Coaching a pro women’s team: Rookie mistakes

Published by Full, May 5, 2003

After reflecting on my experience in Sweden, I learned a great deal about coaching and people, and I am more confident in my ability to coach and more energized for another opportunity to coach somewhere. The year was far from perfect, and I made plenty of mistakes, but I will learn from these mistakes and be better for it.

1. Assistant Coach.

From Day 1, I did not click with the assistant coach, my predecessor. Having an assistant handed to you is a difficult situation, and there needs to be discussions about responsibilities and expectations. Because I am a take-charge person, and never waited for a head coach to tell me what to do, I was unfamiliar with setting down guidelines for an assistant, and he never approached me. Also, I felt uneasy telling him what to do, as I was a 25 year old rookie coach and he was a 35 year old veteran coach who gave the impression that the Ladies were “his team.” At the beginning of the year, I tried to incorporate him into practice, but he did what he had always done. I was hired to change the approach, the attitude and the practices; he faded to the side, unwilling to adapt to the changes and constantly looking on with a disapproving glare. Anytime I coached the posts, the guards complained and vice versa. I should have done more to improve the situation, but my hands were tied. If I had my choice, he never would have been my assistant, but I should have given him more explicit expectations in an attempt to improve an awkward situation.

2. Player Expectations

In retrospect, every problem throughout the year started during the first week. I had my first practice four hours after stepping off the plane, which was less than ideal. Beyond that, I was unsure how to approach “professional” basketball. I tried contacting the Sacramento Monarchs before leaving to  view a professional practice, but they were unwilling to allow me into their secretive, closed practices. I went in blind, moving from an assistant junior college coach to running a professional team. I was there to make changes and do things my way, but I did not want to overwhelm the players. I had to adapt to FIBA basketball, which is different. It was evident from the first practice what they expected, and it failed to meet my expectations.

Instead of putting down my foot from the first practice, I tried to ease into the transition, which was a mistake. They were used to constant water breaks and 30 minutes of warm-up drills (three-man weave and others) before stretching; they barely practiced for 45 minutes after all of the warm-up time. Because of the language adjustments on both parties, I was not as demanding initially, allowing for some slippage due to misunderstandings. This slippage and slow transition made it harder to change as the season progressed; the small changes were what they came to anticipate, and anything more was over the top. I should have observed a practice or two before starting myself, and then laid down the rules and the changes from my first practice; a complete change of house.

As I tried to run more disciplined and demanding practices, I felt resistance from some players who were very comfortable with the way things had been done. Most players welcomed the changes, but certainly not everyone; I should have laid the foundation on the first day and explained the demands explicitly so there would be no questions as the season progressed and the demands increased.

3. Special Situations

One area I ignored too greatly was special situations; out of bounds plays, end-game situations, press breaks and zone defenses. I am a somewhat conservative coach; George Halas said: “In any game, you do the things you do best, and you do them over and over and over.” I believe in this philosophy, and it affected the team’s preparation. I do not really believe in zone defense; I think we played about 35 minutes of zone all year. I prefer to play man and learn to play it better and better, as opposed to experimenting and changing defenses all the time, but there came a point in the season where I wished that I had more confidence in our zone defense because we just did not match-up well with a few teams. I made the mistake of believing too strongly in one way of thinking, and should have been prepared to use different defenses toward the end of the year.

Also, out of bounds’ plays seem superfluous to me; we had 2-3 plays underneath and one on the side, and we frequently scored on the underneath out of bounds. We should have practiced these situations more, especially the sideline out of bounds. We never took advantage of the scoring opportunities on the sideline out of bounds, which was much more prevalent than underneath out of bounds, and the lack of a go-to play almost cost us our biggest win of the season when we failed to convert in the waning seconds (luckily, we won in overtime).

I should have spent more time going over end-game situations, especially early in the season. We played well in close games, but we never should have lost the third game, and it was because we were unprepared. Once our point guard fouled out, we lost our composure and the lead; it was a lack of preparation for the other players that cost us that game. In retrospect, I would have run a number of short, situation games before the season started in order to prepare the team for those situations. With better preparation, we probably would have won one to two more games and finished tied for third instead of fifth.

4. Scrimmage Time

I treated the season too much like individual workouts and not enough like a team preparing to win. From the beginning, I was astonished by the lack of individual moves and ball handling ability, and we spent a great deal of time on those areas. We needed to scrimmage more; especially in the long breaks between games due to the 5-month, 18-game schedule. I think some of our scoring difficulties would have been alleviated if we spent more time playing 5v5 without much coaching; forcing the players to play on their own and make their own adjustments. I think our overall conditioning was pretty good, but more game-like scrimmages may have increased the team’s game-fitness through the course of the season.

5. Personality Issues

This was a holdover from the previous year, but I should have ended the on-going problems. The team was a curious mix, with an age range from 18 to 40 years old; players with kids and jobs and students; veterans of 8-15 years with the Ladies and rookies new to the island. The young players never felt respected by the older players, and the older players had issues with each other: most problems were off the court, but they festered and affected the team. I talked to the captain frequently about the issues, and she thought there was nothing that could be done, and I listened to her and let things go, as long as I did not see anything. I did not try and solve problems that I heard about through third parties. Along with setting down the rules from the first practice, I should have ended any discord amongst the players as soon as I was aware of it. I gave the players respect, because they are adults, but should have been more hands on when dealing with personality issues.

On the same issue, I could have communicated better with two players. I had a good relationship with most players; however, there were two players who left quickly or came late because of work and neither attended optional team functions. I never got to know them or talk to them off the court. Apparently, this hurt one of her feelings, as she felt I favored other players.

I did not feel the need to be friends off the court, and tried to avoid it, but because of being alone far from home, I ended up developing friendships with players, especially my star who I assisted with her youth teams. I invited the team over to watch movies on several occasions and became friends with the five players who attended; these players happened to be three of the youngest players because they were single and unemployed/students, and they did not have boyfriends/husbands and kids and jobs.

These younger players had never been given a chance before, and when they started to play, another player (and her supporters, including my trusty assistant), blamed my friendship with the players (it had nothing to do with the player who missed 2 games and 30 practices due to illness, stress, dog problems, work and other excuses). To avoid any problems, I should have communicated better with the two players who were not as involved with the team.

6. Strengths

I learned to stick to my strengths. When I arrived, I looked at the team and developed an opinion on the best method of play, which was different from what I prefer to coach. I like up-tempo offense and a man-to-man trapping defense. We were slow, small and did not have any players who could create their own shot. We slowed the tempo, relied on good man-to-man defense and ran a number of structured sets.

The changes were successful, but I think I was too quick to get away from what I coach best. Flexibility is important; as I have heard many coaches say in preparation for the NCAA Tournament, so is “sticking with the date you brought to the dance” or “staying with the system that got you where you are.” I think we could have implemented some of the pressing defense and a little more up-tempo offense, which would have helped when teams scouted us and our offense stagnated in some of the late season games. I realized this in February, and we were working toward it as a goal for the post-season, but I never made it that far.


By Brian McCormick, PhD
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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