I spent the past year as the Technical Director at IMG Academy and spent a lot of time working with our post-graduate program because we were short one coach. So I was usually on the bench as an assistant coach for many of their games, helping out however I could. I was also incredibly lucky to join Kevin Willard and Mike Martin on Ed Cooley’s staff as assistants for the Pan Am Games which recently concluded in Lima, Peru (we took home the Bronze medal).
It had been 13 years since I had been on the bench as an assistant coach, and it’s really interesting how you see the game from a different perspective. Both opportunities turned out to be great learning experiences.
As a head coach during a game I always looked at things from a big picture perspective. I was focused on how our team was playing overall, what the keys were on both offense and defense, and on personnel. Who was playing well and who wasn’t. I generally focused on if we were getting enough stops or what we needed to do to get more of them. I also was more focused generally on what we needed to run to score, to get into a flow on offense, as opposed to the production of specific players. In fact sometimes I’d have to look up at the scoreboard to realize that one of our guys was having a big night. I was just more focused on the flow of the game from a team standpoint, and I tried to pay attention to what type of energy my team needed from me as a head coach.
I always made the substitutions as the head coach, although I know some head coaches turn that over to their assistants. I don’t think I’d be comfortable with that as a head coach, but I get why many do it. As an assistant coach I looked at personnel the same way as I did as a head coach, trying to get a feel for who should be in the game and what combinations would work best. But I was also more aware of what the players were doing – who was most productive, who was defending and rebounding the right way. As a head coach it seemed like I was more aware of how “we” were defending, rebounding, and scoring but as an assistant I’m more aware of the individual production.
I also realized that as a head coach I was much more aware of different factors that were more long-term oriented when it came to playing time – how well someone was practicing, how hard guys competed, how bought in they were on and off the court – than I am as an assistant. Those factors are things the head coach has to think about with regards to the culture of the program. But as an assistant I feel like my job is to make sure the head coach has immediate feedback – here are the guys who are playing well today and providing the most production – to make sure we have the right guys in the game. There were plenty of times as a head coach where I’d look at the box score after the game, realize someone was being very productive and regretting the fact that he didn’t play more. As an assistant I wanted to make sure the head coach had that information in real time. A head coach may be thinking more about culture on the bench, but as an assistant I’m thinking more about immediate production.
Perhaps the biggest difference between standing up and sitting down during a game is the emotion of it. As a head coach you feel a lot more of the pressure of the game – everything is a reflection on you. And managing that emotion is really important in being able to make the right decisions. So as an assistant, I think it’s important to recognize that emotion and help the head coach handle it properly so he is thinking clearly. It’s a lot easier to stay calm as an assistant and think about what the team needs. As a head coach it can be hard to stay calm when you want your kids to be intense. But having been a head coach before, you have a better feel for that emotion as an assistant and how to help the head coach manage it.
As an assistant I always want to make sure the head coach is mentally in a place where he is connecting with his players. So when a kid makes a bad mistake, you try and keep the head coach calm. When he’s getting on the officials a little too much, you try and get him to focus back on the team. But it’s really important as an assistant not to have an ego. When the boss is emotional and gets upset with a player or an official, he certainly doesn’t need more negative energy from elsewhere. He needs balance. I think it’s your job as an assistant to help find that balance.
Going back to being an assistant has really helped me see how the emotion of the game can have an impact on the head coach. It will make me a better head coach in the future. You see the game from a different perspective and you have to manage the emotion of the team and the head coach in a different way. Not only do you need to provide what the players need, but you also need to provide what the head coach needs. You have a different view sitting down than you do standing up