Better by half

Better! I cut our practice time in half and we were better, more focused and somewhat more lively. The regional programme is a difficult beast to manage, we are together for a very short period of time, and in that time we want to build a team that can compete in the tournament, as well as demonstrate the very best that each individual athlete has to offer. The problem is, I don’t believe that we can ask our basketball athletes to put their very best foot forward without everything else that goes into making a ‘good team’. By the very nature of team building, time is both central and essential to developing relationships that reflect trust, ownership, respect and a shared sense of purpose. To achieve this in just twelve hours is asking a great deal.

I asked the players to recall our previous time together, to think back to our first practice and to grade their individual performance. I didn’t want them to share what they thought, rather, to make a mental note of where their last Regional performance sat. I then challenged them to be better, to operate at a Regional standard of play, a level they deemed worthy of competing in the Regional Tournament.

We got off to a good start, the gym was filled with high levels of energy, effort and a willingness to do better. I attempted to set a standard, a level of engagement through praise and encouragement before drifting into a state of observation. I wanted to hear the players voice, not mine. I find it funny that I am unable to get basketball athletes of any age to ‘talk’. I have worked with players that are very good at communicating, ‘calling a play’, providing on-court instruction and supporting their team mates. Yet I don’t believe that I have ever been truly successful in teaching the skill. I tend to approach the business of on-court communication by first introducing the nine offensive spots on the floor. I then ask the players to tell each other where they are and what they are doing in each moment of the game based on their position and action. I argue that this applies to both ends of the floor, for example, “help baseline”, “shot wing” etc.

The silence was deafening, I stepped in to ask them what was wrong, why was it that I couldn’t hear anything? I knew the answer really, we hadn’t agreed what to say. Yes, I had offered my thinking, where and what were the keys to our on-court communication, but the reality was, I hadn’t said exactly what to say or when to say it. I believe this to be a pandemic within our sport, the need and expectation for instruction. I could hear the frustration in my voice, I had built up a picture of what our practice was going to look and sound like, and yet I couldn’t see it, nor could I hear it. I stepped back and allowed the Assistant coach to talk to them, and without prompt or agreement, he proceeded to share my thoughts and feelings. He talked of effort, of working together and of communicating. In fact, I couldn’t have said it better.

We continued to move through various sets, the volume slid in and out of detectable. I pulled a number of players out of each set, asking them individual questions and attempting to put them at ease, to build their confidence in our practice setting so that they could begin to express themselves in a far greater and more animated fashion. Yet merely telling them that they were ‘safe’, that they could stand in the middle of the court, if they so wished, and sing was not enough, we needed time to develop the confidence required to even think that ‘singing’ was a possibility. Time we just don’t have.

By the conclusion of our time together, the once energetic offering that had been gifted to our goal of becoming a competitive Regional squad had been traded for a less than convincing impostor. I shook their hands, thanked them for their participation and challenged each of them to think of something they could do better prior to our next meeting. The truth was, I needed to think of something, something that would ‘pull’ us together, that would illuminate a style of play worthy of the title of Regional squad. Was I asking too much of them? Should I be ‘teaching’ through instruction as opposed to empowerment? Did I pose enough questions? Were they framed correctly? I felt confident that I could actually do the job of coach, I had a vision and saw great levels of interaction fuelled by questioning, challenges and accountability. Yet, as so many times before, by the end of our time together, it didn’t feel as though I had managed to influence, to challenge or to provoke thinking that would improve the way we played together. I guess only time will tell…

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