“If I say it, you doubt it.  If you say it, it’s true.” – Tom Hopkins, Communications Expert

It’s a great axiom to think about as a coach.  If you are constantly telling your teammates what to do, they’ll give you what they can up to a certain point.  But if you get them to say it, if they really believe in it, they’ll give you everything they have.  The difference is subtle, but can be powerful.

Instead of telling your guys what you are going to run, ask them a question.  Instead of saying “We are going to run pistol here, let’s look for Aaron off the flair screen,” you say “What do you think about pistol here?  Do you think we can hit Aaron off the flair?”  You’ll get one of two things.  You’ll get a group that says yes, we can absolutely do that, let’s run pistol, or you’ll get another answer – coach, lets run X and get Aaron going downhill off of a ball screen.  By asking the question, you’ll give your players ownership, and you’ll also get their perspective on what’s happening on the court.  They might notice something you haven’t seen.

It takes a lot of confidence and trust to be able to communicate that way, and it goes against what we think is the norm as a coach – I’m supposed to tell them what to do.  But it’s really powerful when you get your players thinking and taking ownership.  If they leave the huddle saying “yes, we’re running pistol” and they feel like it’s their idea, mentally they are more committed to making it work subconsciously.

In practice it can create some confusion as well.  We recently beat UNH by a point at home, and we had an interesting scenario in the huddle.  Aaron Calixte had hit a 3 with 20 seconds to go to give us a one point lead, and UNH called time out with 15 seconds to go.  I wanted our guys completely convinced that we were going to get a stop to win the game.  So I started the huddle with “We are going to get one stop, do you guys want to be in 32 or fist (man-to-man)?”  We had played almost exclusively man the entire game and it was our base defense.  So I knew the answer would be fist, but I wanted them to say it.  Everyone immediately said “Fist!”

Great.  They were convinced we needed to be in man to man and they told me so.  Then I asked about our ball-screen coverage – we had switched a couple of times during the game.  A couple of guys gave one answer, than one player gave another.  We had also trapped one of their post players during the game, and I asked if we were going to stay in the trap.   I wanted to know what they were most comfortable with, and I wanted them to say it, to own it.

Unfortunately, it kind of went off the rails.  The declarative answer from everyone I got about our base defense – Fist – had turned into a bunch of different discussions over ball screens, post coverage and who was guarding who.  In theory, I love the idea of getting them to say it and getting them to own it.  And to be honest, I would have been fine with whatever defense and coverage they wanted as long as they were all united.  But in the 45 seconds of a huddle with the game on the line and 15 seconds to go, we didn’t really have time for discussion.

So I knew I had to get control back.  I said “Okay, great.  Listen up!  We are going to be in Fist and Flat, everyone is going to block out and we are getting one stop to win the game.”  At that point I had everyone’s attention, and everyone was fired up.

I was trying to create ownership, not a democracy.  But I do really believe that getting your players to say it, getting them to own it has a powerful effect.  Do it as much as you can, rather than giving them directions.  Get them to say it.  But there are times when you have to make the final call and make it clear.

Luckily we played great defense on the last possession, got the stop we needed and we beat UNH.


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