Tag Archives: NBA

The Secret About The Secret

‘The Secret’ is the central theme of Bill Simmons’ epic book about the NBA.  As revealed to him by Hall of Fame player Isaiah Thomas, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball”.  That is, while the collective skills of a basketball team are important, what is most important is the collective, the interactions between those skills and the personalities of the players.  If you ask virtually anyone close to basketball, or any other team sport, his opinion on the topic, I am extremely confident that virtually all would agree with Thomas’ sentiment.

‘The Secret about the Secret’ is that while virtually all agree that it’s not about (name your)ball in the abstract, almost no one actually takes it into account in practice.  In the vast majority of cases, clubs do not build teams, but collect players or, even worse, ‘assets’ or ‘pieces’*.  While clubs talk about the importance of the team, they will always, always take the slightly better player or slightly bigger name regardless of how they fit into the current team and without considering the mix of personalities**.

I have had the extreme good fortune to spend a large portion of my career working with Scott Touzinsky.  Scott was a pretty good player, especially in reception and defence, but by no means a top level player.  However, every group that Scott was involved in became a team, and most likely won or came very close to winning. His list of (team) achievements includes championships in five different countries, and an Olympic gold medal in 2008.  Yet I personally experienced two different clubs not re-signing him after the team had a great season, because he was not good enough. The drop off in performance on both occasions was catastrophic, but at least in the second case the club was smart enough to correct their mistake.  One of the highlights of my career was being able to bring him to Poland, and listen as real volleyball experts instantly recognised his contribution.

The reason that clubs don’t take into account The Secret is really simple.  Their goal is not to win.  Logically if someone acknowledges the importance of an element and yet systematically ignores it in practice, then they cannot have the goal of winning.  Their actual, hidden, motivation’ is not to look stupid or be criticised for their decisions. If a club takes a ‘worse’ player over a ‘better’ player, they will instantly be criticised and if they also lose, they will likely be sacked.  Karch Kiraly, picking the roster for the 2016 Olympics acknowledged The Secret and took a third setter instead of a fourth receiver.  This was questioned at the time, and continues to be questioned after his highly favoured team faltered in the semi-final.  But the reality is his team led that semi-final 11-7 in the fifth set.  The presence or otherwise of a fourth receiver would not have made a difference in that match.  If you look at the playing time of the fourth receivers in the men’s tournament, you will find they were essentially meaningless (in terms of points scored).  And yet he is still criticised for making that decision.

As he had the first word, so should Isaiah Thomas have the last word.  He knows The Secret, but as the General Manager of the New York Knicks he aggressively ignored it in building historically bad teams, including signing multiple stars who played the same position.  He himself could have predicted the outcome***.

*In the case of the AFL, they don’t even call them ‘teams’ anymore. What the f*** is a ‘playing group’?

**It goes without saying that it becomes the responsibility of the coach to mould these disparate, ill considered pieces into a team.

***He was criticised at the team for his team building. It is still not clear what his hidden motivation was.  One writer judged him as the second worse General Manager of all time.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Talking Is Communication…

…and if you know me at all, you know that the following line is…

But Communication Is Not Talking

You can find some of my thoughts on the topic here and here.

On that theme, this article is a great one from the NBA about the next level of communication after talking where the players on a team communicate with each other through looks and movements.

As my players say, ‘that is what I’m talking about!’

Is Kobe Really Competitive?

In another period of my coaching career, there were many sports scientists attached to our program.  One was particularly attached to the team.  He was smart and hard working and personally close to some of the players through one of his other roles.  One day, out of the blue, he quit working with our team.  The reason that he gave was a disagreement over training programs with another of our service providers.  We were of course disappointed, but as is the way of things we moved on with his replacement.  Some time later, under the influence of alcohol, he cornered me at a function and among other things demanded to know why we had let him go, as he “… would have done anything for the team.”  My reply was that obviously he wouldn’t have done anything for the team, otherwise he would have found a way to work with his colleague for everyone’s benefit.  Nothing in the ensuing years has made me change my opinion.

I have been reminded of that conversation by Kobe Bryant many times in the last few months.  As he closed in on his retirement, there were many stories about his legendary obsessiveness and commitment and ‘competitiveness’.  Reading through the litany of compliments one phrase would invariably wander through my mind.  ‘Yeah, he would do anything to win… except work with his teammates.’  This may seem somewhat churlish of me given his success but it somehow seems important.  Basketball, like volleyball, is a team game, the ultimate expression of which is the combination of different parts in order to reach a level greater than the sum of those parts.  While Kobe clearly possesses many highly desirable qualities, to deliberately ignore the fact that he apologetically wears his selfishness as a badge of honour is to ignore a vital part of his story and sells the game short.

This touches on the broader point of competitiveness and what competitiveness actually is.  Noone would ever suggest that Kobe is not competitive.  But to be competitive implies an overarching desire to win.  But his actions do not actually support that thesis.  One comment that I was once told may help clear up the discrepancy

“It is not enough for me to win.  Winning by itself is not interesting.  I want to be the reason that we win.”

And there is the difference.  I have met many people over the years who would say and have said that they were highly competitive.  But I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win.  If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit.  I don’t think Kobe passes that test.

“It’s Basketball… Get Over Yourself!”

I have a read a lot of coaching texts over the years.  And biographies.  And autobiographies.  I learnt a lot from all of them.  But at some point, I started to become disheartened.  In the books, the coaches did everything right, and never compromised.  The players eventually saw the wisdom of the coach and did exactly as he wanted.  The coach received the just rewards for his skill and wisdom.  There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the world of coaching in the books I read and the one that I was experiencing personally.

But over time, I read different books and I learnt that not every player liked John Wooden.  Or even respected him.  I learnt that Bill Walsh didn’t dominate every season.  Even though he was a genius.  I learnt that Pep Guardiola let this players talk him into changing tactics.  What?!?  I learnt that Alex Ferguson put his team in the wrong hotel before a big match.  Really?!?  And most all I learnt that coaching is just like everything else worthwhile; a multifaceted activity that sometimes you get right and sometimes you get wrong and sometimes you don’t know why.  I was reassured.

At this point in my life / career, the books that interest me the most are ones like Platonov’s book.  Resources that highlight the craft of coaching and talk about the practicalities of it.  The best current resource for that is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.  I recently came across a video of a clinic he gave to coaches in Berlin a couple of years ago.  It is great, no bullshit advice for coaches.  The main takeaway?  Choose character.  And if you are wrong about someone’s character? Get rid of them and start again.  Here are a couple of my favourite quotes.  Or you can watch the whole video below.  Or both.

On working with jerks – “You want to enjoy yourself. Seasons are long.  There are lots of different situations that you are in.  You wake up in the morning, you’re a grown man or a grown woman, you want to spend your day with jerks?  You want to hate yourself when you go to practice because you have to put up with this idiot? … Get rid of them.  Start at the basic bottom line of character.”

On responding to winning and losing – “Bust your ass, do the best you can do, … and go for a beer.”

On responding to winning and losing – “If you win, act like you do it all the time and you didn’t do anything special.  If you lose go back to work, try figure it out.”

On timeouts – “The players go to the bench and I bring the coaches out here, and we talk, and make the owner think we know what we’re doing.  That we’re thinking about some strategy that’s really cool and we’re just talking about where we’re going to go to dinner after the game. Sometimes you gotta play the game a little bit.”

On timeouts – “You think everything you say (in a timeout) is gonna make them better.  They’re not gonna get better during that game!  You’re just wasting your time. So instead of telling them six things … Pick something!”

On timeouts – “I think timeouts are really important.  They calm guys down… Do what you gotta do. Briefly!  Succinctly.  The let them go back and play.”

On standing back during a timeout… “It helps some guys be better leaders because they don’t want to say some things in front of the coach… They’ll talk to each other a whole lot more if they’re together than if we’re over them all the time.”

On goal setting – “That process. That pride in work on a daily basis is what grows the spirit and what grows the character and what makes them feel like… they deserve to win the championship. Your team has to feel like they deserve it. Like they worked harder than everybody else… the mental as much as the physical part.”

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Timeouts Make You Play Worse

I don’t want to labour the point (Haha, just joking. Of course I do) but I am reasonably sure that the conventional wisdom on the effectiveness of timeouts is misguided. So sure in fact that I have written several posts on the topic.  It is of such interest to me, that I have ‘commissioned’ a bigger study on it.  But in the meantime, as such things are wont to do, another article about timeouts in the NBA popped up on my RSS feed.  As you can see from the graphic, in the NBA a team is less likely to score after a timeout than if they had just let the play run.  Click on the photo to see the original article.

nba timeoutsAnd just for the record, I do take timeouts and I take all of them and I take them at roughly the times I am supposed to take them.  Do as I say… 😉


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Coach’s Books And Great Coaches

One of my favourite things I am doing now is the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, in which my partner John Forman and I interview great volleyball coaches with the view to share their insights with other coaches.  So far the project has been enormously fun and rewarding.  One of the highlights was a recently recorded (and soon to be released) interview with Swedish coaching legend, Anders Kristiansson.  At some point in the interview I suggested that he should write a book. He laughed and quoted his friend Julio Velasco, who apparently said…

“If a coach has written a book he is not a good coach.  A good coach is thinking only about his next practice.”

I of course laughed at appropriate moment, noted the irony out loud, and silently put my own book plans on hold.  I have written before the coach’s books should be taken with a pinch of salt anyway, but this got me thinking a little bit more.

As so often happens in these cases, shortly after the conversation I came across documentaries about two of the great current American coaches.  As it happens those two coaches, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick, are virtually unanimously considered to be the best coach in the NBA and NFL respectively.  Neither has written a book.  Neither has an identifiable slogan or method that they have trademarked and marketed.  For that reason, I think both documentaries are especially valuable, not least because they contain first person interviews.  I embed them here without further comment.

Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs

Note: The title says 1/6, but it automatically plays all six.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots

Note: The embedded video may not play, but the original on YouTube will.

Phil Jackson Is Insidious

of the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 28, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of the great truisms of sport is that winners will always be copied.  When one coach ’empowers’ his players, everyone wants to.  When one coach plays with two receivers, everyone wants to.  When one coach plays the ‘West Coast Offence’, everyone wants to. It happens in every sport, at every level.  And successful coaches often have their coaching ‘trees’ of coaches who work them, learn their lessons, and become successful coaches in their own right.

Every so often there is a successful coach who is so unique that noone can successfully copy him, nor do his assistants achieve any notable success or longevity.  The most notable of those coaches is probably Phil Jackson.  His (or his assistant Tex Winter’s) Triangle Offence won 11 NBA titles under his direction, and exactly zero under any other coach.  The few of his assistants who became head coaches, had unremarkable (and short) careers.

I can’t think of a coach in any sport whose combination of personal philosophy, character and vision is so totally unreplicable.  Plus he wrote the most important coaching book ever, Sacred Hoops.

Today is his 70th birthday and there are numerous articles celebrating that and remembering him.  Among the articles are some interesting quotes and anecdotes that I has somehow missed, despite having read all of the books about him.

Some highlights from the articles:

“The soul of success is surrendering to what is.”

“One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”

“I had to do some disciplinary things with Dennis Rodman, but we signed off on them. Dennis, I’m gonna fine you for being late, because he’s late every day. I went to the team and I said Dennis is gonna be late, I’m gonna fine him, but we can’t act out of sorts with this and become childish because we have to make allowances for his behavior… (The Lakers) has been so childish that they keep tabs on who gets more benefits, who has more discipline, those kind of things, and it’s tough because you can’t keep tabs.”

“Phil never missed a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle when he was coaching the Bulls and had fun with the English language. Once, he yelled at his team, ‘This is insidious,’ then followed that up with, ‘How many of you know what insidious means? I want you to go home and look it up and tell me tomorrow.'”

“Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something — anything — to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.”

Three articles are linked here, here and here and here.