Managing Practices, Games, and Relationships

Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

John Wooden

Player and Parent Relationships

The biggest part of coaching success will come from how you manage your relationships with your players and their parents. Some keys to success include:

  • Pre-season meeting | Hold a pre-season meeting with all parents (and players) to set expectations. Cover items such as your objectives for the season, the type of team culture you are trying to build, your coaching approach, the development areas you will focus on, and your expectations of both the players and the parents. You should make it clear that the role of parents is to encourage and support all members of your team, and that it’s your responsibility to do the coaching and to manage dialogue with referees. Here’s an excellent article on working with parents.
  • Positive Coaching | Your words have a huge impact on young athletes who have varying levels of self-concept and confidence. Praise fills their buckets. Criticism can drive some children and adolescents away from our great sport. The Positive Coaching Alliance has a great website focused on how to apply positive coaching principles.
  • Culture and Standards | Involve your players in developing (or even leading) the identification of your team values, standards, and culture. Hold your players accountable to these values throughout the year and use them as the basis for discussion with your players. A good example was the 2019-20 West Ottawa U12 Girls Competitive team lead by Coach Stuart Miles. The team had four values: love, lead, work, serve. These four values were printed on the front of their warm-up shirts. Throughout the year Coach Stuart would hold discussions with his young athletes on what each meant to them and how the team should support these values. They became important life lessons. Remember that you have an opportunity to connect and shape your young athletes far beyond the skill of dribbling a basketball.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate | As with all relationships, communicating early and often is the key to success. Deal with small issues with players and parents before they become big issues. A mid-year parent-player discussion (like parent-teacher interviews) is a great way to provide a progress report and to strengthen individual relationships.
  • The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing | Remember that you are here to serve and support young people. You should feel great if you have created an environment where your players have fun, build friendships, foster their love of the sport, and develop their skills.
  • Choose to be a Transformational Coach | A transactional coach focuses primarily on the competency, skills, and techniques of players. Players are tools to achieve success, which is tallied in wins and losses. It’s a win at all costs approach. A transformational coach is focused on the holistic development of the people they are coaching. They build athletes through teamwork, pride, responsibility, hard work, respect, and sportsmanship. They teach athletes sports and life lessons in wins and losses, as well as how to handle wins and losses with dignity and good sportsmanship. Read more.

Running Practices

Practices are my favourite part of coaching. It’s where we have the biggest opportunity to teach and connect with our young athletes. Keys to running great practices include:

  • Preparation | The key to a REALLY stressful practice is walking into the gym unprepared! Do not try this unless your life is blissful and you’re seeking some chaos and higher blood pressure. Use a template (such as this one) to plan out your warm-up, main part, and cool down.
  1. Progressive Skills Development | Look to stack (or load) drills progressively from “on-air” (1 on 0) to 1v1 to multi-player. This enables progressive skill development, from controlled, to a game-like condition, to optimize the learning transfer. This type of approach should be considered when developing all skills. Here’s an example of how you would load a shooting drill:
    • Phase 1: On-Air – Form shooting. Players practice shooting by themselves with a focus on 2-3 key points of emphasis maximum.
    • Phase 2: 1v1 Guided Defence. A defender starts with the ball under the basket. They pass it to the shooter who is on the elbow and then close out. The D is “guided” to close out with moderate pressure and yelling “shot”, enabling the shooter to get their shot off.
    • Phase 3: 1v1 Unguided Defence. Same as above, but now the defender is unguided, meaning they can close out and contest the shot as they desire.
    • Phase 4: 3v3. Half-court game and all scoring chances must be from shots taken from outside the free-throw line extended.
  • Limit Your Points of Emphasis | Every drill you run should have 2-3 points of emphasis in terms of development areas for your athletes. If we take the above shooting progression for example, our PoE’s might be hand position on the ball and the elbow under the hand platter as we lift up from the set point to the release. Those should then be the only two things you instruct on and correct during these drills. While there are many other things that are important to shooting (foot position, two legs working equally, shot line, etc.) you will overload your players and impede development if you instruct and correct more than 2-3 at a time. In your practice plan, be sure to identify your 2-3 PoEs in every drill and ensure your assistant coaches are correcting only those PoEs as well. Read more.
  • Keep it Fun | Gone are the days of suicides and zig zag drills. Practice drills and games should be fun in order to maintain and build a love of basketball.
  • Keep instructions SHORT (30s-1m) | Keep the pace of practice moving and think of how you can involve your players when giving verbal instructions (asking them questions, getting them to demonstrate).
  • Teach Skills, Not Drills | Some repetition of drills from practice to practice helps ensure players are spending time learning the skills of the drill, not how to execute the drill itself.
  • Blocked vs Random | Blocked practise (learning a single skill repetitively) is good for teaching the fundamentals of a skill (e.g., form shooting). Random practise (which forces a player to use various skills and decision-making randomly) is much more game-like and hence transfers learning from practice to games better. Be sure to include a lot of random practise drills (e.g., 3v3 in the half-court) in practice.
  • When to Teach and When to Play | Practice is your primary teaching time. That said, resist the urge to continually stop drills and scrimmages to teach. Let players maximize playing time and their own ability to problem solve, especially amongst older and more skilled players.

Managing Games

  • Positionless Basketball | Like most progressive organizations today, GBA believes that all players should play all positions in younger age groups. Once they get to U16 you can start considering specializations. There are several key reasons for this: 1) The tallest child on the team at 10 years old might turn out to be the shortest at 15. If we stick them in the low post at 10 and don’t develop their dribbling skills they are going to be left behind, 2) Many coaches at older levels today play 5 out basketball, so developing global skills is essential, 3) Kids have more fun and develop as better overall players when they have a chance to play all positions. Ensure you give an opportunity for all players to dribble the ball up the court, to inbound the ball, and to play on the wings and in the post.
  • Quiet Please | Imagine you are sitting at your desk at work. As you are creating a presentation, writing code, or typing an email, your manager is shouting instructions to you. “That’s the wrong font!” “I don’t like that colour!” “Your code is sloppy!” It would be distracting and demoralizing wouldn’t it? Perhaps you can think of yourself playing a sport. Now imagine someone constantly coaching you as you’re playing. It would interrupt your concentration (or flow state). It’s the same for our players. Think of the game as a test of how well you have taught and coached your players in practice. You should be observing them without much instruction when they are on the court. Some coaching can be done when they are on the bench.
  • Managing Referees | Refereeing decisions can become a major focus for coaches during games. When this happens we lose our focus on the game and the decisions we need to make to coach our team effectively. We can also set a poor example for our players. The most effective approach I have found in communicating with referees are discrete conversations at half-time, after the game, or even during a time-out.