Plays, Coaching, and the Copycat Syndrome

As the season winds down, and we move into April, coaching clinic season is here. Every spring, coaches spend a lot of money to listen to elite coaches offer a few tidbits of real knowledge. The coaches in the audience scribble down every word, play, and drill; if it is good enough for a famous elite coach, it is good enough for them.

With the Internet, this plays out almost every day. This week, a friend tweeted this article about one of the Boston Celtics sets (above). It’s a nice wrinkle, although not unlike a set that the New Orleans Pelicans run. I admit that I sent the article to a college coach who has personnel who could use some of the ideas, and who relies on a lot of ball screens to create offense.

The next day, I saw posts on the Internet directed towards coaches and demonstrating the “unstoppable new set”. This is the same behavior that occurs at coaching clinics.

Several years ago, a friend described his experience at a coaching clinic. Billy Donovan, I believe, was the speaker. He said that every coach wrote down every word that Donovan said. They copied down drill after drill and play after play. Of course, none of them had personnel remotely as talented as Donovan’s. That does not mean that the drills and plays will not work; however, there has to be some critical thinking involved. Copying something because it works for someone else is a poor approach to coaching, training, and almost anything else.

When I attend a coaching clinic, I tend not to write down very much. I think about what the coach is saying or demonstrating, and how it relates to me and my situation. The presenter may demonstrate something, and it might trigger a slightly different idea that I write down and try out. I may copy down a drill or set that I like and tweak it later to fit my personnel. Regardless, I am actively thinking rather than blindly copying.

When someone copies another person, they lack the understanding. When I attend practices, and I see a drill that I do not understand or feel has little purpose, I may ask the coach about it. Often, the answer is that Elite Coach Y does it. Sure, okay, but why? The response is often, I don’t know, but I saw him do it, and I liked it. Is that a good reason to do something? The drill may have been great and purposeful for the original coach, but for the copycat, it is purposeless; the copycat is acting as a coach rather than coaching.

By all means, every coach copies stuff from other coaches. However, the successful coaches borrow and steal and make the stuff their own. The less successful simply copy stuff without the understanding and play a role as a coach. Beg, borrow, and steal, but think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it. If it does not have a purpose for your team or situation, I don’t care who the elite coach was, it’s not worth doing.

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

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