and varied resume such as mine, I feel that many administrators do not know how to categorize you, which ultimately becomes a negative in terms of the hiring process. Therefore, it depends: Do you want great experiences and many different learning opportunities or the quickest path to the high-school coaching job (college is somewhat similar; you are better off being a Division 1 manager or 10th assistant than gaining actual head coaching experience at a different level if your goal is to be a college coach)? My path is certainly not the quickest route between now and the desired position, but the stops along the way were interesting and full of learning.