Basketball Coach: ‘An Honest and Open Conversation About Racism’

The following ideas, thinking and practices emerged as a result of an ‘Honest and open conversation about racism’. Coach A (white male) engaged in a conversation with Coach B (black male) in an attempt to elicit the lived experience of being black in the United Kingdom. The idea was conceived out of a willingness to have an uncomfortable conversation as a way of developing cultural competence. In fact, it is true that in order to address anti-black issues we must recognise their existence in a multitude of spaces, and that these spaces contribute to structural racism.

The conversation began with Coach B sharing his personal experiences at the hands of the Police, education and sport, all considered to be social structures entrenched in battles for equality. During the conversation, terms such as ‘whiteness’, ‘institutional racism’,  ‘structural racism’, ‘prejudice’ and ‘civil rights’ were discussed, and Coach B shared his understanding of these terms. It should be noted that Coach B believes that in order to be effective in our practice, each and every coach should understand the definition and delivery of each of these terms.

  • Race – the grouping of society (humans) based on what is considered to be common physical and/or social qualities
  • Prejudice – an idea deeply rooted within an individual, organisation or sub-section of society that is driven by distaste over reason or actual experience
  • Civil Rights – an essential component of democracy in as much as they seek to guarantee the rights of everybody
  • Equality – an equal condition, be that social or otherwise, in promotion of access and opportunity to goods and services
  • Exercise of Power – power structures serve to influence and shape society through their organisation and statue
  • Structural Racism – “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity” (The Aspen Institution)
  • Institutional Racism – racism expressed in social and political institutional

What a coach can do to be effective:

  • Communication – consider how you communicate with your charges, and more importantly, how equitable your dialogue is. This may include the use of colloquial terms, colourful language and/or sweeping generalisations that marginalise the recipient. As a general rule, we should be aware of the content, context, timing and frequency of our information-giving and acceptance behaviours.
  • Language is perhaps a consideration within our communication profile; however, it is important that we do not attempt to ridicule, imitate or possess what is not ours. In other words, our language should be authentic, appropriate and non-bias. Furthermore, it should not be pejorative, so we must understand the origins of language and how words may contribute to minimisation of a community (see below for examples):

Coloured – Racial slur, ethnic descriptor employed in South Africa to describe non-whites
Half-Caste – Impure, unequal, cast-off
Nigger – originally denoted black people, the word was used to oppress and segregate people. The word has been described as the most ‘loaded and troublesome’ word in the English language

  • Coaching Practice – within our practice, do we offer equality in access to opportunities, these include, demonstration, response, questioning and time (both personal and collectively)? In order to provide an equitable learning environment, each and every individual should feel as though they have a voice, that they are heard, and that they can come to you as the coach should the need arise.
  • Empathy not sympathy – the Black Lives Matters campaign is about acknowledging the imbalance, the lack of parity within the structures and systems that serve to marginalise and reduce the importance of the black community. What is needed is a collective representation from ALL that equality should be front and centre to all that we do. What the black community do not need is for an individual to live their life in an attempt to sympathise with them. Again, this point goes back to the concept of authenticity.
  • Removal of stereo typing – a point very closely linked to language and communication, but nevertheless a very important consideration within the philosophy, thinking and practice of the basketball coach. Expectancy theory suggests that sport coaches formulate opinions with regards to their athletes ability. We must be mindful of the perceptions we construct and ensure that they do not include any bias, discrimination or judgement based a specific stereotypes.
  • Voice – allowing all within our charge to have a voice, to be heard and understood.

1st Quarter Success…

My planning revolves around four quarters, each being a blend of micro, meso and macro consideration, and as such, focused on individual, team and tactical markers. For example, our first quarter focus breaks down individual roles in both advantage and disadvantage situations, and at both ends of the floor. I tend to keep it simple, three defensive rules and five offensive principles as a means of guiding everything we do, and I do mean everything. I believe that having consistent cues, language that offers us all a frame of reference keeps the messaging consistent and supports the production of congruous performance in each Moment of the Game.

Today’s game represented the end of quarter one, a quarter where we had attempted to develop an understanding of our three and five philosophy, our identity and the individual roles assigned to each Moment of the Game, and agreed at the beginning of the season. I don’t believe that these eight areas of focus are in any way ground breaking or indeed innovative. In fact, I am guessing that colleagues would refer to them as ‘bread & butter’, the stable elements of invasion sport. However, I have stuck to these ideas throughout my coaching, and, at one point, I actually placed them within a framework. I referred to this as our ‘System of Life’ (SoL).  I felt that each element of the framework could equally serve to guide us through any situation. For example, I spoke of spatial awareness (spacing), understanding where you were in any given moment, your shape, movement and the movement pattern required in response to the situation. For me, spacing requires the development of body, time and movement awareness, agility and execution throughout the moment and in line with the individual role.

On my drive over to the venue today, I reflected on our 1st quarter success, on our SoL and our practice sessions over the past five day’s. I entered the arena comfortable that the boys had been working hard, that they wanted to improve, and that we had achieved some mileage within our 1st quarter journey. Unfortunately for me, none of what I had contemplated offered any degree of personal reassurance, I felt somewhat out of sorts, a personal matter had been plaguing me all week and it was now leaning on me. I attempted to move the thought to a side, however, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t suddenly going to just go away.

I sat down in front of the players and delivered my 45 second pre-game address. I had spent the hour prior to the game sorting out video capture and had not had the chance to really converse with the players. I will say though, I am not sure just how important it is to deliver any direction or offer a motivational sound bite to take them into the game. I had however planned on talking about our distance travelled, what we had accomplished to this point and where we wanted to go next. The truth of the matter was simple, I wasn’t going to get much more than 45 seconds so my message was uncomplicated, “discard the mistakes and move on!” We had scouted pretty well, the video had told us what we needed to do and our Friday practice had allowed us to go through our individual roles. So, ‘discard the mistakes’ was to be our game mantra, our approach for the next forty minutes and who we sought to be.

As we lined up for the tip I asked our jumper, “where is it going?” “Where is the ball going?” I got no reply. I then said, “number 13, your ball” – having looked at the player positioning on the floor, I was confident that we could win the tip and that our number 13 was the open man. I was wrong, we won the tip but it went straight to the opposition. Was my questioning wrong? Should I have been more directive and instructional? I thought the ‘play’ was obvious, the advantage clear. I then questioned myself, had I coached that moment? Was it something we had covered in our practice? It was both a micro and meso element, yet I was confident that I had not overtly discussed our positioning and approach to the jump ball situation. Why not? We lost the quarter 11-10 but went on to win the game 83-52…perhaps there is a message yet to be uncovered here about my planning and my practice!

East Coast Clash

We hadn’t practiced for a week, I had been away in Madrid enjoying the on-court excellence of Movistar Estudiantes, C. B. Fueniabrada and a number of the Madrid youth squads. However, I wasn’t worried, in fact I was pretty comfortable with where we were, what we had developed and our identity, enough so that my drive over to the East coast was a relaxed and pleasant one. The game was due to tip at 10.30am, we had arrived in plenty of time, warmed up and were ready, or so I thought! We started the game with an attempt to show our very best self, however, what we got was a lacklustre reflection of a team that had just enjoyed seven days apart. Our execution was less than what we wanted, we were static, the ball failed to move with any degree of pace or accuracy, and we were unable to score. In any other gym we would have been down, trailing to nothing more than our poor play, however, our opposition seemed happy to join us in our inferior bubble as they too could not put the ball in the basket.

I was all over the place, I could hear a bellowing, an instructive tone directing play, shaping movement and attempting to energise our identity. My coach self was engaged in the game and I could feel the clashes of battle with every bounce of the ball. Every pass, dribble and player movement was accompanied with some kind of commentary, the more I tried to pull my coach self back, to restrict the overt involvement of my coach-centred other, the more I got frustrated. I called a timeout, on both my coach self and the game. I pulled the players together and pleaded with them to find their true self, to allow our identity, who we were and sought to be to shine through. I knew that shouting at them was not me and it wasn’t them and it certainly wasn’t us! Instead, I asked them to trust each other, to fight through our poor execution by communicating and supporting one another. I let them go and allowed myself to smile, to picture our true self.

The game continued to be a rollercoaster of emotions, however, our mistakes were no longer as visible, I had pulled myself together, refocused my attention to presenting a more effective vision of self. We had begun to regain a semblance of self, our play, while not quite what we had in mind, had improved, we began to ‘up’ the pace, spread the floor and attack. Defensively, we remained out of sorts, however, I said nothing, I merely watched from the end of the bench, removed from the players waiting to enter the game and out of sight of the late rotations, missed block outs and ‘blow byes’. I left the players to work it out for themselves, to debate where it was they were going wrong and to solve the problem free from my direction. It was uncomfortable, my instructive self kept fighting for position but I held my ground. I refused to direct the game anymore. Instead, I offered praise, minimal feedback and questioning as a dish best served with the concept of independent thinking athletes.

The conclusion of the game was very much the start of “what next?” What would we do to fix the many poor decisions, inefficient movement and lack of execution present within our play? As I drove home I wonder where the players minds were at, what it was that they were thinking and how they saw the game. Perception is an interesting concept, we each view our performance through a slightly different frame, the lens is often tinted to a certain value, a position that is individual and reflective of self. Perhaps I sought for a vista removed from where the players wished to travel. A land too far in the distance that they were unable to visualise what it offered. Or, is travel dependent on instruction? Is it, that in order to elevate our play we have to be directive, instructional and overt in our behavioural delivery of what is needed in each and every moment of competition? I had spent the previous week defending my vision, citing the associated research literature as a guiding light to improved performance, but everything else was telling me to direct the next performance if I ever wanted to be successful.

What you see isn’t what you always get…

Learning within the domain of sport coaching is perhaps best understood as a blend of formal, informal and non-formal occurrences, opportunities to engage in observation, experience, debate and reflection. With this in mind, the past seven day’s have stimulated my curiosity and fuelled my aspiration. In fact, I have been bombarded with learning messages, instances where I was able to debate, dissect and synthesise the multiplicity of basketball knowledge on offer from the current World Champions. Indeed, having the opportunity to observe the practice environments of some of the best teams in Madrid has been an eye opener, and a pleasure. Some of what was on offer served to underpin and reinforce my thinking, and some of the presented content represented challenges to a number of sensibilities. Certainly for me, I would situate some of the more coach-centred practice outside of my own coaching profile. However, I recognise that as well as being a socially constructed endeavour, coaching is also a situational practice. This being said, I think what is important, and what will continue to be central to my development as a basketball coach, is accepting the breadth of knowledge available and filtering what is relevant and real for my context.

Whilst enjoying the hospitality of the Madrid Basketball Federation, I found myself particularly fascinated by the many similarities between my content, delivery and philosophy, and what was being presented on the hardwoods of the various clubs dotted around Madrid. I felt fortunate to be able to say “I do that”, it served as a comfort blanket to my practice, a way of confirming that what I do is within an acceptable tolerance of normal practice, perhaps even effective practice. This being said, I was intrigued by the very coach-centred approach to the development of their young players. It was most definitely a ‘my way’ of constructing and delivering on-court performance. It certainly seemed clear from the bleachers that many of the coaches actions were underpinned by a behaviourist mentality. Now this is perhaps an unfair statement as my observations were free from context and lacked any real understanding of what had passed before the actions. However, I couldn’t help but think that the approach would never resonate with me as an acceptable methodology, regardless of the level of play. The problem with this thinking was, the young basketball players moved with freedom, they appeared to be able to make decisions and execute moments of the game unrestricted. In short, they played a style of basketball I very much respected and yet was unable to replicate within my own context.

Moving beyond the volumes of content and to a state of reflection, I am able to consider the connections, interactions and exchanges enjoyed in the corridors, bleachers and dinning areas of the tour. The wealth of knowledge and experience on offer was phenomenal and served to really fuel my thirst for advancement as a coach. In particular, the depth of passion for the practice, and the technical knowledge that underpinned many of the coaches descriptions of their coach identity was impressive. Not only did they display declarative and procedural knowledge in abundance, they were analytical in their observations, quick to unpick what was on offer on the many courts we visited. The plethora of individual journeys was also intriguing, it really opened my eyes to the many developmental pathways present in pursuit of being identified as coach.

Our time spent watching the games was interesting, the coach behaviour on offer during many of these competitive exchanges was varied and sought to offer no really way forward. For example, at the junior level there was a great deal of instruction, although I wasn’t sure exactly what was being said, it was directive and often followed a mistake. On the other hand, the senior games saw a great deal of self presentation and management, a little like Goffman’s concept of the performative self. In fact, one or two of the coaches could easily have been put forward for an Oscar. The flailing of arms, the tossing back of the head and constant remonstrations were most definitely a reflection of a theatrical coach self. Yet, the on-court performance was impressive, thus challenging my thinking and questioning my entire thesis. For this reason alone, the notes, conversations and topical exchanges enjoyed will continue to shape and inform my practice as I visit and revisit the thinking of the many coaches that now contribute to my developmental journey.

Emotional rollercoaster

Having arrived at the venue in plenty of time I felt relaxed and prepared. We had spent a great deal of time on the scout, covered as much as I felt we could have in the time we had, and enjoyed a number of positive hours on the court. I stood and chattered with parents for five minutes before going to see the team. I had stuck my head into the changing room earlier and was greeted by laughter, banter and a pretty strong baseline. All in all, the mood was light, confident and prepared.

I started by discussing identity, knowing who we were as individuals and how this fed into the collective ‘we’. I challenged each player to find their inner confidence, a source of energy that would bring out their very best version of self. I then spoke of our approach and how this would enable us to meet our goals, focusing in on our five offensive principles and three defensive rules. I asked the players to trust that each other would be there for them, that they would communicate with each other and help each other through the difficult parts of the game, the moments when we were unsure what was next. I finished with my Sunday best speech and a motivational nugget to send them on to the floor.

We got off to a good start, offensively, our spacing was okay, we made decisions based on our game preparation, and the five individuals that started the game appeared to be in control and confident in their game play. I was in a comfortable place, my pre-game nerves had quickly dissipated and I found a calm and relaxed self occupying the side line of a unfriendly hardwood. I spoke to the bench, asked them to consider moments, actions and reactions as they occurred on the floor and to solve problems in preparation for their entrance into the game.

However, and perhaps as is to be expected from the competition setting, the mood began to shift. The calmness that had held me together and kept me where it was I wanted to be had become uncomfortable, it began to wriggle its way free and leave me exposed and vulnerable. I could hear instruction as it began to take over my behaviour, my questioning was retreating, and I was caught in the middle. Our play was no longer a reflection of our identity, who we wanted to be, but rather a desperate attempt to fend off our opponent as they flexed their muscle and kicked and screamed their way back into the game. I often refer to this as a state of mental breakdown, fear that we, our collective and shared identity would not hold up against the pressure. The symptoms were a lack of communication, poor decision making and failure to solve immediate problems as they showed themselves to us.

We got to half time with a lead, but our play, or rather our identity, was very much in doubt. We had lost sight of the things that we did well, the things that secured our shared being, and instead, we were battling to survive as one. I watched us walk to the changing room, pausing only to gather my thoughts. I didn’t speak for long, partly because I wanted their voices to own the time and space we had. I merely asked them to look at one another, and with honesty and composure, find a way to fix what, if anything, was broken. I then left them and went to a quiet place myself, a place where I could regroup and consider my role, my behaviour and how I could help to get us rebalanced and heading in a direction that best reflected who we had agreed to be.

The wave of pressure that typically accompanies the third quarter of a basketball game did not materialise with the same vigour expected from a team that had hold of a deficit. We also began to find a little bit of self, who we were, who we wanted to be and how we would get there. I could hear questioning as it reaffirmed its dominance in my behaviour. However, I wasn’t quite out of the woods, there where one or two moments where I fell foul to frustration, even a little disappointment, at both myself and our play. I could see it and hear it in my practice, visions of an aggressive stance, a non-supportive comment and an over-bearing posture. It was almost as though I was at war with self, battling to allow the questioning and positive challenge self to override the instructive self.

Having fought our way through the remainder of the game and secured a victory, we departed amidst mild celebration. The drive home was nothing more than fifty minutes or so, not really enough time to process the events of the previous two hours, but certainly time to recover. A few hours later, I took myself up to my office and sat at my desk, a real sense of exhaustion took hold and I wasn’t entirely sure where it had come from. I think the constant battling with self, the emotional shift back and forth through various behaviours had taken its toll. Could it really be this hard to become a good coach?


The centre of my practice

Looking back, I can say with confidence that I feel as though we have had two good weeks of practice. In particular, we have begun to develop relationships across, through and around our programme, each of which has served to support and develop our aims and objectives. The depth of these relationships is very much a result of the time we have spent together and the structure of our practice. When I say the structure, I am thinking about our established way of doing things, based on the expectations of all stakeholders, and we have, to-date, done this very well. We could perhaps label this a coach-athlete-centred approach to thinking and doing, which Jowett (2017) suggests provides scope for inclusivity and mutual empowerment. However we view what we are doing, I believe, at this moment, and for this group of young players, that we are heading in the right direction.

This however, does not talk to the quality of our practice effort, energy and overall performance. I am merely thinking of the programming of our practice, how we communicate the content, promote learning and encourage autonomy in all players. In fact, I am pretty happy with the approach to this as I have spent a great deal of time planning and preparing opportunities for all of us to learn. The result being, that all players, for the most part, are confident in demonstrating their level of curiosity, both individual and collectively. If we were to discuss practice effort, efficiency and overall output I would suggest that the conversation my be somewhat different, a mixed bag if you like, and one that is reflected in attendance, engagement and participation in our online learning activities.

Recalling the actual structure of our practice sessions, they are very much random, we move between both sides of the ball, exploring various principles and then attempting to piece them together through advantage and disadvantage situations. I am however, somewhat concerned at the speed and effectiveness of our transfer. There are a core of players that respond to questioning, demonstrate an awareness and understanding of our principles and rules, and yet, when they enter into a competitive situation, it all appears to be lost. I guess we are back to the concept of Independent Thinking Athletes and how my coaching practice promotes / diminishes problem-solving and decision making, specifically, tactical decision making.

For example, if I focus in on the pedagogical effectiveness of my practice, specifically, the behaviours (Mageau & Vallerand) exhibited by self throughout our practice time, I see the provision of choice, a rationale for what and why we do what we are doing, and limited, if any, self referenced competency criteria. However, what I often find my coach self reverting back to is an element of control, wrapped within the content of my behaviours, but nevertheless, an intentional attempt to influence. In other words, the degree of instruction levelled at the players, particularly when we do not understand our individual role and meaning within what we are trying to achieve.

It is no secret that I have been battling with the divide between questioning and instruction, trying to find a balance that leans more towards empowerment through guided discovery. I wish for my communicative encounters to be free from power and to promote a sense of security so that the player(s) is confident, able and willing to offer their thoughts, opinions and ideas within the construction of new meaning. The research literature suggests that this is a move away from traditional thinking and a sensibility that reflects a coach-centred approach to practice. However, I find myself battling to come to terms with what I often believe to be my overly instructive nature. In fact, I will go as far as to say that my internal disagreement is fuelled by my impatience, my need to see a practice model that reflects my vision for the game.

Looking forward, we have our second game of the season tomorrow. Our opponents enjoy the comfort of a history that positions them as formidable foes, talented, aggressive and athletic. We have watched video, presented a scout and focused on our ontological being in an attempt to ready us for all that they have. Part of me is confident in our preparation, in where we have focused our attention, but part of me is scrabbling for security, for some way of knowing that my practice and my behaviour is where it needs to be!

A mixed offering north of the border

We had enjoyed a good practice the night before and I was feeling good about where we were after three weeks of preparation. However, it was 5am and we were about to embark on the 200 mile journey to the City of Edinburgh to face a well coached and talented team.

My pre-game talk was short and to the point, I wanted the boys to feel comfortable, relaxed and confident in their collective identity. I shared a few philosophical positions on work, effort, responsibility and identity. I then asked each of them to give the game their full attention, to recognise the role they would play and to enjoy their contribution to whatever unfolded in the next forty minutes. After this, I let them ‘go’, the warm-up was theirs to own, and although I didn’t agree with the content, I didn’t say anything to them, I let them have the time to express themselves.

We couldn’t have gotten off to a better start if I had been moving the players into place myself. We pushed the ball with authority, it was clear that we were searching for every fast break point on offer. We made every effort to get down the floor and into a scoring position as quickly as possible, it looked like a ‘track meet’. We were communicating, sharing information and taking responsibility for our roles, it was great to watch. In fact, at that moment, I was convinced that what was to follow was going to be an impressive first outing.

In truth, what did unfold was a mixture of actualisations and realisations. We moved through an array of really good and really bad play. In short, our ability to communicate had left us, and with it, any sense of ownership or responsibility. To say that I was frustrated at the level and volume of our mistakes was an understatement. However, I tried very hard to remain positive, to ask questions and to challenge the players to think. I wanted them to use our rules and principles to guide our play and to keep us together. We had inserted these concepts as a way of shaping our development and our collective identity. It was clear that we were yet to be really confident in who we were. This being said, the responses from some of the players was good, it was clear that we had an intelligent team, a group of young athletes that were capable to think and reason their way through mistakes. I just needed to promote autonomy and freedom of expression as a baseline to our style of play. The mistakes we made now would serve us well as we moved deeper into the season.

As we packed up in preparation to ‘hit the road’, I felt that there was a lot that we could take away from the game, both positive, and perhaps not so good, however, what was clear to me, and what I was most pleased about was the level of effort. It was not always controlled or efficient, but it was not lacking by any means. With this in mind, I was happy to conclude my thoughts with the idea that we had something good to build on and that we now had two weeks in which to do so. The greater challenge for me was to deepen my tool box, to be better prepared for the level of coaching I would meet and to be able to respond to the challenge. Why? At times throughout the game I had been out-manoeuvred, tactically vested, and showed no real response. In fact, I think this is perhaps why I wasn’t celebrating as much or allowing myself to enjoy the moment, the players had done their part but I had failed to correct our inefficiency on defence (reaching, late rotations, poor closeouts and a lack of pressure on the ball) and merely provided the players with opportunities to think, to reflect on what they were doing as oppose to offering a way of fixing the issue. In short, I felt that the main issue, at this moment in time, was my ability to coach in a manner that would respond to the U16 Premier League North!

Six hours later

Attendance was varied, individual and collective effort good, and my general mood after three practice sessions was positive. In fact, I am not sure I could have asked for much more from the start of our pre-season training.

I had began the week thinking about a position statement, a position with regards to our togetherness, our collective identity and our level of play. It was clear to me that we were used to a different style of play, a more traditional approach to practice and a different type of coach-athlete relationship. The term ‘traditional practice’ has been ‘thrown’ around quite a bit if late, particularly within the pages of many of the top sport coaching journals. It is seen as an approach built on tradition, ‘a way of doing things’ that is culturally accepted and agreed upon as the most effective way of producing results. Much of my research (the 1000 hours+ of observations) leads me to thinking that basketball is ‘stuck’ in a traditional box, one that contains a high degree of instruction.

We started with some small game-based sets, an opportunity for the players to show me how they played, what they did well, and how they meshed together to inform and shape our identity. An ontological question indeed, but one that was important to me and to my practice. In fact, I have, for a number of years now, felt that knowing who the collective was, what each individual could / would contribute to the whole served as an indication of who we were and how we would play.

My questioning wasn’t great, I was more convergent that divergent, a position I continue to battle with and desperate to move beyond. It was difficult, we were making a high number of mistakes, both technical and tactical, I was struggling to get them to think, to solve the problem and be decisive in their next action. I had to force myself to stand back, to retreat to the quiet corner in order to allow us to be free, free to express our individual and collective identity in that moment. In short, I think it is so easy to slip back into the comfortable, traditional and culturally accepted form of practice. At times, I could feel myself moving into and out of this form, whenever it became difficult to promote individual thought I defaulted to a more instructive position. If anything, I knew I didn’t want to return to this form of practice, however, I often found myself, mid sentence, redirecting my behaviour, actively trying to alter the interaction to provide the individual player with a more powerful position from which to make a decision.

Some recent reading revealed that coaches often revert back to the culturally accepted mode of thinking and doing as a means of retaining power over the dyad. The use of communicative acts is thought to be a means of influencing the receiver, getting them to comply in some way to the meaning unit included within the instruction. In other words, a more instructive form of practice can be seen as steeped in behaviourist sensibilities, one that is considered to be important in the early stages of skill acquisition. However, tactical skill development is thought to be better suited to questioning as a means of stimulating cognition and promoting problem-solving through autonomy and the raising of confidence.

This confusion was evident in my practice, I was trying to find a place within the many interactions that was suited to my athletes, a way of being that made them feel safe and free to learn in a space that was comfortable. In fact I would go as far as to say that my coaching was suffering as a result of my inability to carve out, with any degree of certainty, an effective way forward. Perhaps I was trying too hard? Was I guilty of trying to be all things to all people? After all, my coach plate was pretty full.

With a week left to our first game I feel as though I need to be more effective, and my messaging needs to be clearer. I also need to connect more with the players as a means of creating a conducive climate of learning. This group of 15 young men, who, with the support of their parents, have placed their trust in my ability to lead and motivate them require more from me.

A regional coach conversation

I had the pleasure of delivering at the East Midlands Regional CPD event yesterday, which I saw as a great opportunity to engage in yet another meaningful coach conversation. I was joined by #johncollins #kenrickliburd #mattshaw #karenburton as we shared our thinking, our practice and our research with an enthused audience of coaches. Below is some of what I had to say.

Coach behaviours have been the focus of my research for the past seven years. They can be described as the actions, reactions and responses exhibited by a coach during the delivery of their practice. These behaviours are thought to originate from a “combination of tradition, intuition, and the emulation of other coaches” (Partington & Cushion, 2013, p.374). The behaviour of the coach has been associated with the concept of effective practice (Lacy & Darst, 1985) and is a prominent theme across the sports coaching literature (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008; Ford, Yates, & Williams, 2010; Galimore & Tharpe, 2004). Results from many of these studies have found the behaviour of the coach to yield a significant impact on athlete performance (Cushion, Ford & Williams, 2012; Terry, 2006). Furthermore, the literature establishes ‘instruction’ as the dominant behaviour within the practice environment (Gilbert & Trudel, 2004).

Instruction has been consistently found to be utilised 48% of the time during training / practice. That is, explicit and direct instruction as a means of informing and shaping athlete development. Sociologist argue that the retention of power by the coach shapes this approach to our practice and describes this form of coaching as Coach-centred. An alternative approach is to consider the athlete, their current level of knowledge and understanding, and their ability to solve problems. This form of coaching is described as athlete-centred.

I propose that we (basketball coaches) begin to consider our coaching behaviour, what we do and say, as a means of improving the climate we create within our practice environment? Traditionally, basketball practice is constructed of training form activities (skill and drill) and overt instructions. However, as a means of moving towards a more research informed approach, researchers suggest that practice should be more aligned to competition and should reflect playing form. Moreover, it is felt that the coach should employ a less instructional approach to their practice. This may include the provision of small-sided games, both advantage-disadvantage and non-advantage, as a means of creating problems for our athletes to solve. In order for this approach to be successful, we need to employ the use of questioning.

The Debate of Ideas

The ‘Debate of Ideas’ (Gréhaigne & Griffin, 2005) is a framework that can be used to challenge and extend learning within our practice. Originally developed as a means of advancing tactical decision-making within invasion based sports (such as basketball), the concept is akin to social constructivism and promotes reasoning, reflection and decision-making. Gréhaigne and Griffin (2005) referred to the concept as a ‘tactical timeout’, which essentially is the provision of time and space to consider the tactical decisions employed within the game. The framework has four broad strategies that can be employed by the coach:

  1. Promoting Exploration: Concepts such as allowing moments of deliberate play, time and space to explore problems of difficulties within the Moment of the Game. After some exposure to the problem, players may fail to perceive any problems, at which point the coach should provide further opportunity to explore, collaborate and work towards a solution. The coach may wish to add further modifications to the activity as a means of guided-discovery.
  2. Asking Open-Ended questions: When a problem or challenge is identified by the athlete(s) the coach may decide to bring them together to debate among themselves or with them through the use of open-ended questioning.
  3. Asking Specific Questions: After posing a divergent question the coach may observe and allow the athletes time and space to problem-solve before offering further facilitation.
  4. Applying strategies: Once a solution is reached, athletes should be encouraged to explore / test the strategy.

You may wish to consider the following questions:


  1. How did you achieve your intended outcome? I would like you to consider the principles of the game you employed and why you employed them.
  2. How did you identify the particular strengths of your opponent? Consider their pattern of play, individual talent and the strategies they employed in their last three defensive possessions.
  3. What did you do well within the MOG to combat these strengths?
  4. What things does your team need to further counteract the strengths of the opposition?
  5. How will you do the things you have just mentioned in question 3?




Higher order questioning seeks to involve the athlete, explore their thinking and elicit an opinion that is individual and the sole possession of the person from which it came. Targeting our questioning empowers the athlete to think for themselves, to make decisions, and ultimately, to develop a ‘Independent Thinking Athlete’.

Return to practice

There is something about that first practice of the season, expectations consume your thoughts and you search for the perfect start. Over the last four season I had sought to open our annual campaign with a stakeholder meeting. I believe that getting everybody involved in the preparation and delivery of the season that was to follow gave a voice to their expectations for the year. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this first meeting was by far the most important part of the season because without it we didn’t have a direction.

We gathered in a large room, I tried hard not to make the space look like a pre school setting, especially in light of the pleasingly high number of parents that had shown their support and arrived ready to contribute. I introduced myself, spoke of gratitude for everybody’s attendance and enthusiasm for the season ahead, and set out what it was I hoped we could achieve. As was to be expected, some of the boys were quiet, yet they all joined in, eager to offer their player self and share opinions that were important to them.

The parents and players spent twenty minutes scribbling down their goals and expectations for the season. I had asked them to frame their thoughts into three categories, ‘what they expected for the season’, ‘what they expected from each other’, and what they expected from me, the coach’. We then sat and went through them, sharing our thoughts and feelings and expanding on the two mind maps that had been produced. It was both a meaningful and successful exercise, a great many positive ideas emerged from the inner thoughts and feelings of these twenty or so stakeholders. Ideas that would shape my practice and help me to be a better version of my coach self.

We moved on to the court for our final forty-five minutes. I wanted to provide the players with an opportunity to show me how they play the game, how they approached the decision-making that was inherent within the game and yet hidden in the depth of coaching and play. The eleven players in attendance were athletic, long bodied and energetic. We moved through a number of technically based sets, at pace, but with little direction from me. I set problems, asked them to think and allowed them to play. The style of play was very much dribble drive first. It seemed that on every catch the players immediately ‘put the ball on the floor’. There was no pause for contemplation, no look in the forward and rear view mirrors before driving. It was almost automatic and somewhat removed from how I saw the game.

Looking forward, I see some negotiation, a sharing of ideas and philosophies as a means of bringing us together. Our first task will be to establish a climate of learning that is motivational, safe and allows each individual to trust in what our collective is trying to achieve. Having gotten everybody together, I feel confident that this is very much a thinking group, an intelligent gaggle that will challenge one another. I believe this will allow for shared meaning to evolve and shape who we are and how we play the game. It is this element of my practice that I am most confident in, the relationships that I build and the strength I offer to each individual. Strength to lead, to express confidence and to be the very best version of themselves.

As I sit at my desk planning our first full practice I can almost see the hardwood in front of me. The players are gliding in and out of spaces, communicating and interacting in a manner that promotes ball movement, collaboration and a sharing of roles. I am already excited at the time we will spend together, the challenges that we will face and the opportunities that will present themselves. When asked why I coach, it is this vision of the game I see before me, pictures of the game in its purist sense. Moments when a group of young people have come together and produced something that they couldn’t do the day before. Coaching is often referred to as a social construction, agents working together towards a common and shared goal. Being part of that is the reason why I call myself coach.