3.1.1 Characteristics of league coaching
Coaching in a league typically means that your team:
- Plays in a competition that is played over a relatively lengthy period of time (the exact period very much depends upon the league). The season generally has four distinct phases:
- Regular season (“home and away” games);
- Play-offs (finals);
- Off-season (when players may continue to work with the team or may be involved in other programs (e.g. other leagues or national team commitments) or may take a break;
- Plays half of their games at home,
which may include a greater variety of distractions to preparation than when the team is “away”;
- Plays the same opponents a number of times during the season;
- Generally has a number of days rest between games;
- May be required to travel between games and this travel may be immediately before the game or be over significant distances;
- At the conclusion of the season in addition to overall “wins and losses”, the record against a particular team may determine the team’s position on the ladder.
The extent of preparation that a coach does will very much depend upon the team. A junior team may only practice once or twice a week, compared to a professional team where players are at the club every day.
Despite these differences, the context of “league coaching” (as distinct from tournament coaching) does need to be considered.
Recruiting and Selecting a Team
A coach must seek clarity from the club about what level of control the club will have over the selection of players. In some contexts (e.g. a professional team) the coach may be actively involved with recruiting players, while other coaches (e.g. a junior team) may not actively recruit and instead must select a team from the players that express an interest in playing.
When recruiting, the coach should:
- Avoid promises of “court time” that the player will receive;
- Discuss with prospective players the role within the team that they believe the player might undertake;
- Consider involving players to assist with recruiting;
- Consider what stage of development the team is at (is playing in finals realistic in the near future?) and develop a strategy (approved by the club) to balance experienced players with young players that are identified as having potential to excel in future years, but not necessarily immediately;
- Determine the style of play that they believe will be successful in the league and recruit players that will excel in that style of play;
- “Recruit people, not players” – take time to get to know the personalities of prospective players, and recruit players that will fit the culture of the club and the personalities of the coach and the team;
- “Listen to the opinion of others but make their own decision” – coaches should seek the opinion of other coaches, managers and administrators regarding potential players, however ultimately the coach must make their own decision as to whether they want to recruit the player.
The biggest difference between recruiting and selecting a team is that the coach that is recruiting can be more targeted in identifying players to fit a particular style of play. If selecting a team it is often prudent to choose the game style after the team is identified.
When selecting a team, coaches should:
- “Not select players based on what they can do now but select them on what the coach believes they will be able to do” – this will include considering how “coachable” a player is and how they will fit within the team culture;
- Clearly state the selection process (and comply with it!);
- Use uncomplicated contested activities as much as possible – many coaches run “complex” activities or patterns of play, which may favour players that have previously been involved in the programme;
- Be methodical and take notes to ensure that all players have been evaluated;
- Seek input from other coaches;
- Spend more time with the players that they have not previously coached (some clubs will have an initial trial that is specifically for players that have not previously been involved).
Particularly when selecting a team, coaches must be prepared to provide some feedback to players that are not selected, and with junior players, this should involve areas for the player’s continued development. In giving feedback, the coach should avoid making comparisons with other players and should keep comments in relation to that particular player.
The length of a pre-season will vary from team to team. Often it is simply the period between team selection and their first game!
A pre-season is an important time to:
- Build aerobic fitness;
- Implement a basic offensive and defensive structure, including:
- Transition – offence and defence;
- Half Court – offence and defence;
- Breaking pressure – offence.
- “Experiment” with different styles of play or different roles for players. It can also be a good opportunity to evaluate new team members as well as see which players have “developed” their game;
- Start to “scout” opponents, particularly what style of game they may prefer and the characteristics of their key players.
Particularly with junior teams the offensive and defensive structure can be very simple. For example:
- Offensive transition may simply be
- “run the lanes” (as fast as possible),
- pass the ball ahead and
- 2v1 and 3v2 play.
- Similarly, defensive transition might be
- “Jam” the rebounder (make it hard for them to make a quick pass),
- defend the basket first and
- then put pressure on the ball handler.
Preparing the Team – ‘When’ is as important as ‘What’
Given that leagues are played over a number of weeks or months, often much longer than any pre-season period the coach has with the team, it is not necessary for the coach to have “put everything in” before the first game. In their plan, the coach should identify when each of the various concepts will be introduced, and this may include leaving some until the season has started.
It is a mistake for coaches to work first on structured offensive sets without ensuring that the players have the necessary fundamentals to effectively execute those sets.
Obviously the system and structures that the coach can have in place prior to the start of the league will depend upon the skill and experience of the team.
Some coaches also choose not to use various aspects of their playbook in the initial part of the season, so that teams “scouting” them do not see all the strategies that they may have in place.
This is a legitimate tactic to use, however, coaches should also be conscious that often when a team plays in a competitive situation, the coach will recognize different things that need to be worked on, beyond what they see in practice. This may be because at practice all players know what the team is doing and accordingly “cheat” or react not to what is happening but what is meant to happen.
Therefore, if the coach does want to keep some aspects of their play “secret” early in the season, they should look for other competitive opportunities to practice it – perhaps bringing in another team, or some other players, against whom they can to practice the strategy.
Preparing to play an opponent multiple times
Because teams play opponents a number of times during the season, league play provides an opportunity to be well prepared. However, it is important not to assume that an opponent will play as they did on the last occasion, because:
- They may be implementing patterns of play throughout the season;
- They may change tactics based upon what worked (or didn’t work) on the last occasion;
- The last game may have been particularly good (or bad);
- The roles of individual players may have changed due to injury, form (good or poor) or other factors.
Accordingly, coaches should still scout an opponent, even if they have played them before, using video, statistics as well as notes taken after the last game (or series of games).
When preparing to play an opponent again, the coach should review:
- What worked well on the last occasion (e.g. particular screening action, type of defence);
- What tempo did the opponent prefer and how did they attempt to influence the tempo;
- How did the opponent defend key parts of the team’s offence;
- Where there any particular “match-ups” where the team either had a particular advantage or disadvantage.
At the end of the season ladder position may depend upon the “split” between teams. Coaches must be familiar with the particular rules of their league, however often if the teams are otherwise equal (e.g. same number of games won-lost) the team that won the most games between them, or has the best points differential between them, will be ranked higher on the ladder. This adds additional importance to each game.
Reviewing Performance and Changing Tactics
Coaches will constantly review the performance of their own team and should spend at least as much time on their own team as they do “scouting” upcoming opponents. Their review should not simply look at ladder positions or “wins and losses” and instead should look at how the team is performing and how each player is performing.
When a team is not playing well, the coach must form a view on whether:
- The tactics chosen for the team are appropriate (but not necessarily performed to standard); or
- The tactics for the team need to be changed.
Some factors that need to be considered in reaching this decision are:
- Any injuries that the team has had;
- The player’s comprehension of the tactics;
- The physical attributes and skill level of individual players on the team (particularly comparative to other teams in the league);
- The objectives for success for the team – is the focus short term (i.e. win the championship this season) or longer term (i.e. preparing the team to be competitive within a certain timeframe);
- How long does the coach have to make any changes (this includes both; at what point in the season the team is, as well as how often they train).
There is no definitive guideline to determine whether or not a coach should change tactics nor what changes they should make. Changes do not have to completely “throw out” what the team had prepared and instead the coach can consider:
- Changing the starting line-up or substitution pattern;
- Being more prescriptive about what options the team is to use and at what point in the game they will do so (for example, using a particular “start” before moving into motion offence);
- Changing the roles of players (e.g. moving a point guard to the shooting guard position);
- Preferring a particular option within their team’s offensive and defensive schemes (e.g. opting to “go under” when defending ball screens).
Different leagues will have different formats for the finals (or “play offs”). Teams may play a “sudden death” game (e.g. winner of one game proceeds to the next stage) or they may play a series (e.g. first team to win 4 games proceeds to the next stage).
Whatever the format, it is likely that you will be meeting an opponent again that you have already played a number of times and accordingly, in preparation need to consider:
- What worked well against them previously (e.g. individual match-ups, tempo or patterns of play) and what adjustments they might make;
- In what areas did they have an advantage previously (e.g. individual match-ups, tempo or patterns of play) and what adjustments can be made to negate this;
- Has the opponent introduced any changes to how they play since the team last played them;
- What is the recent form of the opposition players and, in particular, is it likely that players will have different roles (either time played or positional role) than when previously playing against them?
When preparing for play-offs coaches need to anticipate what changes to tactics the opponent may make and, whilst there may be objective data (e.g. observation of what the opponent has done in other games) it also includes an element of speculation. In addition to watching the opponent’s previous games (which, particularly with junior teams, may be difficult), the coach can consider an attempt to identify possible changes of tactics:
- Looking for opposition players that average more shots per game when playing against other opponents – they may take more shots in the play-offs than they did when played against them in the regular season;
- Which teams in the league are most similar and how did the opponent play against them – any difference in tactics may also be used in the play-offs.
Other factors the coach should consider are:
- Keep the routine in the play-offs the same as during the regular season as much as possible – consistent preparation leads to consistent performance;
- “Control the controllables” – play-offs often involve short recovery time between games, more travel, more media commitments and these can easily become excuses for poor performance. Elite teams, however, do not let things out of their control impact performance and do not allow any team member to suggest otherwise.
A season (including pre-season) is often very long and it is often difficult (if not impossible) to play to maximum potential for its entirety. Indeed, a measure of an elite performing team is often how they manage to win even when they are not playing well.
Obviously the team wants to be playing at its best at the end of the season, however coaches should avoid placing too much emphasis on it, after all the team must first qualify for the play-offs! Importantly, part of preparing a team to “peak” for the finals is to expect that performance will vary during the season and to remember that one poor performance does not constitute a “slump”.
Some techniques that will assist to prepare a team to “peak” at the end of the season are:
- Use of objectives and measures that are within the control of the team to evaluate performance. For example, a defensive team cannot control how well an opponent shoots the ball, however they can control whether or not every shot the opponent takes was contested. The team may lose, but have contested every shot, or conversely win, but have contested less than half of the shots.
“Confidence” is perhaps the most important element in determining whether or not a team (or player) is successful, and feeling “in control” of performance is very important to confidence.
- Give players physical rest during the season, which should be done in conjunction with advice from conditioning staff;
- Have conditioning staff work with players that are playing minimal minutes to work on all attributes of their fitness in an effort to keep the players “match fit”;
- Make sure that players understand the importance of “physical recover” and that they undertake appropriate activities (whether on their own or as a team);
- Respect the differences between players some players will want to be at the club all day, every day. Others will do the “minimum” but equally value time away from the club;
- Encourage players to have interests outside of basketball and give them sufficient time that they can pursue such interests (including family!);
- Give players psychological “rest” during the season. Have assistant coaches or senior players lead some sessions (both on and off court) and schedule adequate breaks in the schedule;
- Incorporate “cross training” activities during the season, where players do non-basketball activities. For example, many principles of play are similar in other invasion sports (e.g. hockey, soccer) and using such activities can continue to develop the team but also give them a “break” from the long season.
Scouting Your Opponents
“Scouting” is simply finding out some information about an upcoming opponent. In a league, one of the most effective ways to “scout” an opponent is to play against them and the coach should make notes at the end of each game that can be reviewed prior to playing that opponent again.
There are three distinct parts to scouting an opponent:
- Getting information about them;
- Deciding what your team will do in view of that information;
- Presenting “the scout” to your team.
Getting Information about an Opponent
There are many ways to get information about a team, such as:
- Speaking to colleagues that are coaching in the league and have played them;
- Reviewing statistics and game results;
- Reports in newspapers or information provided by the league (e.g. on a website);
- Asking your own players – they may know some of the players from the other team
- Watching the team.
Which of these you will be able to do depends very much upon the league your are in, the resources that your club has and how much time you have. Most coaches (if they have the time) prefer to see the opponent “live”.
Video does not always capture the whole court (particularly a TV telecast which often focuses on the ball) and it is also difficult to hear what coaches or players are saying during the game (e.g. calling a play).
Below are a number of things to take into account when watching an upcoming opponent:
Watch the team warm-up. It’s a good way to find out which players are left or right handed and an indication of how well they shoot from the perimeter
Make a note of which players start each quarter and the first one or two substitutions each quarter
Watch the game initially without taking too many notes – focus on tendencies that the team has (e.g. what defence do they play and is it aggressive?)
Prepare a simple “scouting” document, so that you can take notes quickly (“ticking” boxes as you see tendencies or concepts of play).
Use time-outs and other breaks in play to write notes
Make a note of any particular game situations and what their response was (e.g. 10 points down with a few minutes to play, they went to full court press)
Listen and see if you can hear what any plays are called
Be a “fan” – simply observing and analysing the game
When scouting you must consider first, what is the team doing? Secondly, what impact it may have upon your team? An example scouting form:
For us to consider?
aggressive or passive?
pressure on the ball?
get to the “split line”?
rotate to “help the helper”?
double team post players?
deny passing lanes
release early to trigger fast break
guard ball screens (switch, double, through, over or push)
guard off ball screens (switch, through, under or over)
do they deny foul line area
do they deny short corner
are they easily screened
pick up point
trigger (free throw, time-out, score)
This table is designed so that the coach may “tick” the shaded box when they see a particular defensive strategy or can make a very short note (e.g. “1⁄2” may be written in the shaded box if the pick-up point of a press is half way).
In the final column the coach can write notes about what their team might do in response to that defensive tactic.
A similar table could be used for team offence, particularly taking into consideration:
- Fast Break – do they look to break? What triggers it?
- Half Court – what alignment? How well do they move the ball? Do they cut well?
- Offensive sets – do they play any particular set or action (e.g. ”Flex” or “Horns”). How do they signify what play to use (verbal or visual signs)?
- Tempo – are they a controlled team or do they prefer a quick tempo?
- Do they chase offensive rebounds – guards, forwards?
- Are they organized against a zone defence – do they look for inside shots or outside shots?
- What screens do they use? Do they “screen the screener”?
In relation to individual players, the coach may note:
- Which is their preferred hand? •Are they a “shooter” or a “driver”? •Do they look to pass?
- Which direction do they prefer to drive (often a right hand player may prefer to drive to their left)
- Do they “block out” in defensive rebounding situations? Do they chase offensive rebounds?
- Are they a screener or do they receive screens?
- Do post players turn to their left or right or face the basket?
Deciding What Your Team Will Do
After watching the opponent play, the coach may have some initial thoughts on match-ups or particular principles of play (e.g. playing zone defence or looking to isolate a particular “match up” in offence”).
The level of sophistication that the coach can use will depend upon the experience and skill level of their team. For example, the coach may have observed that their upcoming opponent did not play well against a zone defence. However, if their own team has not practiced a zone defence that may not be a strategy that they can use.
The coach’s game plan should draw upon what they have been working on with their team. It may also prompt the coach to introduce some principles of play that they were not going to do until later (e.g. if an opponent plays a pressing full court defence, the coach may need to cover team strategies to “break the press”).
Preparing the Scout
In a league situation, a coach will generally have some time to prepare and present their “scout” to the team – to be most effective it is recommended that the scout focus not on the opponent but on what the team will do.
The coach should resist the temptation to tell everything they know about the opposition (as this may overwhelm some players) but instead, need to present as little information as possible.
The Scout can be presented in a number of different ways, and the coach should be conscious of the different learning styles that their players may have.
Presenting the Scout
With all information presented, the coach must be careful not to scare their team, even where the coach may believe that their team is unlikely to win the game. In this situation, identifying some key objectives (other than the final score) can be beneficial.
For example, the coach may set targets for rebounds, forcing turnovers or other elements of the game. Indeed, setting a goal such as to be within 4 points of the opposition every 5 minutes, can be a good focus. In the game it will enable the coach to “reset” every 5 minutes, irrespective of the overall game situation.
If a goal of being “within 4 points” every 5 minutes was achieved, the team may still lose by 30 points, however they will be able to gain confidence from achieving the goal.
The coach may prepare notes for their players about the upcoming game which can include information about the opposition or particular players and must include what their own team will do (including any match-ups that the coach may prefer). The level of information included will depend upon the experience of the team – the more experienced the team, the more information they may want.
The coach may work through the report at a pre-practice meeting, but should not simply read the document – the players can read it themselves. The coach should give some key information and then hand out the report, which substantiates those key points.
The coach may have been able to obtain video footage of the opponent and may wish to show some of the tendencies that the opponent has (either as a team or particular individuals). In preparing this footage the coach should make sure that they don’t make the opponent seem better.
With experienced athletes they may even prefer to watch the game (either on video or live) or part of the game themselves. If doing this, the coach should then arrange a time to have the athletes talk about what they observed (this can even be done at half time of the game). In this discussion, the coach can make sure that any points that they observed are also included, but should let the athletes do most of the talking.
With junior athletes though, the more effective video may be of their own team, showing examples of where the team has performed the concepts that will be required against this opponent. Such a video should have a balance between successful examples and those where execution was poor.
Video sessions should be kept short and may be more effective with small groups rather than the whole team. Even then, 7-10 minutes would be the extent of concentration of most players.
The coach may simply talk to the team about the scout, perhaps using a whiteboard to show any particular principles of play. Again, this should be kept short and its focus must ultimately be on what the team is going to do, not on their opponent.
At practice, the coach can use activities to practice the particular tactics that they want to employ against the opponent. In doing this, it is obviously necessary for the team to also play like their opponent is likely to. However, rather than spending time teaching “this is what our opponent will do”, the coach should present that activity based upon “this is what we will do”.
A “walk through” session is most effective if it is reinforcing concepts that the team has previously practiced. Introducing a new concept during a walk through is unlikely to be effective, particularly with junior athletes.
Scouting Your Own Team
It can be useful for a coach to “scout” their own team or have a colleague do it as this can provide useful information on the progress the team is making toward their overall objectives.
If the coach has an assistant coach, it can also be useful to arrange a practice game and let the assistant coach take the team while the coach observes from the spectator seating. This can provide an opportunity to give feedback to the assistant coach, which can be good for their development. It may also be that the assistant coach will make some different decisions that the coach would, which may allow the coach
to observe players or the team in a different situation.
If getting videos of your own team, the coach should ask whoever takes the video, not to make comments during the game (which the video often also records). In replaying the video to the team, the coach should always turn the sound off, just in case there are comments heard on the video that may be upsetting to a player.