It’s always struck me how much in basketball we connect to traditional thinking. I remember watching college basketball growing up in the 1980s, and seeing John Thompson and John Chaney benching any player who had two fouls in the first half. It just became an accepted strategy and everyone started to do it.

I’ve kind of been a contrarian by nature, so I’ve always liked questioning things and looking at the other side. I always hated sitting on the bench if I got two fouls. It’s the second quarter, there’s only about 20 minutes of the game left, and I’m pretty sure I can play that amount of time without committing 3 more fouls. Plus, half-time is such a random barrier. To end the first half you can’t have that guy on the floor, but to begin the second half he’s good to go.

So I’ve always remained open to a different way of thinking. I like to challenge the reasoning behind we do what we do to see if there is a better way. I’m a believer that the most dangerous words for a business or team are “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

I recently spoke on an online clinic, and I decided to take a different approach. Rather than just pick a basketball topic and talk about it for an hour, I put together a list of different coaching strategies/approaches that involved a common way of thinking, where I tended to think differently. I wanted to have a discussion about uncommon approach.

Challenge Your Thought Process

Good Shot/Bad Shot

How do you coach good shot/bad shot? It’s not easy. Obviously we all want our team taking good shots. But I also want my team playing with confidence. I don’t want them thinking about it.

So I don’t coach it. I don’t talk about it. I let the players figure it out. We make everything around our program competitive, including the pre-season pick-up games. So the players work it out. If you start jacking bad shots when the game is on the line and the losing team has to run a minute drill, you better believe you are going to hear about it.

I tell my teams I want the defensive end, they can have the offensive end. It’s not like I don’t coach them or we don’t run some plays, but I don’t talk to them about shot selection. I’d rather trade a bad shot here or there for the freedom and confidence I want them to play with.

Role Definition

Your role on our team is to help us win. That’s it. I don’t define anybody’s role other than that. Sure, we coach you on what you are good at. The great Pete Carril said it the best, “Figure out what you are good at, and do that a lot.”

We certainly coach our guys on what they are good at, but I don’t put them in a box and tell them what they are supposed to be doing. I want to learn about what they can do to help us. And I’m sure I’m going to need them to do some things outside of their comfort zone at some point.

If you constantly do things that don’t help the team win, you are a bad player. And you aren’t gong to play. If you can’t figure that out before we get to our first game, you can cheer hard for your teammates. Your role is to help us win.

Body Language

I think we make too big of a deal out of body language. I started thinking this way when I realized I just wasn’t very good at evaluating it. I would make decisions based on body language and what I didn’t like or thought might be about to happen, and I’d get it wrong. A lot.

I’m pretty sure if your starting senior captain reacts to something a certain way, and your freshmen who comes off the bench and has been complaining about playing time reacts the exact same way, you are going to see those two actions differently. I’m confident in that. Who the player is helps us determine how to respond to his body language (watch Tom Brady play quarterback, and you’ll see “great leadership” and a “great competitor” when he reacts poorly).

I want to coach the behavior, not the personality. It’s not like I’m a fan of bad body language. But I’m not going to make decisions on it. If it leads to bad behavior, then I have to do something. And it’s good to see that body language first because I know what’s coming. Not to mention, have you ever looked at your own body language on the bench as a coach? I just think we look at body language conveniently and tend to overreact to it, so I don’t pay much attention to it.

Leadership/Captains

I’m just not a big believer in the top down model of leadership, where we have a coaching staff, then a few veteran captains, and the rest of the team, and we let the message trickle down. I think leadership is a skill, it’s not a rank, and too often we see it the other way. Most of our “leaders” are our oldest, best and loudest players. But that doesn’t make them our best leaders.

I want to empower everyone to lead. We define leadership as making the people around you better, and it’s required of everyone. And you can do it in your own way, to fit your personality. We have captains, and they have technical responsibilities, but they aren’t required to lead more than anyone else. Everyone is a leader.

Family

I know just about everyone considers their team or program a family these days, but I’m not buying it. I don’t like it. My love for my family is unconditional. But membership on a high-performing team is highly conditional. If my brother screws up big-time, I’ll always be there to help him. But there are limits to how often you can screw up on a team and still be a part of it. That’s just the way it is, and it’s okay.

I think we devalue the importance of a team, and what it means to be a great teammate, by talking about family. Great teammates have agreed to the conditions, some of which are hard, and chosen to be a part of it willingly. That’s powerful, but that’s not a family. The people that buy into that, those are guys I want to win with. I’ve got plenty of members of may family who I enjoy spending time with and sharing a beer with on the holidays – but I don’t want to try and win with them.

I feel like the family thing is inauthentic. We are only family until you screw up too many times, but then we have to make a change. Being a part of a team is special, and should be treated that way.

Mentality

There are a lot of things we say or do as coach that can affect our players mentality, and I don’t think we think about it too much. You’ll never hear me say “on the road” when I’m preparing my team, like “we have to be really locked in, especially on the road.” Road environments can be tough, but guess what, that’s why we prepare the way we do. To win in those environments. I don’t want my guys thinking it’s going to be especially harder or we have to do something out of character to win on the road. We are prepared.

Do you play a different defense on the last possession of a game? Do you switch everything, when you normally wouldn’t switch? A lot of teams do that. I don’t like it. Why would I want to play a defense we hardly use on the most important possession of the game? I don’t like what that does to our mentality, either. It looks like we don’t trust our defense.

Have you ever heard the one about how it’s hard to beat a team three times? That one gets thrown around in March a lot. Except it’s not true. Over 10 years, in that scenario, the team that had won the first two games won the 3rd game 72% of the time. At RIC I was in that scenario 12 times, and we were 11-1 against those teams the third time. We hear people say it, it sounds good, but it’s not true. And it affects our teams mentality in a negative way.

When you have a lead at halftime, do you tell your team to be ready for the opponent to make a run? I don’t like the one either. If all goes well, we aren’t going to let them make a run. I don’t want our guys thinking that a run against us is going to happen. I want them thinking we are going to control the last 20 minutes of the game.

There are a lot of these thoughts that we use as coaches, that have become common in the game, that may actually have a negative effect on our team. I hope you find them worth thinking about.

Stretching

I hate stretching. When I was in college, practice started at 4, and when it started we met quickly and got right into our first drill. You got there early and got yourself warmed up and ready to go. But we never stretched.

I think there is value in telling your guys when to be ready for practice, and then getting started. Give them time before hand to do what they have to do to get ready, but when practice starts we are rolling. There’s no time to warm-up or to ease our way into it. It’s on the kids to get them self physically and mentally ready to play.

Now, you certainly want to show your guys how to take care of their bodies so they aren’t coming into practice from the cold and playing live. But the important thing is it’s on them. Get yourself ready to play. By warming up, then stretching, then easing in to practice drills, you are telling them “we’ll give you time to get going.”

When that horn goes off and it’s time to go, I want them ready to play. And I want them to get used to getting there as players.

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