Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sloppy is as Sloppy Does

Back in the 1970s, John McKay, after winning 4 national championships at USC, went on to become the first coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers where his team lost it's first 26 games.  In the post-season press conference following one such loss, McKay was asked what he thought of his team's execution. He replied, "I'm all for it."

Have you ever had one of those practices where you feel like everything you've been working on has gone in one ear and out the other?  We had one today where it seemed like players needed to be constantly reminded about properly executing the little things that we've been working on for weeks! 

Example:  Our rule for offensive rebounding is: "If you shoot the three, then you rotate to the top for a "second chance three," while the other four players crash the boards using their "wedge" technique to secure an offensive rebound."  Now of course we don't expect them to have totally mastered this yet, because after all, they have been coached to "follow your shot" since they were big enough to pick up a basketball. But when you see players forgetting this simple concept on almost every possession, you've got to conclude that they just are not focused and prepared to practice well.

Why is this?  How do we explain this tendency of players to revert to mediocrity, to take the easy way, the path of least resistance?  Why do we coaches have to be constantly vigilant to correct mistakes in execution?  Well, although my instinct is to blame the players, I know that doesn't accomplish anything.  The right question to ask is not, "What's wrong with these players?" but rather, "What can I as their coach do to get them to execute our system at a higher level?"  After all, the only person on the team whose behavior I have direct control over is me.

Given that reality, what can I do to generate high standards of practice performance?  I've said this before, but every successful coach I know was very organized and demanding.  So here are some of the practice routines and expectations that I think set the right tone, and hopefully minimize those Sloppy Days:
  • Give each drill a distinct and easily remembered name.  Repeat this name often (before and after the drill, as a reminder) until player commit the drill name and drill setup to memory.
  • After calling out the drill name, tell players the precise location where it will be run, and the particular groups they will be in,   For example:  "Groups of three at each basket!"; "3 lines, on the baseline!" (or at half court); "2 teams: Reds and Whites, Red's ball at half court!"  or "3 teams: Reds, Whites, and Blacks, on the baseline, Blacks pressing Reds!" 
  • YOU MUST HAVE THEIR ATTENTION AND COMMUNICATE CLEARLY WHAT YOU WANT!  Make sure everybody is listening, demand eye contact,  and speak distinctly.  Call out the necessary information (once again: drill name, location, and groups), then get them started!   Sometimes in a loud gym, you might need to "gather" players together to change drills... but its worth the few extra seconds it takes to make sure you are being heard.
  • Seniors are required to get to the front of the line (since they know the drills) while newcomers get in the back and keep their eyes open... then do what the seniors do.
  • Players must start the drill immediately upon getting things set up... the coach doesn't need to tell them to start! If they aren't underway in 10 seconds, somebody is not taking leadership!
  • Always rotate the same way:  Offense to defense to the end of the line.
  • Always execute at game speed unless "walk through" is clearly stated.
  • Have an assistant or a manager move the ball rack to the most efficient location on the court for transitioning from one drill to the next. 
  • Players don't chase loose balls... have an extra one at hand to start the next rep immediately.
  • Scrimmage play stops only on the whistle, and there are no boundaries.
But even when you try to run a disciplined practice, you'll have occasional sloppy practices, as we did today.  So aren't these organizational details a lot of bother?  As long as you at least take the time to write down your practice plan (say, on the back of an envelope ten minutes before workout), isn't that sufficient?  Can't we just expect players to stay focused in practice without thinking through and planning these picky structural transitions?


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