I’m not sure we look at role definition the right way.

It seems like almost everyone in the game of basketball – most players and coaches – talk about defining roles as a major key to team success. When you hear analysts talk about great teams, you often hear how they love that “everyone knows their role.”

I’m not really sure, though, that good players (or good teams) need to have their role defined for them. If you have to define roles for your players, you essentially have to tell them to stop doing something that they aren’t good at. And if they are doing things they aren’t good at, then they probably aren’t that good. Players who have accepted their roles have really stopped doing the things they aren’t good at. They’ve become better players.

To me so much of traditional role definition comes from within the team. The guys play with each other in the summer and in the fall, and they know what works and what doesn’t. It’s one great reason why your pick-up games should have something on them – winning has to matter. Guys doing things they aren’t very good at will end real quick if you and your teammates have to run every time you lose. The players all come to understand what helps the team win, and the kids you can count on do those things – a lot. So when it comes to practice you shouldn’t have to define anything for them.

I’ve always felt that strict role definition limits what you can get out of your players. You discover things that your kids can do on the court when you don’t put them in the traditional box. You might have a big kid who is a better shooter than you thought, or a guard who’s really comfortable playing out of the post. You might find a wing that’s great at leading the break. By strictly defining what your players can and can’t do, you limit how they can help you.

On my teams everyone has the same role – to help the team win. Do whatever you can to help the team win. So if you are a good shooter, you should shoot 3s. If you are a post player, score in the post. If you are great rebounder, go get the ball. Figure out what it is you do well, and do it a lot. When a kid asks me if he’s “allowed” to shoot 3s, I always answer with the same question – “Can you make them?” Sure, if you can make them, you can shoot 3s. But understand if you shoot a lot of 3s and you can’t make them, you won’t be shooting very many because you won’t be playing. Players who try and do things they aren’t good at on the basketball floor aren’t very good players – and they need to be on the bench.

Players hate being told they can’t do something on the court. It takes the energy right out of them. Sure, they’ll probably follow your orders, but they won’t go about competing with the same edge they used to have. Do you think your back-up big likes the fact that he’s got to bang defensively and rebound on both ends, but he’s not allowed to shoot open jump shots?

It’s easy to look at your team and say “well, if I told them that, we’d play like lunatics. My kids need to be told what they can and can’t do.” Try it. Give them some freedom. I bet you’ll be surprised at the result. No one goes out there and wants to do stuff that hurts the team, that they aren’t good at.

Role definition is really a way for a coach to exert control. This doesn’t mean you don’t teach your kids how you want them to play or talk to them about what they are good at. If you want to be a 3-point shooter but we have 3 other guys that shoot a better percentage than you, well, you aren’t going to play much. You can absolutely coach them without strictly defining their roles. But when they are out on the floor you’ll get more out of them by letting them be themselves, rather than by defining what they should do.

Your role is to help the team win. If you want to talk about how you can play more, let’s talk about how you help this team win. If you keep making plays that don’t help us win, you won’t play very much. So make sure the plays you make are ones that help us win.

As you build your team with this approach, you’ll be surprised how much your players fit into the roles that they define for themselves. They will figure out what they are good at, and they’ll do it a lot.

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