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!

Five chairs – five choices

Having recently used the Five Chairs – Five Choices model within a seminar to highlight the concept of coaching styles (from a leadership perspective) I am mindful of some of the messages that emerge from the work of Louise Evans. The model addresses cultural intelligence, our ability as leaders / managers (and I suggest, coaches) to work effectively with people. Reflecting on my coaching practice, how I approach each individual relationship, each interaction and each moment often raisers the question of effectiveness. Do I move to a protective state where I assign blame, attack and defend my position as coach? Or, do I have vision in my practice, am I able to empathise and display compassion? I would suggest, like many others, that coaching does not reflect one single ‘style’ or mode of practice, rather, we move through a range of emotions, states of being and behaviours that have an impact on our charges. We have the power to influence their perception of the relationship we have and the effectiveness of the interaction as a result of the connectivity that exists within our being together.

Five Chairs:

(RED) Jackal – punish, judge, complain, attack, a judging position, I am right position

(YELLOW) Hedgehog – vulnerable, protective mode, self-judgement, self degradation self-doubt, lack of confidence

(GREEN) Meerkat – mindful, thoughtful, curiosity, choice

(BLUE) Dolphin (detect) – detective to ourself, self-awareness, vision, voice, create boundaries, retain power, freedom

(PURPLE) beautiful, difficult, loving, vision, empathy, compassion, understanding, listen

I often think through these and many other concepts as a means of informing my behaviour, the way I coach and the influence I have with my players. Today was very much one of those days. I spent a little bit of time prior to the start of the game talking to players individually. I wanted to empower them, give them a sense of confidence and ‘permission’ if you like, a license to play freely and do what they felt was an reflection of their very best. Having spoken to them individually, I took my place on the bench and did everything I possibly could to remain quiet, to allow the players to self-organise, to contribute through the execution of their role and to be supportive.

We got off to a good start, executing our now patented style of play, ‘Run-Press-Run’ (adapted from Coach Xavier, Nottingham Knights), sharing the basketball and communicating both the intent and purpose (at times). I sat quietly, using the opportunity to gather some stats, again, in the hope that I would be able to use them as a means of demonstrating Who We Are! The game continued to play out, the result was inevitable, however, I was more concerned with what we were doing and how we were doing it. My challenge had been a simple one, could we establish ‘Who Are We?’ Could we be US? It was important for all twelve players to get into the game and experience substantial minutes today, to act out their role and be who they wanted to be. With this in mind I said very little, accept for in the third quarter. The pressures, unpredictability and opposition really do direct our behaviour as a coach, something my research is beginning to tell me. I had my moment and then returned to my state of observation and recording.

At the conclusion of the game, our third gathering in three days, the boys had done well to explore their identity, to enact their individual and collective goals with a degree of success. Could we do better? Yes, sure we could, but for now, the effort (Where Are We?) had been good (engaged and leading) and we had shown that we did understand a lot of what and who we were trying to be. Of what our game model comprised of and how best to employ the various elements with success and energy. The boys had played well and I was happy with our direction of travel. We would continue to work towards our next challenge, a harder challenge, but one that I felt we were going to be ready for and that we would enjoy.



All good intentions – Practice four

I had revisited my reading, thought long and hard about how I wanted to approach practice, what I wanted the players to get out of the session. The image in my head is a good starting point – I am with second year degree students, yet I am sat quietly in the corner (having set up the task) and before me are twelve aspiring coaches / teachers engaged in dialogue, presenting individual ideas, sharing thoughts, debating the merits of individual approaches and generally not needing me at all. I smiled, was this learning? Or more importantly, was this coaching?

Having failed at the last practice I wanted to provide a far greater learning climate, elevated in its planning and with a definitive focus on the players needs (fun, motivation, development). At the beginning of the season they had constructed expectations, for each other as team mates, for me the coach and what it was I would bring to our relationship and to their performance – which they acknowledged were challenging expectations but ones they felt comfortable setting. I spent an hour planning the session having enjoyed a couple of hours reading through a paper on Positive Pedagogy (Light & Harvey, 2017), I felt excited about the possibilities and hoped to bring this joy out in my planning and execution of the session.

It is a two-hour drive to practice from my day job so I made every effort to leave with good time to get to the venue (punctuality had been one of the expectations placed upon me and one that I wanted to upheld). Having been engrossed in a task I look up to see the clock shouting back at me, time to go. The first fifteen miles seemed to be my friend, I would even have time to change from lecturer self to coach self, I turned the music up and continued to make my way to practice.

It began to rain, a few drops at first, I clicked the button for intermittent windscreen wipes, there is a little bit of a squeak on them, something I have been meaning to fix for sometime! the rain continues to fall, getting faster I match it with the speed of my wipers, increasing the pitch and tone of the squeak, a constant reminder of what I had promised to do but not yet gotten around to completing. The traffic began to slow, almost as though everything was now working against me and before I had realised it I was now sat in the midst of a storm, the rain was no longer falling but was being thrown at a great velocity on to the hundreds of cars that occupied the concrete path to their next destination. I attempted to stay calm, telling myself that I would still manage to get to practice on time and that we were going to have a good practice.

I walked through the door, soaking wet from the short walk from the car to the court, 25 minutes had passed from the start of practice and I had no standing, I was late, the volume of traffic, my day job and the weather and conspired against me – or was it that I was just ill prepared? I stood and observed the drill, it was a fast break activity – good, we wanted to run into every offence – the attention to detail was a little low, players were more engaged in a round of pick up then anything else, but it was their activity. I called them in, my first task was to apologise, I was now the student late to class! I could see the disappointment in some of their faces, almost as though I had failed at the first hurdle. Without thinking I restructured the game, I didn’t ask what they had been doing, what the focus was or even what they had gotten out of the activity – strike one.

There didn’t appear to be much going on, we were merely walking through the motions, I called them in and asked them a series of questions – what are we trying to achieve? If we pass the ball to the wing what are our options? The responses were limited at best and absent for the most part, instead of being patient I proceeded to fill the silence, there was a berating tone to my voice, I could hear it and see it – strike two! I quickly tried to get away from it, change direction with a slide of hand – a smile and a joke. However, deep inside me I could sense that this session was doomed to failure from the outset and it was on me.

The remainder of the session was more about me than them, I continued to fill in the gaps, tell them where they could have gone, what they perhaps should have thought of and challenge their effort, motivation and lack of communication, all the hallmarks of an instructive and command approach to practice – strike three, you are out! If we were to measure the performance based on smiles, enthusiasm or noise it would have been zero output. If however, the metric was the volume of my instruction and feedback, well then we would have scored high and been very successful. I called them in, time had been called and we were done. I spoke at them for five minutes, something I never do, it was almost like a out of body moment, I was telling them what they had and hadn’t done, I looked at myself and the faces that surrounded me, was this what I called coaching?

As we departed the hall I spoke with two or three players, I smiled and shared fair wells etc., in fact I said good job to one player – where did that come from, it didn’t fit with what I had just said to them. Talk about confusing messages! I had to get better and quickly. The sports hall was now full with a new team in their netball outfits, talking, sharing ideas whilst they warmed up. The instructions from the coach were short, merely a directive to their activity, “five minutes girls”.

I walked out into the rain, I had barely gotten dry before I was once more besieged by the onslaught of water, I pulled my belongings close to me, gestured to a player that was attempting to walk to the bus stop and the two of us went to locate my car. The drive home was a quiet one, I asked a couple of questions, attempted to explore the thoughts and feelings of my charge before finally arriving at his door, we hadn’t gotten very far and I was now in a state of melt down. My coach self was pretty low on confidence and I was still to take the two of us home in the continuing rain!