Coaching a European Club – Week 3

Bad week. On Monday, our hardest worker tore his Achilles tendon in the middle of practice. With his loss, our bench is substantially smaller. We have now lost four of the team’s top seven players from last season, and added only two new players plus youth players. The team only played six players consistently last season, so the youth players are basically rookies. The player who was injured also filled a number of gaps, as he could serve as a starting SG or a back-up PG, as he is our second best ball handler. Now, all of our back-up guards are 18 or younger. 

The week focused a great deal on our defensive systems in preparation of three games on the weekend. We have a couple different defenses, and getting everyone on the same page can be difficult. Counting myself, we have players who speak at least four different languages as their first language. I don’t speak the language here, and a couple players speak little to no English. Trying to instruct during a possession is impossible when there is the language barrier, so I have to allow possessions to happen, and mistakes to occur, and then try to explain where he should have been.

Last week, I wrote about observing as coaching. One of the other benefits that I did not mention was giving space for players to teach each other. Early in the season, I had a talk with my American player at the end of a practice. He was frustrated because his team lost all of the scrimmages, and he had to run. He was blaming the young guys who made what we would consider to be dumb mistakes. I told him that he had two choices: He could spend the season blaming them for mistakes and using them as an excuse or he could help them get better.

Since the talk, I have noticed a difference. I don’t know if it was the talk, as there were some other things going on in his life that could have contributed to his crankiness at that practice, and it was in our first week, so I did not know his personality. I think he also has realized that I give space or time for him to say things to players, and I have no problem with him helping with the coaching.

When I am observing, and allowing them to play, he (and one or two other veteran players) sometimes fills the void. He will instruct. Some coaches do not like this – they want to be the singular voice. However, to me, this is an important part of the learning and coaching process.

As a coach, I trust that players will sometimes see things differently (better) than I will on the sideline. There is a different feel sometimes when you are playing versus when you are sitting on the sideline and watching. I also know that there are times during a game when I cannot fix things on the sideline. To me, it is important for players to be able to help each other and solve problems without me. I don’t view this as them making me obsolete – I view this as me doing my job. If my players can instruct each other, than we have an environment that is conducive to learning, and we have players who have learned lessons well enough to become the teacher. And, as research has shown, teaching something further solidifies the learning in one’s memory.

Unfortunately, in our first three games, these lessons from practice did not really transfer. We traveled 8 hours to play our first game due to road delays, and the game was not close. We played a team in a higher league, so it was to be expected. We were out-manned: younger, smaller, less depth, less experience, etc. When my youngest player – a starter – did something well early in the game, the other coach yelled at his player: “He’s a youth player! Don’t let him do that to you.” With the all day traveling and the game and some other issues due to communication breakdowns, closed roads, a different language, and a reliance on GPS, it was a long day.

We played the first game the next morning, so we were in the van at 7 AM to find a bakery to get some food. We arrived over an hour before the game, so we were able to have a good, long warm-up. We took an early lead and never relinquished the lead, even with a starter fouling out. We ended the game with a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds on the court. We played pretty well, but our starters played too much, considering we played the night before and had another game in 2 hours. I decided in the middle of the game to go for the win and worry about the 2nd game later.

As it turned out, between the travel, poor diet, and lack of summer workouts, the starters were spent for the 3rd game. We made some horrendous mistakes to start the game — first 4 baskets for them were on offensive rebounds and our first 4 possessions were turnovers on stupid plays — and yet we still managed to have a chance to cut the lead to 10 on the last possession of the quarter, only to shoot too early and allow them to score to go down 15. By the middle of the 3rd quarter, my top two players were physically done; the 4th quarter was essentially an u20 game, minus our best u18 player, against a team from a higher division in a better league. Needless to say, it was ugly.

The trip showed me a lot about the players in terms of their lifestyle choices and led to a long discussion about the 24-hour athlete. Hopefully we will be better for the experience, and we can make some changes to our approach that will have an effect on our performance and practice habits.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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