The problem with using an empowerment coaching style

I use an empowerment coaching style, which means that I strive to create opportunities for the players to develop autonomy and build ownership in their learning, development and success in sports settings (Kidman, 2001). To develop autonomy and build ownership, I ask questions and involve the players in many decisions, on and off the court.

On the court, I use my SABA system, which puts the ball in the players’ hands and requires them to make decisions on the court. I structure my practices to develop and improve this decision-making, and that requires many drills and games where players make decisions, adjust and adapt to mistakes, and play with reduced feedback. I rarely call plays, I trust the players to call the out-of-bounds plays, and I often allow the players to pick their defensive match-ups.

Off the court, I involve players in important decisions that affect the players. In most cases, we decide team rules as a group, not as an individual. each team and environment is different; I have coached high schools where the girls played basketball as a diversion from their school activities, not because they were dedicated to the sport or the boys were predominantly multi-sport athletes. These environments differ from one where the players are committed and focused to basketball. As a coach, I have to change my expectations based on the environment; with a team filled with football players, I could not expect them to lift before practice with the football team and lift with my team. It would not make sense and would not benefit the team or the individuals. However, I also cannot indiscriminately allow the players to come and go as they please. Therefore, I incorporate the players into the decision making. How are we going to handle absences from practice? What is an accepted excuse? Is lifting with the football team an acceptable reason to miss a weight session? What about a club soccer practice? By incorporating players into the decision-making, they police each other and hold each other accountable, and the players feel a responsibility not to let down their peers. When a coach makes all of the rules, there often arises a confrontational relationship; the coach has the power, and the players do not. I strive to create cooperation; ultimately I make the decisions, but I seek out and use their feedback because we have the same goals. We are a team. It is not my team and my rules; it is our team and our rules.

I believe strongly with this approach. Even when I coached young children, and before reading Kidman’s work or knowing the term empowerment coaching, I coached in this way. I always used questions as a major teaching style. I have told groups of 9 year-olds that I would treat them as adults until they prove that they cannot handle the responsibility. It is amazing what showing that respect to players will do for their buy in, cooperation, and effort.

The problem, of course, is that when I interview for jobs, I feel as though athletic directors simply do not understand. Frequent questions tend to center on rules and disciplining players. I struggle with these questions because I rarely have problems with players and discipline, and I attribute the lack of issues to the players who I have been fortunate to coach, and their parents, but also my style that treats the players as partners and with respect.

Because I incorporate the players in my decision-making, I do not have a big plan. I find myself answering many questions with something like that depends, as I will meet with the players, and we will decide together. If I strive to empower players and involve them with the decision-making, I cannot have a pre-set plan. If I had everything planned out, I would not be an empowerment coach, and I feel that athletic directors and other more traditional coaches do not understand that.

In my mind, I have a plan for everything. I know my purpose, my philosophy, my offense, my defense, etc. However, I am adaptable. At the high school level, I prefer to press, but I am not going to press if the personnel does not fit. I prefer to shoot a lot of 3s, but if I inherit a team without shooters, I will find another way. I prefer to compete for the championship, practice as much as possible, etc., but without knowing the players and their goals, I cannot to any single plan. I do my planning once I meet the players and talk to them about their goals, their commitment, and more. Unfortunately, this empowerment style appears not to fit the needs of most ADs who are consumed by rules and disciplining players and essentially demonstrating their authority over the players rather than working with players.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

2 thoughts on “The problem with using an empowerment coaching style

  • I think with the recent success of coaches like Pete Carroll, Bruce Bochy, and Steve Kerr, there’s a shift happening at the moment toward coaches that value communication and a servant-leader style. It really is more of a fit with this generation of kids and the information age.

  • There will always be a segment of society that equates leadership with an authoritarian, top down, I’m the boss style and see an empowerment syle as touchy feely or even outright weakness. These people interview well because they have a “plan” . Especially, because often times the people doing the interviewing are products and practioners of an authoritarian style. Often the plan is a one size fits all that involves getting rid of the weak links: whether it be employees, players or students. This may result in short term changes but often end up creating few, if any long term improvements.

    If Seattle, the Giants or GSW slumps for many critics it will be for a lack of discipline, leadership or toughness. Rarely will the authoritarian leader be subject to such scrutiny. Two such examples are Jim Harbaugh and Tom Thibodeau. Both are excellent coaches but once reports surfaced about their job security, people were falling all over themselves to defend both coaches and rip management despite the less reported complaints that players were tiring of their styles.

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