Creating a coach training program

The basketball program founded and directed by a friend in Accra, Ghana is growing, and he emailed and asked for advice on devising a program to train new coaches. Previously, he has coached all of the teams in his club, but with the growth, he needs to develop more coaches, especially as he takes on other projects to grow the game in the country.

My advice was not great. I believe that there are two major factors in one’s coaching: one’s personality and one’s experience. Reading books, listening to lectures, and attending clinics can help with growth and improvement, but they cannot replace the experience of actual coaching.

When aspiring coaches email and ask for advice, I tell them to coach. The level does not matter. Coach young children, camps, AAU. Just as players need to engage in hours of practice, coaches need to practice their coaching. Players practice on their own or at practice before playing games. For coaches, the practice is the game; it is real. One cannot teach a gym of dolls or robots as practice; one must coach to gain experience. Camps are great learning experiences for coaches because nobody cares if you make a mistake. At many camps, players are placed on teams and assigned a coach, and it’s like a mini-season in a week. Coaches gain experience doing coaching things: Substituting, putting in an offense, pregame talks, postgame talks, etc. It gets coaches comfortable with their voice in front of a team.

Being an assistant coach can help with some aspects of learning to coach, but not others. Being an assistant gives you some perspective and experience from which to draw. One can learn things to do and not to do. However, one of the key learning experiences for coaches is to find his or her own voice and develop his or her own philosophy and ideas. Once cannot necessarily do these things as an assistant because an assistant must follow the head coach.

A coach’s voice and philosophy draw from his or her personality. Some coaches are yellers; some are quiet. Some are animated; others are reserved. Some are dominating and domineering; others are empowering and more democratic. There is not one style of coaching that works in every situation with every player.

One’s personality is fairly stable. A very engaging, enthusiastic person will tend to coach in the same manner. A very reserved, quite person will tend to coach in the same manner. Part of being a good coach is being a good person: When I asked my class about the characteristics of great coaches, they responded with qualities such as passion, commitment, respect, honest, caring, inspiring, patient, hard-working, and disciplined. These are qualities that reach beyond one’s occupation or hobby; they describe the person.

In terms of a training program, I don’t know how to teach an adult to be honest or caring. In many cases, those drawn to coaching possess these qualities or they would choose another occupation or hobby. Few people coach without having a passion for coaching, a passion for the sport, and/or a passion for children. In that respect, those who lack some or all of these qualities tend to self-select other ways to use their time.

Because I believe in experience and personality, I did not have a thorough answer for my friend. Instead, I advised him to have them start as an apprentice and learn from him. As they learn, he can give them some responsibility, such as running one drill at practice or scouting one future opposition. As they prove they can handle small bits of responsibility, he can give them more responsibilities and allow them to grow until they can run a full practice on their own with the head coach observing and offering feedback after the practice. Once they are comfortable running a practice, he can give them a team of their own.

The technical stuff is easy enough to learn. However, the skillful coach has an eye for the game and sees the mistakes and the cause of mistakes and has the creativity and experience to devise solutions to help the player/team correct the mistakes. This is the hard part to learn. I have a toolbox of drills that I use, and I tweak, add, subtract as needed based on the individuals. My toolbox is based on my experiences and my philosophy, but it will not be the same for another coach. I cannot simply transfer my toolbox to another coach. The coach has to learn and create his or her own toolbox based on background, mistakes, philosophy, and other learning experiences.

Beyond mentoring the coaches through an apprenticeship and offering avenues to gain experience, I did not provide extensive, specific advice, and I promised to write about his question in the hope that other coaches may provide some better answers.

Once a coach has some experience, it is easier to help the coach, as he or she knows what he or she wants to learn. For instance, after a couple years of coaching and training players, I realized that I wanted a better foundation of training and movement, which prompted my pursuit of my Master’s degree and strength training certifications. As I trained more players, and saw the varying degrees of effect from my training, I wanted to learn more about learning and the way that a coach effects learning, which ultimately led to The 21st Century Basketball Practice. When I initially started to coach, I never entertained these thoughts. I coached, struggled, learned from experience, and eventually sought other’s experiences, research, and more experience.

These are certainly subjects (biomechanics, motor learning, sports psychology, sports pedagogy, etc.) that an aspiring coach can study to increase his or her knowledge base, but the knowledge is only one aspect of coaching. Coaching is also about presentation, much like giving a speech, acting, or delivering any type of performance on stage. Experienced coaches learn to perform better by changing their voices, using different inflections, using body language, using touch, etc. These areas of coaching are difficult to learn through a book or a class; one needs to coach and observe player reactions. An aspiring coach needs to struggle and find solutions. Just as I believe that players learn best when they find the answers, rather than being told what to do, a coach learns best when he or she finds the answers rather than being told what to do.

Of course, my beliefs are based on my experiences and my biases. Other coaches with different experiences hopefully have other ideas that they can share in the comments in an effort to assist my friend in Ghana build the game.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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