The Atlanta Hawks are off to an incredible NBA leading 40-8 start to the season. Check out this video as they talk about some of their keys to success.
The Atlanta Hawks are off to an incredible NBA leading 40-8 start to the season. Check out this video as they talk about some of their keys to success.
(the majority of this content was originally created for our friends at Basketball Coaches Weekly)
The word “culture” has become a buzzword in basketball circles as coaches across the country try to help their teams forge a winning identity. The idea of creating or building a team culture can become a cliché if we fail to appreciate the importance of the concept. Put simply, your team lives and dies by the culture it creates. Talented teams without healthy culture can easily lose to less-talented groups with great culture. The benefits of culture are obvious; togetherness, selflessness, chemistry, and continuity are just a few of the intangibles that allow your team to perform at high level.
What can get lost in discussions about how to build culture are practical suggestions on how to promote healthy culture on your team. I want to focus on the challenges that high school and college teams face. This is not to dismiss the NBA (although the forming of the USA national team with NBA stars like Lebron James and Kevin Durant is an interesting case study itself) but chemistry at the professional level has some significant differences.
For college and high school teams the players in the program are spread across three a number of years and seniors graduate as the new crop of incoming freshman arrive. For high school coaches these players are also spread across multiple levels of teams. Consider the following suggestions that could help your program build and sustain a healthy culture for years to come.
Coaches will often (and should) have a list of “core-identity” values that are consistent from year-to-year – i.e. selflessness, hard work, toughness, excellence etc. However, to ensure that these values infiltrate themselves into the culture of your team, you will need 100% buy-in from your best leaders. Your leaders must take ownership of these values or they will be in danger of becoming another mute talking point. One great way to do this is to meet with your leaders before the season and have them come up with a list of standards that reflect the core values (these can and should be extremely practical). For example, if one of your core values is toughness, then a corresponding standard could be “no offensive rebounds”. Now, during practice your leaders can enforce this standard – for example making everyone who misses a box-out do 10 pushups etc. Remember coaches create rules but only players can enforce standards. Once you come up with a list of standards get creative how you choose to communicate it with the team and make sure to ask for buy-in from everyone – ex. you could create a poster with the list of standards and have everyone on the team sign it.
The best way to ensure consistent culture is to encourage great relationships. It is natural for teams to segment into their own age groups/ability levels, but anything you can do to encourage cross-pollination between teams will go a long way in building sustainable culture.This process starts with your older players.
In high school for example, on girls teams it might be as simple as assigning a “little-buddy” for whom you can buy gifts or encourage by decorating their locker etc. For guys, you might assign a “buddy” but you would also want to create some kind of competitive environment where that relationship could flourish – i.e. hold a shooting competition before or after practice, or a dodge-ball tournament. In addition to these personal relationships little stuff like having the varsity team form a tunnel and high-five the JV team as they exit the locker room can go a long way to meld three individual teams into an entire program.
Time and again we see some of the most successful college teams are the ones that have the strongest core of seniors. The media tends to focus on the high profile “one and done” players that play one year and move to the NBA, but many of the programs that are successful year in and year out have strong development of their players. One of the greatest legacies a senior class can have is to know they have raised up the next generation of leaders to continue the tradition where they left off.
Memories resulting from shared experience are a powerful way to build culture. Not only do shared experiences bring teams closer together, but also begin to build a tradition in your program as stories get passed down from one generation to the next. The type of activities could vary as widely as taking a camping trip, planning an amazing race around campus, reserving a bowling alley, or having a pie-eating contest after practice. How you implement this idea can largely depend on the personality of your team and its type of leadership. Be sure that you study your team and understand how to accomplish this without coming across as corny or forced. Creating memories (particularly ones outside the basketball court) allow for nuanced relationships to develop which creates a stronger team and more dynamic culture.
Communication is the lifeblood of every team; and teams are filled with individuals who must come together to achieve their common goals. Coaches must learn to communicate to their players effectively and just as players must learn to communicate in a respectful way with their coaches. It is the coach’s job to set the precedent for how communication will operate within the team context. Part of their job is to nurture relationships and foster quality communication. In short, the Golden Rule of Coaching Communication is this: All great communication happens first-hand, with honesty, and in the context of a relationship.
Honesty is the most important aspect of great coaching communication. If your players have trouble believing the validity of what you say, it will be that much harder for them to take ownership of your system. Honest communication is at the heart of creating healthy relationships and developing team chemistry. When coaches communicate poorly or dishonestly, they inhibit team growth, and create barriers between themselves and their player. However, when coaches communicate well they help they become a catalyst for team development.
When players believe that a coach is being straightforward with them, a relationship of trust will begin to grow. But if players feel deceived, doubts about the trustworthiness of their coach will start to creep in. Regardless of the topic of communication – even difficult topic like playing time, role on team, personal development, etc – must always be handled truthfully so that a spirit of hypocrisy does not take hold. A precedent must be set that difficult conversations are not something to be avoided, but embraced. Although awkward at first, in the long run the fruit of these honest conversations creates a healthy respect between all parties involved.
One of the most neglected aspects of great communication is the power of relationship. Many coaches fail to leverage the incredible access they have into their players lives by making a concerted effort to develop a relationship with them. The countless hours of practice, film study, and team activities are prime opportunities for a coach to take an interest in his/her players lives beyond basketball. As a coach learns the interests, problems, and circumstances of their players lives, their credibility grows and a relationship develops.
Anytime a player feels like a coach genuinely has their best interest in mind, communication about difficult topics becomes much easier. When a coach has made an concerted effort to show interest in a player, they have earned relational equity that makes the communication process much easier and smoother. It almost goes without saying that, all great communication takes place face-to-face. Digital technology is incredibly useful for certain types of communication, but first-hand communication has the amazing power of personal presence. Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions give first-hand communication valuable context that other types of communication does not.
A big thanks to Ash McCormick for taking the time to give us his thoughts for this piece. Ash has been involved in basketball as either a coach or player for the majority of his life. He played for several years as a professional in Perth’s State Basketball League and also gained experience playing for Missouri Baptist and Southwest Baptist University in the United States. His playing career was cut short by a series of unfortunate knee injuries, but he has stayed involved with basketball by coaching numerous teams in Perth, AU – including youth and professional level teams – and investing in players through workouts and development. On a personal note, Ash has been a huge asset in my development as a player and student of the game. I have benefited greatly from his wisdom and insight.
Without getting too philosophical here, knowing, in a general sense, the strengths and weaknesses of the playing group gives a coach a big head start in knowing how to structure pre-season. Do you have guards who are dangerous off the pick and roll? Do you have a dominant big/s? Are you a long and athletic team? All of these things can determine what systems and philosophy are best suited for your team. So, try to gain an understanding of the weapons you have as your best starting point for systems.
Organisation and planning are paramount to having a successful preseason. As a coach you want to have a vision of where you would like your team to be come game 1 of the season. Then you want to develop your preseason plan in phases to build towards that vision. This should include your philosophy of how you want your team to play and the type of culture you want to create. You should also develop a reference to your groups identified strengths and weaknesses and how you will use their strengths in a specific way, as well as minimise/work on weaknesses. It’s important that the coach be able to articulate this vision to all the relevant personnel whether it be club reps, assistant coaches, strength and conditioning coaches and the players.
—> (authors note) Speaking practically to the issue of organisation and efficiency of managing your basketball team. Check out TeamSnap (which I have personally used) which can be hugely helpful in streamlining the organisation of your season. Check them out here.
Practice plans are the individual building blocks you will use to lay on your foundation for the rest of the season. Always address both defensive and offensive principles in each session. Phasing offense and Defense into completely seperate parts of the preseason creates an environment where growth is disjointed and that growth can be deceptive! If you spend the first month just working solely Defense it will appear your Defense is strong, but in reality having done no work against structured offense, your Defense is not preparing for what it will likely face in the season. Likewise in reverse, offense developed against unstructured Defense is a false economy. Work on both in each session and let them sharpen and develop each other evenly. Always commit a portion of your session to live play. This is where the players have the opportunity to implement the drills and breakdowns you have gone through into a live game-like setting. This will help the players transfer those skills into game situations.
Practice plans are a guide, don’t get caught up in making sure every drill is done in each session. Tune yourself to your group. Sometimes your group will excel in a drill and staying in it too long is counterproductive, holding them back from advancing to other concepts. Always have some extra drills or scrimmage time available to counter balance this. Conversely there will be times your group may need extra time to grasp certain concepts and it’s important to your group that you don’t skip ahead before they have grounded those skills.
The recent article in ESPN the Magazine (by Henry Abbott) on Kobe Bryant’s destructive patterns of leadership brings to light many interesting questions. Abbott obtained quotes from several NBA agents, players, and insiders that described the toxic leadership dynamic of Kobe Bryant. One agent described Bryant as the unmovable object that has inhibited the growth of teammates and stagnated the organization. By comparing Bryant to a “big rock in your front yard” the agent was essentially saying that Bryant has forced everyone in the Lakers organization adjust to him and his way of doing things. Bryant as the ‘immovable object’ necessitates that everyone else circumvent their position to comply with his needs, instead of using his leverage to empower and inspire others.
Abbott interviewed another agent who sited Bryant as the primary reason many of his clients wouldn’t entertain the idea of playing for the Lakers. The players worried that Bryant would use his influence to pin the blame on them if the team started to lose games. Kobe has created a culture of fear in where his teammates must pay homage to King Bryant or suffer the consequences. The tools of public humiliation and alienation are used to control the proletariat from veering outside of their prescribed zones of operation.
In contrast to the Bryant leadership style, I want to suggest that great leaders have the ability to accomplish three specific things as a direct result of their influence.
By definition, a leader is someone who other people are willing to follow. Great leadership at its most foundational level has the ability to attract a group of talented individuals to accomplish a shared goal. Bryant has been a toxic repellent that many players have avoided like the plague. Instead of enticing talent to join him in Los Angeles, his demanding personality and me-first attitude has made the Lakers an unattractive destination for possible free agents.
Bryant has made it clear that he is uninterested in developing the talents of his teammates as evidenced by the mass exodus of talented players – particularly big men who require guards to give them the ball in the post – in the last several years. According to Basketball-Reference Bryant has hoisted the 4th most shots in NBA history (24,416 attempts at a pedestrian 45%), and will easily move into 2nd position (surpassing Karl Malone and Michael Jordan) if he stays healthy this season.
Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum are just a few examples of players who have left under the inauspicious dynamic of a Bryant dominated system. Steve Nash a renowned teammate, leader, and well-respected point guard was unable to mask his frustration in an interview with Zach Lowe.
Leaders accentuate the talents of their teammates by helping them surpass the limits of their abilities. The mark of leadership is always measured by the growth of people around them.
In contrast to creating a community of trust, Bryant has fostered a community of fear and compliance. Bryant is the ruler of his kingdom and would deal harshly with any teammate who dared challenged his reign.
Teammates would learn to fear Bryant or risk being squashed by one of the most powerful players in the NBA. The ideas of open dialogue, communal trust, and transparency were replaced by marching orders to accept Bryant and his standards or face the consequences. Great leaders earn the respect and trust of their followers by submitting themselves to the same standards they enforce on others. They understand that double standards, favouritism, and hypocrisy cripple healthy team dynamics and glorify the individual instead of the group. Trust is the most valuable currency a leader can have, and without it the community crumbles.