The Blame Game: Coaching and Players

On Slam, Clay Kallam wrote about C. Vivian Stringer and the struggles of the Rutgers University’s Women’s Basketball team this season. While I do not follow Rutgers closely, I have followed the stories because of two popular and well-publicized Southern California players, Jasmine Dixon (now at UCLA) and Nikki Speed.

Kallam criticizes Stringer (and by extension other coaches as well) for several things:

  1. Lack of offensive development.
  2. Over-training
  3. Lack of fun.

Recently, Stringer called out Speed for her play, questioning her decision-making:

“You don’t pass the ball and just move it around the outside,” Stringer said. “You (penetrate), you get into the gaps and you find people … and deliver the pass that they need. That’s what point guards do.”

This is nothing new for Stringer. Last year, she publicly called out Kia Vaughn and suggested that she needed a sports psychologist because she fumbled some passes.

While Kallam points out three valid concerns, I see a major issue which faces all coaches: communication and instruction. From the comments, Speed seems like a shell of her former self:

“They ask why I’m not as aggressive,” Speed said of the questions posed by those who know her game best. “My father has told me that to be passive can also be seen as a way of being selfish. Right now, I have no idea how to answer that. I’m just trying to get comfortable, and at the same time I’m trying to please Coach Stringer. But I think that’s hurting our team.”

In Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 4.9, I write about the two types of perfectionism: maladaptive and adaptive. Being scared to make a mistake and worrying about pleasing the coach is an example of maladaptive perfectionism, and this hurts one’s performance, as is clearly evident in Speed’s play.

Speed did not forget how to play basketball when she matriculated to Rutgers. She was, after all, a McDonald’s All-American and part of the #1 ranked recruiting class in the country. However, there is a breakdown in communication between Stringer and Speed, as Speed appears lost and without confidence after nearly two years under Stringer’s tutelage.

On different web sites, forum posters have suggested that Speed’s inability to handle Stringer’s coaching style is an indictment of Speed as a player and the club system that developed her skills through her formative years. More than one poster has pointed to Stringer’s 800 wins as evidence of her superlative coaching while suggesting that today’s players are soft.

I disagree. I see many coaches (not Stringer specifically) who ask more and more of their players, but do not demand the same development from themselves. I see coaches who ask players to change their style of play or change their learning styles, but they fail to examine their own coaching style.

Speed is not the only formerly top-ranked player struggling at Rutgers and two players from the heralded recruiting class have transferred. Is it Speed’s lack of toughness and maturity or is there a deeper problem that stems from the coach and effects all the players?

I am not there every day, so I am just inferring based on comments and the part of the story that has been reported and discussed frequently. However, I see similar situations on smaller levels at the high school and college levels.

As Kallam writes:

There are a lot of justified criticisms of the way girls’ basketball players are developed, but one positive that comes from the emphasis on tournaments and games is young players are exposed to a lot more athleticism at a younger age than ever before. That means they learn, at an earlier age, how to deal with pressure, what kinds of ballhandling skills they need to have to overcome an athletic defender, and getting through a doubleteam is much more mental than physical.

As an extension, players have been exposed to more coaches and trainers. They have more opinions about coaching styles because they have seen many different approaches. While players may or may not be more intelligent on the court in decisive moments, they have deeper experiences than many of a previous generation. When their coach fails to evolve or make adjustments, many players lose respect for their coach.

Adults are quick to blame problems on this generation of spoiled, lazy children, but that is such a lazy response. If a coach has a trying year or struggles to reach a player (and not every player responds the same way to every coach, which is why players need to do more research before choosing a team), we blame the players for whatever we perceive they are lacking.

However, what about a critical introspection? Has the coach adjusted his or her style to meet the learning style of her players? Has he or she precisely communicated his or her goals to the players? Has the coach set high expectations and held the players’ accountable? Is the coach instructing the skills or just criticizing a lack of skills?

Last year, I responded to Stringer’s outburst. She criticized Kadijah Rushdan, saying:

“(When) things get anxious, she’s going to shoot it or she’s going to just turn it over. So it teaches me to not put her in a crucial situation. It’s not going to happen.”

I responded:

Rather than punishing her, why not examine the mistakes? I have never watched Rushdan play, but can infer several things from Stringer’s comment:

  1. Rushdan lacks confidence with the ball in her hands.
  2. Her lack of confidence in her technical ability narrows her vision.
  3. When she feels pressure, she takes the first available option rather than having the confidence to search for the best option.

What is the answer? Well, it is not bashing the player in the media. Her problem is confidence: how is questioning her publicly going to make her a more confident player?

She likely needs a better understanding of her role and her team’s offensive philosophy, and she needs to develop her technical skills under pressure so the pressure does not affect her during games, and she can maintain a broad-external attention and see the whole court and make the best decision.

By giving her opportunities to develop her ball handling (1v2 drill,for instance) and passing under presure (drills like Volleyball Passing2v2 Gael Passing and others from Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development), her confidence with the ball should improve.

If not, maybe she plays with a fear of failure because she gets taken out of the game every time she makes a mistake. Or, maybe she is not aggressive with her pivot foot and cannot withstand pressure to keep her head up and see the floor. These are common problems, which coaches need to address through practice, and the actual problem dictates the response. However, bashing an unconfident player publicly is not going to increase her confidence and motivate the player to improve.

I see this with a player that I know. Her coach blames every loss and every mistake on her even though she is the best player in the conference and significantly better than her teammates. The coach thinks that because the player is a physically talented player that she can handle the harsh criticism. However, the criticism is unfair and leaves the player questioning her talent. When she questions herself, she underperforms, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy with more mistakes leading to worse performance and results.

The player does not need punishment or more harsh words. She needs to have her confidence re-stored so she can perform optimally. She needs to feel that her coach trusts her to make plays. In a word, she needs her coach to communicate with her rather than yelling at her.

It is so easy to blame the players. However, players generally want to improve and play better. Nobody intentionally plays poorly. Nobody intentionally misses shots or throws the ball out of bounds.

These players need more instruction so they can meet their coaches’ high expectations and they need better communication from their coaches to inspire their efforts rather than hindering their confidence.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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