My second year as a head coach one of our post players, who was 6-9, asked me half-jokingly during the pre-season, “Coach, is it okay if I shoot 3’s?”

I answered him with another question. “Well, can you make 3’s?”

“Yes! I can make them.”

“Well, I like made 3’s as much as anyone. I like any player who does things that help our team win. Of course if you can make them, you can shoot them.”

He was obviously concerned that as a big guy his role wasn’t to shoot 3’s. We needed him in the post and the paint, banging and getting rebounds. He just assumed I wouldn’t want him out on the perimeter shooting 3’s. But he was a capable shooter, and he worked hard on shooting the ball, especially from the top of the key where he’d get a lot of trail 3’s. He didn’t shoot a lot of them, but he became a reliable threat from 3 for us, especially when we wanted to bring the opposition’s post player out of the paint. I remember starting some games with a quick-hitter to get him a top of the key 3.

I know role allocation is an important point for a lot of coaches, but I’ve never been a big believer in it. It goes back to my early days as a head coach. I always said I wanted a team that played with freedom and confidence on offense. In return, I was going to demand a lot out of them defensively. If I defined for each player what they were and were not allowed to do, were they really going to play with freedom and confidence? I didn’t think so. In a lot of situations I think “know your role” is a code for “I want control” of what you do.

My approach to this really started with our pre-season pick-up games, when our guys played for six weeks before we started practice. They chose teams at the beginning of a week and kept them all week. They kept score, and every win was recorded. At the end of the week, the team that lost the most games had to get up at 7 AM on Monday morning and run a mile. The result: those games mattered. No one wanted to lose, and guys took pride in getting through the pre-season without ever having to run on Mondays.

Because those games mattered, the guys learned to play the right way. The goal was to win, and they learned what gave them the best chance to win. That approach in those games took care of a lot of bad habits before the season even started. If you couldn’t make 3’s, do you think you were going to pull up for a 3 when it’s game point? If you did, you were certainly going to hear it from your teammates. They didn’t want to run either. The result was guys learned what they were good at, and what they could do to help their team win. It wasn’t a lab to try out your new dribble moves or work on your left-handed runner. You played the games to win, and it became very clear what worked and what didn’t.

I realized over time when we got to practice I didn’t have to talk about strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t discuss good shot vs. bad shot. And I certainly didn’t have to talk about your role. “Figure out what you are good at, and do it a lot,” I would always say. If you were good at shooting 3’s, you should be looking for ways to get open looks from 3. If you were a great ball-handler you should be getting in the paint to make plays. If you had good post moves and could finish at the rim, guess what? That’s where you should be.

I found that most of the good players never asked about their role. They knew what they were good at, they did it a lot, and those things helped the team. Usually when a player did ask me about their role it was simply because they weren’t playing well. They didn’t like how they were playing (or they just weren’t good enough) so they’d say they weren’t “comfortable in their role.” I would always tell my guys the same thing “Your role is to help us win. That is your role.” If a player needed clarification, we would talk about it. What are you good at? What can you do to help us? Usually they’d have an easy time talking about their strengths. My follow-up was then pretty simple. Do those things a lot, and they’ll help us. I was happy to offer some suggestions based on what I thought they were good at if they needed it, but usually it was better coming out of their mouth.

I’m sure it’s easy to look at this as a coach and feel a lack of control, but that’s kind of the point. We used a military phrase “In command, without control” to describe how we wanted our team to look on the court. I didn’t want to have control, because I don’t think control is the best way to get the most out of my players. When you allow the players to define their own role for themselves, instead of putting them in a box, you learn a lot about your team that you may not have known. Your players have some skills and ability that you don’t know about because they are trying to fit in to what they think their role is.

Now it’s not total chaos. It’s not like you aren’t coaching them on their habits, or you are just letting them do what they want. That’s not what you create. What happens is everyone learns the strengths and weaknesses of the entire team, and then you can make better decisions. If players are doing a lot of things they aren’t good at, they aren’t going to play. If you keep shooting a lot of 3’s and you can’t make them, you won’t play. If you stand on the perimeter all of the time and refuse to rebound, I’m sure I can find someone who can. You will get to strengths and weaknesses organically when the role is not defined for them. If they can’t figure out what they are good at that helps the team win, guess what? They aren’t very good.

Think about the way you define roles for your players. For me, it’s help us win. That is your role. Figure out what your players are good at, and coach them to do that a lot.