We all do it, we watch games, whether live or on TV and we go along with the decisions the coaches make. "Why those players?" "Why that play?" We all love to second guess and evaluate the coaches. We all know the deal, if you buy the ticket you buy the right to second guess the coach. When we veer off the path of second guessing we enter into evaluating, whether the coach understands what they are doing, how good they are at their job, whether they should be replaced. What criteria do we employ? What thought have we given to it? If a coach plays our child does that make them a good coach, if they don't play your child does it make them a bad coach? If they win games are they a good coach? If they lose games are they a bad coach? Is that as deep as we go? Perhaps it would help to take some time and think about what makes a good coach, what we should evaluate when we watch a coach work and what should concern us.
What is a coaches job? That is probably as good a starting point as any. In the modern era a lot of coaches feel their job is to win games. If that is the job of a coach it is a pretty shallow, and perhaps the worst, job there is. With all the things that go on in the world the need to win sporting games of any kind is pretty low on the list. It makes the evaluation part pretty easy, but in the end, kind of meaningless. Talent wins games, "The better the players, the better the coach." said Mark Jackson during an NBA telecast, "Amen to that!" replied Jeff Van Gundy a former NBA coach. In this sense we are never truly evaluating the coach, just the talent and its ability to perform. I have always thought that the true job of any coach is to provide opportunity. Opportunity to improve, opportunity to grow and yes, opportunity to play. Unfortunately, some coaches restrict opportunity, they are only interested in certain talented players, or certain types of athletes or even just their own children. The best coaches are happy to work with anyone who is interested. They constantly seek out opportunities to illustrate and teach, whether sport or life lessons, that will help the athletes they are working with grow. The first step to evaluating any coach is to ask whether they are providing their athletes with opportunity.
Good coaches make trips about more then games. They make sure there is a cultural element, that the athletes learn something about the area they are in or take part in an activity that is not available to them where they are from or even just something as simple as team building activities like common meals or shared experiences. The wonderful thing about most teams is that they really only have to win their last tournament. The bulk of the schedule can be used to give players opportunity to play, grow, gather experience. Coaches who routinely restrict the playing time of athletes or do not schedule opportunities or chances for all to play and contribute are in fact restricting opportunity. The worst coaches see a player as one thing and never give that player an opportunity to grow and change. They think if a player gets one chance and messes up they will always mess up. In fact, the best way I heard it put was, "What does a first chance earn you? A second chance." The best coaches believe that given coaching, experience and opportunity their players will grow, not just in their skill, but as people. That if we continue to invest in people the investment will be rewarded. A season is an opportunity to see who can grow and be a contributor and by the end when you reach that one tournament you have to win you should have a good idea about who can contribute in that situation, you will in fact, have proof of who can contribute. The final tournament ends and then the process starts all over again and you begin to explore the growth and development of your team once again.
The starting point of evaluation then is whether the coach provides players with all types of opportunity. Not whether they play our children, but whether they give all players a chance to contribute over the course of a full year, whether they take care of the emotional, personal and cultural growth of their athletes or whether it is just about the game. These are fair questions to ask. As with all things it is not the only question. Providing opportunity is the main function of a coach, but how do they provide that opportunity and what do they do with it? Here is the most important lesson about learning you will ever get, we know from science that people do not learn through instruction, they learn through modeling. What does this mean? It means that people will observe situations and they will do what earns praise, or what they see around them that leads to the types of rewards they are interested in. Player A desires to play she notices that the coach plays a group of athletes that display disrespectful or poor attitudes toward sportsmanship. Player A now believes that the path to playing time lies through poor sportsmanship as has been modeled by her teammates behaviour and her coaches choices. She becomes a poor sportsman because this seems the surest path to her reward and so a culture is built. If you want to get ahead on this team you behave this way. If a coach plays a poorly conditioned athlete an amount of time beyond what their conditioning will bear, then the team feels there is no need to be in shape. If the best player on the team is never taken to task for a poor attitude or a lack of effort because the coach feels they need that player to succeed then the poor attitude or lack of effort will permeate every element of the team. Once a culture takes hold it is hard to root out. That is why certain team traits remain on the professional level even after coaching changes or management changes. The key players remain and continue to model poor habits. It is also why the best professional coaches, when they take a new job, bring in some athletes who have played for them before that they know will model the right habits and help build the right culture.
A great example of this, coach X has a team and he feels it is not hard working enough. As motivation coach X purchases a plastic hard hat and announces that he will reward the hardest working player after each game with the hard hat. They will wear it to the next game and be recognized by their peers. In this way he hopes to build a culture of hard work. The team enters a tournament where they will play 4 games. After the first game player Y is awarded the hard hat. He is pleased that he has been recognized for his effort. After game two Player Z is awarded the hard hat but coach X tells player Y that he could have given him the award again but since this is the first week-end he wants to spread it around. In game three Player Y again wins the hard hat, it is now becoming clear to the team that player Y is their hardest working player. Game 4 roles around, it is the final of the tournament, the coach seeking success plays only 6 players, player Y does not play at all. The lesson has been modeled, hard work is not valued on this team. In a game that is deemed important to win the hardest working player is left out of the rotation. From that point forward the award becomes pretty much a joke amongst the team. Player Y, whose best attribute is his work ethic, begins to feel that he is not valued and that he has no control over his ability to earn opportunity, slowly his interest wanes and he eventually leaves the sport. If you model the wrong things the consequences can be severe for those involved and you may not be a very good coach.
If we accept that a coaches job is to provide opportunity and we know that the best way to teach is through modeling we have the building blocks of fair evaluation. What should a coach be modeling, what should be the foundation of any good team? Personally, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about coaching and what makes a good coach. I have tried to boil these things down to a few simple elements. On TV you will often hear commentators talk about coaches being good because they have certain demeanours or they call good plays out of time outs. Having a strong technical grasp of your sport does not necessarily make you a good coach. As far as demeanor goes I remember an interview with Hubie Brown who was really led by the interviewer who wanted him to say that coaches who raise their voice or yell are bad coaches. Instead, Hubie replied that players want to learn and if you teach them to be better and help and care for them they will learn to deal with the rest. Hubie Brown is widely hailed as the best basketball mind around and he clearly did not think demeanor mattered in the quality of a coach. I believe there are three hallmarks to quality coaching, first and foremost is a commitment to fitness. The coach either has players who are always fit, or who play hard at a level that other teams cannot sustain. They do not reward players who are unprepared physically with major roles on the team, but in the spirit of providing opportunity they do not necessarily banish them either. They give them reduced roles and try to make them earn larger ones by showing improvement or a commitment to be better physically. Secondly, good coaches have a commitment to skill development. Their players improve, they get better and grow. Often the player this type of coach is excited about is raw, or on a level where a lot of observers cannot understand the excitement. After a couple seasons this player blossoms and becomes a big contributor because the coach understood their potential and was committed to their growth through the provision of opportunity. Finally, the good coach pays attention to detail. They are simultaneously either working on complex elements in simple ways, or working on simple elements in complex ways, depending on what a team needs. Scoring a basket is not simply a matter of executing a pattern to move players in a certain way toward the basket. It is about the footwork the players use, the subtle misdirection that is necessary, it is where the eyes are looking and the timing of all the movement. The pattern is merely a vehicle in which all the important stuff is carried. The coach who is concerned with detail coaches all of these elements while a lesser coach teaches only the pattern and is oblivious to the other elements.
This is by far the most difficult period in time to be a coach. The constant presence of media means that every person feels like they are an expert, it also means a person can give vent to their frustration at a moments notice. The next time you feel the need to criticize a coach take a moment, forget whether the game was won or lost, forget whether your child played or did not play. Instead ask yourself the bigger questions. Does this coach provide their players with opportunity? Not just playing opportunity but other cultural, teamwork and growth opportunities? Are they modeling the right decisions and culture to their players? Do they emphasize fitness, player development and attention to detail? Can my child tell me not just what they are trying to do on the floor but why they are trying to do it. Sometimes a team just loses, sometimes a child has not yet earned the right to play, and these things are as true with well coached teams as they are with poorly coached ones. I often tell the coaches that I am around that it is not about defending all coaches regardless, it is about striving yourself to do things in a way that merits being defended. Criticizing a coach because they did not produce the result you desired, or did not produce it the way you desired,
is modeling poor behaviour for your children and the people around you. However, if the situation you find your child in does not meet most of the criteria above you may want to think about finding a different situation. Similarly, if you are a coach and you do not see yourself in the above criteria you may want to rethink what you do or modify the choices you make.
Sport has one true objective and that is to help the participants make the link between effort and success. The harder I try the better my reward. The smarter and more disciplined my performance is, the better for me and my team. If I lack elements of knowledge or discipline I will pay a price at some point. If I do not give best effort I will not be rewarded. Any attempt by a coach, athlete or parent to pervert this connection or even worse to negate it renders the value of sport moot. There is no value in the game for the games sake, winning for winnings sake, whether just through sheer talent or other means carries no life lessons that will benefit the participants. In fact the opposite is true, if I learn that the system can be manipulated to my advantage I have learned very little and sport holds no value to me. Coaches need to strive to make this link, parents need to strive to understand this link and players need to strive to honor this link.