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Roundtable Discussion: What are the skill sets that are needed to be a successful coach?

by Michael Podoll,
Managing Editor, Winning Hoops

Coaching Development Roundtable Highlights:
Critical Skill Sets For Success

Winning Hoops held a roundtable panel discussion with some of the brightest college coaching minds in the game at a recent Nike Championship Basketball Clinic. This exclusive coaching roundtable offers up some thought-provoking insight on the keys to being a successful coach in today's game and how it's changed over the years.

Q: What are the skill sets that are needed to be a successful coach in today's game and how has this changed over the past decade? How do you continue to improve upon your own skills as a coach and what is your approach to continual learning?

A: Jim Boeheim, Head Mens Coach, Syracuse University
2003 NCAA Mens Champions
"The only thing that's changed is that you need to be more flexible with today's players. The things that you needed to do 20 years ago to be successful are the same things you need to do today. Basketball is simple. Your players need to play as a team and need to work hard on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. You need players who are willing to play together. Players need to understand their roles on the team and they need to buy into that role. The formula for winning hasn't changed.

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"I don't yell or scream at players nearly as often as I used, but I think this is probably more because I'm mellowing as a person the older I get, rather than because of some radical change in today's players. Overall though, I don't feel I've changed as a coach. I've just been here longer.

"The nice thing about being a coach is that everybody starts out the same at the beginning of the year. We all have the same record and what you've done in the past has no bearing on the upcoming season. It doesn't matter if you've been coaching 20 years or a year. You're record's still 0-0.

"The process of continual learning is a huge factor in becoming a successful coach. I'm using drills now that I just picked up within the last year. We've evolved our defense and made changes in the zone, adapting things to counter the counters, put in different twists, etc. In fact, I wouldn't recognize our 2-3 zone defense now if you looked at it and compared it to a film from 6 or 7 years ago. It's completely different." Winning Hoops Newsletter

A: Roy Williams, Head Mens Coach, University of North Carolina
2005 NCAA Mens Champions
"You need to have a knowledge of the game to be successful, there's no question about that. But the ability to teach and to get your youngsters to do what you ask them to do better than what the other coach is asking his or her players to do is the key to this game.

"Yes, talent also plays a huge role in success. If your talent is better than the opponent's, then you have a much better chance to win. But the whole deal in coaching is getting your players to do what you ask them to do and doing it as effectively as you possibly can.

"I've never attended a clinic or never sat and talked with any coach regardless of the coaching level where I didn't feel like I could learn something. Even though I'm coaching in the college ranks, there's no reason why I can't learn something from a junior high coach. The day you think you got all the answers you're done."

A: Gary Williams, Head Mens Coach, University of Maryland
2002 NCAA Mens Champions
"The game of basketball keeps getting better and continues to become more complicated in terms of coaching. With today's game, a coach needs to work extremely hard just to keep up and stay even with the competition. You have to put a lot of time and energy into your craft.

"A lot of times now you have to deal with players on a more individual basis. It's critically important to understand how each player is thinking, because a lot of them come from backgrounds where there hasn't been a lot of discipline as there was in the past whether it's a family situation or a coaching situation. Now days, a lot of players change schools at the high school age and many young players will play for 2 or 3 different coaches during the course of one summer. As a result, they really haven't had that one coach with whom they've grown up with like high school players of the past. Therefore, it's important to get to know everybody as individuals within your program.

"I've been coaching for a long time and I've never gotten to the point where I feel as if I've learned everything there is to learn. Partly, because the game changes all the time. There are always new and different techniques that pop up. Or if something really works for a program, then everyone copies it and you'll end up spending a lot of time and research working on the best ways to counter it. So there's always something to learn.

"Any time you can hear different coaches lecture on the game, while you might not feel the same way about everything they say, you can still pick up many new and useful ideas from them. I started my coaching career as a junior varsity high school coach and I feel fortunate to get to the point I'm at right now. So any time I can talk with someone and pick up new ideas, I still get excited about it."

A: Terri Mitchell, Head Womens Coach, Marquette University
"Before you can grow as a coach, you can't afford to forsake the fundamentals. Too often, we coaches are guilty of overcomplicating the game of basketball with too many offensive and defensive schemes and preparation for special situations. The bottom line is that in offense, a player has to be able to catch, pass, dribble and be a triple-threat player. Defensively, players need to be ingrained with a sense of urgency on their defensive slides and in knowing where the ball is at all times. Coaches will often try to teach too much, as opposed to getting players to master the basics. If you can get your players to master the basics and forge a fundamentally strong team, then you can build on that solid foundation and give your team the confidence it needs to succeed.

"Talk to as many coaches as you can and pick their brains. Talk to coaches at different levels and don't get caught up in what level someone's coaching at. I've spoken to many great coaches at what are called 'lower levels.' Everyone who coaches has good ideas and varying experiences that you can learn from. Pick up a phone, watch a video, read a coaching publication and find out what works for you.

"Your players are blanks slates when they come to you. They're going to believe and trust how you present the information to them. If you step onto the court with any kind of lack of confidence, your players will immediately pick up on that. If you exude confidence and believe in what you're saying, the players will buy into it.

"Today's players, especially on the women's side, are coming into the game quicker, faster and more athletically gifted than ever before, but the fundamentals are starting to go out the window. The mid-range jumper has become a lost art, as more players are shooting 3-pointers and driving to the basket. We don't pigeon-hole players with tags such as, "you're a wing player" or "you're strictly a post player." All our players work on all the critical fundamentals of being a good basketball player.

A: Ernie Kent, Head Mens Coach, University of Oregon
"You have to have a passion and a love for the game to succeed as a coach today. Coaching is not a 3-hour-a-day job. You have to be someone who accepts the fact that coaching basketball is a part of your life and part of your lifestyle. In this day and age, you're dealing with players from so many different backgrounds and with so many different problems, that you need to have compassion and a love of the game to deal with these issues. If you're going to be successful on the floor, you need to make sure that your players have success in their lives. And to do that takes a tremendous commitment of time.

"I used to be one of those coaches who said, 'It's my way or the highway.' but I've learned over time especially with today's generation of young players that you need compassion if you're to be successful. You had better have some flexibility to your game and the way you're teaching it if you want to succeed.

"You must never stop learning if you want to be successful. I recently sat in on one of Larry Brown's coaching and film sessions with the Detroit Pistons and I learned so much in just 30 to 40 minutes. Any chance you get to attend a coaching clinic, read an coaching article or watch another coach's practice, it's a valuable opportunity that you need to take advantage of."

A: Joe Scott, Head Mens Coach, Princeton University
"The key to coaching, no matter the sport and no matter your coaching philosophy, is getting everybody to understand what your philosophy is. What makes the game of basketball so challenging to coach is that it's the ultimate team game, yet is founded upon what I like to call 'individual individuality.' You have all these individual things going on and all the individual battles taking place in basketball. You want your players to become as good as they can be individually almost preaching an unbelievable sort of selfishness to improve but then once you hit the court, you're trying to get them to meld into the team concept. And no matter your system or philosophy, if you want success, the team has to come first. That's the most important thing a coach has to tackle on a daily basis.

"The best thing that a high school-level coach can do to improve his or her coaching knowledge is to visit and spend time with a college program. No matter where your school is located, you have a Division 1 school in your area and it's an unbelievable learning resource at your disposal. Depending on where you live, there may even be as many as four or five Division 1 schools within driving distance. There's no better opportunity than watching how a college coach runs his or her practice and how they go about their daily business. If you can pull a few new teaching methods or a ideas out of each school that you visit, you'll end up armed with some great new knowledge." Winning Hoops Newsletter

A: Tom Crean, Head Mens Coach, Marquette University
"To succeed, coaches must never lose faith in their players. The players must always be put in situations that are designed to make them better and the players must be aware that these situations are targeted to help them improve.

"Trust your instincts. If you've put a lot of thought into what you're doing and a lot of time into your plan and your players, then you can make a lot of positives happen.

"There's not a day that goes by that our staff doesn't try to learn something new or improve on the things that we do. You can learn these things from watching live games, tape, coaching clinics, coaching books, conversations with other coaches anything you can learn is worthwhile.

"You also want a staff and a group of players around you who are dedicated to self-improvement. Everyone in the program must work together toward improving. We have a sign posted in our offices that reads 'Making the players better: It's not somebody's job it's everybody's job.'"

A: Jack Bennett, Head Mens Coach, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
2004 & 2005 NCAA Division III Mens Champions
"There are two keys toward growing as a coach. First, at a very early stage in your coaching career, you should form some sort of coaching philosophy. This philosophy should be the vision of how you want your team to play.

Second, after you've studied the game and listened to a wide variety of coaching lectures, watched numerous tapes and gleaned information from coaching books and publications you should be yourself. You can't be Bobby Knight. You can't be Dean Smith. You can't be the hot coach who's in vogue at that moment. You need to be yourself. You need to find out who you are as a coach and implement a style of play that you enjoy, while basing it on a solid exploration of a philosophy. Some of this exploration is done through trial and error, some of it is how you've been brought up in the game and the style of ball you played as a player. Some of it is what works and what doesn't work.

"Obviously, you need to be a player's coach and you must be flexible enough to adapt to the talent that's on your roster. But you shouldn't just float from one idea to the other. There should be a core philosophy of what you want to do.

"It took me quite a few years to arrive at my own core philosophy. In my case, not only was I brought up with some strong mentors such as my brother Dick Bennett but early on, I tried to learn anything I could about Bobby Knight's coaching philosophy. About 10 years into my coaching career, I discovered that I was trying to be something that I wasn't. I realized that I needed to take all the things I learned from other coaches and mold them into something that fit my own personality, my own needs and a style that I enjoyed coaching.

"Ultimately, your core philosophy is going to be affected by your success or the lack thereof. If you're successful, then your core philosophy will be reinforced. If you're not successful, then your core philosophy will be shaken and you'll be forced to re-evaluate what you're doing."

A: Bruce Weber, Head Mens Coach,
University of Illinois
2005 NCAA Mens Championship Runner-Up
"To become better as a coach, one must continually learn about the game of basketball. Life is changing, technology is changing and basketball is changing. You must be flexible. Whether a coach realizes it or not, every day he or she learns something new either in practice, in a game or watching a video. You must constantly update yourself, advance yourself and stay flexible. One season you may have good shooting guards and the next season good post players. Change according to the talent you have. If you're stagnant and stuck with something, the game's going to pass you by.

"Players' skill sets are changing. You're seeing a greater emphasis on athleticism and the dunk. Where, the international game which is somewhat taking over for our game is more of a skill and finesse game. Today's coaches need to wake up and realize that we have to emphasize individual skills such as passing, shooting and ball handling. And if we can tie these 'international' skills in with our own players' athleticism, the game will be all the better for it."

A: Dennis Felton, Head Mens Coach, University of Georgia
"The concept of 'coaching the game' hasn't and shouldn't change at all. The most important part of coaching is teaching teaching the fundamentals of the game and teaching players how to play the game with one another. What has changed is that coaching has become more of a challenge. Young players have become more sophisticated now in terms of what they're exposed to, what they know or what they think they know.

"I'm sure there was a time and I didn't coach in this era where you could tell players to do something and have the reasoning be 'Because I said do it.' and that would be enough. Now it's critical that you go through the 'why's' of what you're doing. To get today's players to work hard and to get them to do something a certain way, it's important for them to understand that there's a value to what you're doing and that they understand why they're doing it. The more you're able to relay this concept, the more devotion and motivation you'll draw from your players. I just don't think this was as necessary in prior eras of basketball as it is today.

"Learning about the game never stops. I tend to keep things simple both for my players and for myself. I like to watch what other coaches do and draw from that. One of the best learning tools for me as a coach has always been scouting. Scouting involves countless hours of watching tape. And when you watch a tape from a critical standpoint and when you're trying to figure out what a team is doing and why they're doing it (so that you can draw up a counter to it) you really learn a lot about the game.

"I also learn a lot about the game by watching other coaches conduct practice. When you see first-hand, how another coach runs a practice, and how he or she teaches the game and see the things that are emphasized and what's really important to another coach that's when you pick up valuable knowledge."

A: Dave Odom, Head Mens Coach, University of South Carolina
"Things are radically different for young coaches today than when I started out in coaching. The game itself hasn't changed. It's the culture of the game that has. There are more people that have more interest in the game of basketball and therefore there are more problems. I've always felt that when I get to the court, things are the same as they've always been. The coaches and the players have the control. But the problems we're facing in all of basketball are more street-related and more secular, than they are profession driven. It's become more bureaucratic and more commercial which is less tasteful."

If you want to read more articles like this, subscribe to Winning Hoops. An annual subscription is only $44.95 for the six times a year publication. One of the best coaching resources you can get delivered to your home.

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