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You always have a big problem if you don’t know what your players think

It took us a while to prepare this blog entry but I know many of you were interested to read the details of my seminar for the football coaches. Here I would like to express appreciation to Russian Football Union for inviting me and providing me the chance to talk to the colleagues who are already successful in their sport. It was an honor and a pleasure for me. Hopefully they also found something really helpful for their future work. I would also like to thank the RFU for allowing me to publish this text in the blog.

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First of all, I’m here to tell you how I see my work in my sport. And I perfectly realize there are a lot of differences between basketball and football. By no means am I here to tell you how to do your job. The purpose of this presentation is to express my beliefs about coaching, and also to tell you what my doubts are.

There are three major differences between football and basketball. I can say their existence makes my job easier as compared to yours. First of all, in my sport everybody does everything. Every basketball player plays both offence and defense. Everybody has to score. And in football, it’s possible for a player not to touch the ball for 15 minutes. There are football players who may not even cross half court for the entire game. Sometimes, a football goalkeeper only has to make one play over the course of the match, and that single save or blunder may well decide the outcome. Back in the day, there used to be guys in football who wouldn’t run at all, wouldn’t get back on defense. But they scored goals and everybody just loved them. And I imagine that was quite problematic for coaches.

In basketball, on a good team which has true leaders on the roster, if a player scores 20 but his man lights him up for 25, that player is going to get killed by the teammates in the locker room. So the conclusion is that the very nature of basketball makes my job easier.

Another major difference is, I can take a player out and then I can take him back into the game. And it’s not possible in football. I think in football players hate to get substituted.

The third difference is that in basketball you either win or lose, there are no ties. This fact puts enormous pressure on players and coaches. You can never get a 50/50 satisfaction from a game. If it’s not a success, it’s a failure.

The things I mentioned, to my opinion, make my job easier than yours. Especially in terms of relationships with players and relationships between players. All players are different. On the same team you can have 18-year olds and 35-year olds. You can have very rich players and normal players. You can have family guys and players with hordes of girls around them, etc. There are a lot of differences.

That’s why the first thing we have to realize is that our players do not think in terms of team and team success. All of them first and foremost think about themselves. “I” always comes before “we”. And we can not expect them to be any different because this is normal. Professor Maslow introduced his ladder of personal needs long ago – first of all you need to eat, to drink, to sleep, then need to be liked by other people, etc. Players are no different here. They want to have better contracts, longer careers, those coming off injuries want to show they can still play, youngsters want to leapfrog veterans, older players want to secure their playing time. They all want to get public recognition, to see that people like them. And as long as a player understands that reaching team goals is going to help him reach his personal goals, he’ll be invested into the team’s success. But as soon as he gets a feeling that his personal position is in trouble, he’ll immediately start protecting himself at the expense of everything else.

Several years ago they made a research in Italy that showed that football teams which started the season poorly and then couldn’t get back on track tended to have many players on loan. And that can be easily explained. There was just no sense of belonging to the organization. If I’m not from here and this team is playing badly, naturally I’ll only care about playing well myself. I’m not trying to destroy the team – by no means! It’s just if the team isn’t doing all that well, personally I start thinking about my own position. Like, if I help that guy on defense, will anybody help me? Before I make that step to help, I have to take some extra time to look around and make sure there’s somebody to cover for me. And if I’m not sure what a teammate will do with the ball, I’ll naturally hesitate before passing it to him. Things like that kill teams.

I truly believe that players need to see a clear connection between team success and their individual goals. If they don’t, they’ll immediately start acting like a bunch of individuals.

That’s an important thing for a coach to remember. And it’s just natural, it doesn’t mean the player has bad character. When things go downhill, nobody wants to take the responsibility.

There are reasons behind players not willing to share the ball. And one of my duties is to find out what they really are. It’s way too easy to just say “He doesn’t want to pass because he’s a moron”. Before you put a “selfish” label on a player and cut him from the team you have to understand the reasons of his behavior.

When I was younger I was taught that as a coach you have to develop a coaching philosophy and a coaching method. Philosophy here means understanding what I can teach to my players and what I can’t. When I started coaching, the only opportunity to learn was by observing older, more experienced coaches. There were no videos, no DVDs, no clinics, nothing. You were lucky to stumble upon a relevant book from time to time. Today you just open your browser – and here it is, all the info you can digest.

So, what makes difference today is knowing how to choose and filter the information. It’s really important to understand what part of our knowledge we can transfer to the players. In theory, I know a lot about my sport. The question is, how much of that knowledge can be absorbed by my current players? How many defensive and offensive schemes can they learn and use effectively? Every group of players is unique in that sense, and I have to figure out exactly how much of my knowledge I can transfer to them.

Secondly, I have to ask myself and decide what kind of coach I want to be. Am I going to improve my players or just find the best ways to use what they already know and can do? And the players – do they want to improve or do they just want their skills to be utilized effectively? Because sometimes players, especially veterans, are afraid to change. They know a few things and feel comfortable just doing them. They don’t want to explore new territories.

20 years ago I coached the National Team of Italy. Prior to that, I had been working with young players for a long time, so I tried to establish individual practices for the NT players every morning. That seemed like a good idea because I believed that helping players improve was part of my job. But in the end of the day, one of my best players approached me and said “Coach, I see what you’re doing. You want me to learn how to operate on the left side of the court. You want me to use my left hand more. It’s wrong though. I’m at my best on the right side dribbling, shooting and passing with my right hand. And your job as a coach is to ensure my skills are used properly.” That was a problem right there. I thought I was helping him, and he clearly thought the other way. Just to emphasize – you always have a big problem if you don’t know what your players think.

In any business, there are three types of managers – managers who use resources and don’t get the results, managers who use all the resources, exhaust people but get the results, and finally that small group of managers who multiply resources, get the results and ensure that the organization thrives even after they leave it.

Same goes for our profession. For some of us, our clubs just crash after we leave. This is not an opinion, it’s a fact. There are numerous examples in football. Then you have situations with certain coaches where their teams tend to continue to be successful for 1-2 years after their departures no matter what.

There’s dignity to both approaches. But one has to decide what kind of coach he wants to be. Does he intend to improve his resources or just use them? It’s important to make it clear for the club and for the players what kind of coach you’re going to be for them.

Another philosophy-related idea is that I believe that our job resembles that of a tailor. Unless you have a rare opportunity to handpick players that suit your philosophy without restrictions, you have to adjust the philosophy to fit the set of players you have. Quite often in the market you can find quality players but not necessarily those fitting your system. In that case you have to adjust because if you force players, try to “squeeze” them into the system, they’ll start playing below their capabilities. In basketball, you can play many different styles – uptempo, slowing it down, using screens, cuts, etc. Normally, it takes me a minimum of 2-3 months to fully understand how to adjust my general ideas to a certain roster.

As for the teaching methods, we tell our players to try, to make mistakes and to learn from them. This is the easiest way to teach. All of us can do it. That’s the methodology of try and error. The most basic way of learning – you see something new, you try it, you make mistakes, learn from them and gradually become better at what you’re doing. I just need to have a clear idea of how I’ll recreate the difficulties and challenges for my players.

Like, if ask my 8-year-old son to reach the top of the stairs jumping over 4 steps, he’ll try a couple of times, fail, realize he can’t do it and then lose interest in the task. If I ask him to reach the top hitting each step, he’ll do it easily and won’t learn or improve anything. Too difficult means losing interest, too easy means waste of time. In order to teach my son something I have to use my imagination every day, creating situations and tasks that pose challenges but at the same time can be realistically overcome.

To keep interest and attention of both my son and my players, every day I have to come up with reasonable challenges for them. And this in turn is the biggest challenge for me as a coach.

Also, I have to find 2-3 players on my team who’ll help me to challenge other players. And if I ask players to learn by making mistakes, I have to help them establish right attitude towards those errors – the attitude of healthy tolerance. That’s the part I know in theory but struggle with in real life. I have to confess I don’t always have enough patience.

There are two kinds of mistakes – mental and technical ones. You can’t treat them and react to them in the same way. Most of the time technical mistakes happen because I do not control the techniques. A player will miss a shot because his elbow is a little bit outside. And he won’t correct this just because I yell at him a lot. Technical mistakes require much more patience.

Mental mistakes usually happen because you’re too superficial. Like if you have the ball and you’re looking at the offense instead of looking at the defense. I think it’s the same if football – if you have the ball and look at the defender, you’ll get a much better chance to anticipate who of your teammates will get open and where. But if instead you look at the offensive movement, you’ll likely commit a mistake because the player you spot in a good position will probably get covered within a couple of seconds. Most mental mistakes happen because you don’t pay enough attention, you’re superficial. Here in my opinion as a coach you have to react differently. You should be really hard on players who commit mental mistakes.

Our job is to help players do things that are theoretically impossible. We transform thinking into instincts. We want our players to read situations and react so quickly that at some point they would just act without losing even a split second. This is what happened to Arrigo Sacchi when he first came to AC Milan. He wanted to change the momentum and the system to zone. It took players about six months to start thinking quickly within the new system. Over that initial six-month period even great players like Maldini and Baresi were thinking and reacting so slowly they resembled robots. But then they started thinking and reacting so fast it seemed as if they were playing by instincts alone.

Same thing happens in basketball. For the first couple of months your players receive the ball, think, and only then do something. Everything is achieved through mistakes, that’s why I’d like to reiterate how important it is to treat them in a healthy way. Take video sessions for example. Some players feel that you put the video in front of them to kill them for their mistakes. So at the video sessions they behave like kids in the locker room. You know, when little kids return to their lockers after practice, some of them don’t shower at all because they’re just shy, some take shower in their underwear and some feel no pressure at all and shower naked like true men. What I’m trying to point at is there are different levels of shame to whatever you do in life. Sometimes in front of the video players can’t even accept the fact they’ve made mistakes. There are those who always try to persuade everybody that they’re right and you’re wrong. Reactions to mistakes vary and it’s vital to find that healthy attitude towards them.

Again, I’m not saying I know exactly how to do it. Sometimes I overreact, scream, yell, use video as punishment, etc. But establishing that healthy approach is something I pursue in my career. Because essentially, big part of a coach’s job is finding mistakes, coming up with solutions and correcting those errors. The team that does it quicker usually wins. And for the record, I don’t think yelling and screaming are all that bad – but only as long as you still find time to find a solution and correct your team’s mistakes.

Wrapping up the topic of coaching methods, you really need to find out what the pillars of your teaching are. For me, the two pillars are timing and spacing.

Spacing essentially means distances between players and distances between players and player with the ball. Maintaining good spacing is making sure you’re never allowing a single defender to control two offensive players. It’s similar in football, I believe. When you spread your players, put them into wide positions, it becomes more difficult for defense to control them.

Timing is a concept defining when exactly things happen on the court. You can play smoothly, like a spinning wheel, or you can play in ragged motion. To me, a game has a good flow if as soon as one action is ending, another one starts. Like, I’m an offensive player and I make a move to get open. If the move is solid, I’ll get an advantage over my defender and will be open for a split second. In order to maintain that advantage and be able to beat the defender while he’s still moving to me, it’s paramount that I receive the ball the very moment I finish my move. Which in turn means that when I’m getting open, the ball should already be in the air. But if my teammate waits a little longer before passing, by the time I receive the ball the defender will have already recovered and I’ll need to work hard to build some sort of advantage from scratch.

Again, it’s not unlike football. When I watch it I’m always impressed when a player passes the ball and then immediately makes a run to get it back. That’s the right timing – one action stops and another immediately begins. And bad timing is when an action is always followed by a second of no action.

Timing and spacing are the things I think about in the first place. Even in practice, that’s what I emphasize and try to correct all the time. Same thing during games, when I talk to the team in timeouts, I usually make corrections and suggestions in regard to timing and spacing. I say things like “We’re playing set #2 but Milos, don’t stay there, go to the other side to give Sonny more space to operate one-on-one”. Or defensively, I can tell them to anticipate a certain action so they’ll be in positions to stop it early.

Those were some points regarding my philosophy and methods. Now I’d like to talk about things I’m working on at the moment.

I think the issue of trust between players is extremely important. I’d even say it’s much more important than the trust between players and coaches. If players trust each other and act like a unit, the team will be in position to achieve its goals however mediocre its coach is. And even if you’re the Einstein of basketball coaching, you won’t be successful in case your players don’t trust one another.

At the start of the season when a new team assembles and players start going through drills, they waste no time evaluating each other. They do it for two reasons. First, they want to know the skills of their new teammates, understand who’s better and who’s worse to create a hierarchy within the team. Secondly, they want to get an idea whether the team will be able to compete and be successful with the guys around them. It can happen at a big club like CSKA. Everybody expects the team to win Euroleague but maybe after a couple of weeks of practices some of the players look around and say to themselves “Nah, with this roster we can’t do it”.

Here numerous problems may arise. Your best players might think “With that scum around us we have to score 30 ppg apiece for the team to win”. Or something like “We have to save energy during practices so that we’re not flat-out tired come game time”.

Ok, let’s say we’ve assembled a competent roster so at those early practices players are all like “Hmm, those guys can shoot!” or “Our PG is a great passer!” and so on. This recognition of each other’s skills and talents is what I call “technical trust”.

The next step would be transforming this technical trust into personal one. I mean, knowing that a guy can play is not enough for me to like playing with him. The transformation happens during actual games. Let’s say I know that this guy is a good passer. I’ll trust him, but only if he uses his skill to pass the ball to me. And vice versa – if he can pass but just won’t, I’ll hate him. And the better passer he is, the more I’ll hate him if he doesn’t get me the ball.

In fact, it’s like school. Let’s say I’m at a math exam but don’t know squat about math. The guy sitting next to me knows a ton. We have only two options here. I’ll love him if he tells me the right answers, or I’ll hate him if he doesn’t.

You also can’t forget that the trust between players is very fragile, it can disappear any moment. Outcomes of games, pressure, tension – all that can change a player’s opinion on his teammates. One of my important duties is to constantly check the level of that trust and take appropriate measures in case something goes wrong.

I try to enhance the trust between players in any possible way, both on the court and away from it. I put players who don’t like each other in the same hotel room for the away games. This way they’ll have to speak to each other, even it’ll only be to decide who gets to use the bathroom first. I put such players into one small team in practice. We often run drills for 2, 3, 4 and only then for 5 players, and I constantly rotate players inside those duos, trios, quartets and quintets to influence the dynamics between them.

Speaking of communication between players and coaches, I’d like to pinpoint two aspects. First of all, you have to learn to decide when to speak to your players privately and when to do it in front of the group. The first option is suitable when you want to talk about something that concerns that player and nobody else. Like, if you want to tell him that he should observe and read the defense before making a pass, you could do it privately because it doesn’t influence anybody but the player concerned.

But if the topic of the conversation affects wider range of people – do not hesitate to talk to a player in front of the team. For example, should I want to instruct my point guard to make more entry passes to the bigs, I’ll do it in their presence. That way I’m getting two benefits. Firstly, the increased chance that the PG won’t forget about the request as he’ll know that his frontcourt teammates will be expecting to get the ball from him. Secondly, the bigs themselves will be aware of the situation and prepared to receive the ball more often.

Speaking to players is like speaking to somebody in a language that’s foreign to that person. Let me joke with you for a second. When I start talking to Americans in English, or using however little Russian I can muster in a conversation with Russians, most often the person I talk to immediately starts speaking real fast. Like, spitting words out machine gun style. The reason is probably the excitement stemming from seeing a foreigner who speaks their language. Anyways, in such cases I have to ask that person to keep it slower so it’d be possible for me to understand what he’s saying.

The other extremity occurs when I start speaking English to somebody from Great Britain. As soon as a British person finds out I’m not a native speaker, he or she will start speaking agonizingly slow, thinking to help me understand better and thus making the conversation unbearable.

Then there are those precious few native speakers who’ll just adjust their speech to your level and make you feel comfortable. Talking to them, you stop being afraid of making mistakes, start feeling comfortable, and in no time you find yourself speaking the language better than you thought you could. Such people help you speak more and speak better.

Same thing with basketball teams. If I oversimplify my conversation style, start talking too slow – players will think I’m crazy and tune me out. If I talk to them faster than they can stomach and give them the amount of info they can’t digest, they’ll just nod, check out mentally and won’t get anything from the conversation. Balance is the most important thing here. Finding that balance is a skill every coach must hone throughout his career.

Finally, the most important part of our work is to strengthen the feeling of individual responsibility. Too often we use the concept of group like some kind of fog cover. Too often after a bad result we hear stuff like “the team didn’t play well”, “we failed to do what we were supposed to do”, “we didn’t interpret the game the right way” etc. My question is, who are those “we”? Even in bad games there are those who played well and those who performed poorly influencing the result and ruining the effort of their teammates. To me, strength of a group lies in strong understanding and acceptance of individual responsibility.

And this makes our job all the more complicated. There’s just no nice way of telling somebody he’s failing at his job. I’m not a fan of creating conflicts. There are coaches who thrive in conflict situations and create them artificially, but I’m not one of them. But I also don’t believe there should only be good, friendly atmosphere. I think an ideal solution would be a balance between the two. You just can’t push players enough without a healthy level of confrontation.

Also, an important thing for me as a coach is to find a group of players whom I can trust under pressure. It won’t necessarily be my five best players. Most likely, my emergency unit will contain 2-3 top players alongside a couple of solid guys who have the ability to operate under stressful conditions. Finding the right combination of players for such situations will greatly improve the team’s chances of coping with them.

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