The Problem with Over-Coaching

When I entered coaching almost ten years ago, the biggest insult one could direct toward another coach was that he simply rolled the ball out and let his players play. The insinuation was anyone could win with the team’s talent and the coach had little to do with its success. Similarly, some question Phil Jackson’s legacy as he won his championships with the most dominant player of his era (Michael Jordan followed by Shaq); some erroneously believe almost anyone could win with Scottie Pippen and MJ or Kobe Bryant and Shaq.

In ten years, my viewpoint has evolved almost one hundred and eighty degrees; now, the greatest insult is to be characterized as over-coaching. Old school coaches chafe at the notion that there is such a thing as too much coaching, but its pervasiveness shapes basketball today in several ways.

First, if coaches are teachers, and the court is their classroom, what do players learn when coaches strip players of all decision-making? Running set play after set play or running a continuity offense may be the best approach to win a game, but what do the players learn? It is possible to run set plays and still teach players to play basketball, and not to be robots following a script, but often the set plays/continuity is practiced instead of teaching players to read the defense, to use screens properly, to set-up moves and cuts, etc. Teaching players how to play is time intensive, and many coaches lack time, so they opt for organization through set players/continuity offenses.

Second, coaches over-coach when they call timeouts on every possession late in the game. Sure, NBA coaches’ jobs are on the line almost every night, but it is ridiculous they have so little faith in their players that they need to call timeout to draw a play on every important possession of the game. Players get paid millions of dollars to make plays, yet coaches apparently must justify their salaries too. Unfortunately, coaches at lower levels, with no salaries to justify, model professionals, and every level is inundated with coaches calling an incessant number of timeouts and eliminating all decision-making from the players, thus incapacitating the next generation of players and making the timeouts all the more necessary, a dangerous cycle which led to the almost unwatchable NBA action of the late nineties.

The public embraced the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05 because Mike D’Antoni is the antithesis of these coaches. He put the ball in his players’ hands and expected them to do well, to make the right decisions and make shots. He preferred a quick pace, eschewing timeouts and refusing to foul every time an opponent neared the rim. Characterized as poor defense, this decision allowed the Suns to force the tempo as the ball stayed in play and action dominated the game, with little time wasted walking the ball up the court or setting up a play.

Another symptom of over-coaching is the drills and method of instruction. Oftentimes, coaches practice timeless drills, drills passed on from generation to generation, without critically evaluating the purpose or effectiveness of the drill. At a camp last summer, the camp’s entire basis appeared to be the jab step, a good offensive move, but one far less important than many other skills. At this three-day “elite” camp, campers spent over three-hours doing jab step drills and less than forty-five minutes learning and practicing the proper shooting mechanics.

In essence, the coaching staff believed the jab step was three times as important as shooting, an obviously incorrect calculation, as the best way to become a better player is to improve one’s shooting. The instruction’s fallacy was exposed in the pick-up games played after camp between the college players and the best campers. While numerous shots were attempted, not one player used a jab step in five games.

The jab step emphasis misses the most critical concept in offensive basketball: the offensive player is most open when he first receives the pass. During the drills, the jab step lessened the offensive player’s effectiveness. The offensive player made a cut to get open; the defensive player attempted to defend the pass and then the offensive player when he received the pass. When the offensive player ignored the drill, caught the ball and attacked immediately, he created a good shot every time; unfortunately, I had to tell the player to do it again because he failed to jab step, which is the move the camp wanted to teach.

So, instead of catching and shooting or catching and attacking immediately, the offensive player had to catch the pass and wait for the defensive player to get in good position, so he could properly execute the jab step. When using the jab step, the player traveled, took a negative step, did not read the defense correctly and scored less frequently.

The jab step is an important weapon to create space; however, when teaching one-on-one offensive moves, it should not be the first and only move taught. In the NBA, the jab step is a crucial move because the best players rarely catch the pass in space; they often catch with a defensive player nearby and thus must make an offensive move from the triple threat to create space for a shot. Many coaches decry the NBA’s individualistic play, yet no move is more indicative of individual play than a jab step, which remains a staple of offensive teaching.

At the high school or college level, one-on-one play is less important. If a player catches the pass and uses a jab step or two to create his own shot, his teammates stop moving. Good offensive basketball requires ball movement and player movement, and one player using multiple jab steps to create his own shot eliminates both ball and player movement as the game comes to a stand-still.

It is worth repeating: Players are most open when they receive the pass. They catch and shoot because they are open, or they use the defensive player’s momentum against him and attack the defensive player as he closes out. Either way, the offensive player’s greatest advantage is when he first catches the pass; if he receives the pass and he is not open for a shot or a quick move, he should be looking for an open teammate cutting to the basket, not staring down his defender, using jab steps to create his own shot.

Simply stated, the offensive player’s greatest advantage is when the defensive player is switching roles from off the ball defender (help defense) to on-ball defender. Players who act quickly use the defender’s momentum against him.

Therefore, players need only one attacking live ball move: the shot fake. Important individual live ball moves are catch-and-shoot, catch-pass fake-and-shoot, catch-and-go, catch-shot fake-and-go or catch-pass fake-and-go. The shot fake gets a closing defender further off-balance, while a pass fake gets the defense to lean the wrong way or to freeze; this move is especially effective against zone defenses and/or help defenders when they scramble to recover. Even if the offensive player catches with a defender on his hip, different front or reverse pivot moves, as opposed to squaring up, are the most effective way to attack the defender, who is still moving forward, or opposite the direction the offensive player wants to go.

Three hours is too long to spend on a jab step in an entire season, let alone a three-day camp. It exhibits an improper emphasis and a lack of understanding by the camp director. Coaches must know why they teach a skill or why they use a drill; simply keeping players busy is a waste of time. Doing the same thing one did as a player is not a responsible way to educate. Imitation does not necessitate understanding, and understanding is instrumental to teaching effectively. Coaches must invest time critically thinking about what and why they teach certain skills and run various drills. Over-coaching inhibits players’ development far more than rolling the ball out and allowing players to play.

McCormick’s email address is highfivehoopschool@yahoo.com.

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