Basketball Coaching – Managing Relationships

First appeared in ‘Basketball Sense’ (U.S.A.)

The most important aspect of any coaching is establishing the initial relationship and defining how you will work together. This will, of course, vary a great deal according to the relationship the coach has with the player. It will depend on the precise nature of the coaching and it will depend on the level of skill you have as a communicator and instructor. Whatever the context for the coaching however the following structure will help ensure the coaching process is carried out as effectively as possible;

When a coaching situation goes wrong it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to regain the trust. If the relationship has broken down the damage can be permanent. Frequently the reason this happens is because both parties have different objectives from the situation. These objectives or goals needn’t be identical but they must be agreed and complimentary. For instance, as a coach Maurice Cheek’s goal will be for his team to win. Allen Iverson may have a personal target to score 30 points per game. Both objectives are complementary – unless it gets to the stage where Iverson tries to score at the expense of the rest of the team. Here we have different agendas and the coaching relationship is almost certain to fail unless the objectives are re-aligned.

When a coaching contract is set up, whether it’s formal or informal, it really does pay dividends to go through a strict process. This process will seem too structured, laboured and painstakingly slow at the beginning. It will take a fair amount of time initially but when you get into the habit it’ll save you so much time and anxiety that you’ll wonder how you survived before. Like most good habits the more you use it the easier it becomes and it will save so much time in the longer term.

A great amount of time and effort can be lost in the coaching process because the parties haven’t had a meaningful discussion. Both parties involved need to have effective ‘wanted and needed’, and ‘willing and able’ conversations. This is the key to a successful coaching relationship. Each person needs to establish exactly what output they want from the situation, by when, by whom and where the responsibilities lie.

Skilled coaches need to learn to handle this part of the conversation extremely effectively. They learn how to communicate skilfully by talking and listening and ‘staying in the conversation’ until they are totally sure of the goal. This can be difficult. How often have you been introduced to someone and not caught their name? Do you ask them to repeat it? How often? A skilled communicator will ask for as long as it takes – we all know the problems if we don’t do this – We spend the rest of the evening avoiding the person, or feeling embarrassed when we talk to them. This can go on for weeks. I’ve known people that didn’t catch someone’s name the first day at the office and as the weeks have gone by have become too embarrassed to ever ask them. A skilled coach is willing to ‘stay in the conversation’ even though they may feel uncomfortable. They may be tempted to back off and say “I understand” before they absolutely do, but will hang in there until it’s crystal clear.

The wanted and needed conversation allows the coach to establish what the player truly needs, not just wants. The player may want to be better at everything – don’t we all. The coach needs to establish exactly what needs to happen for that to be possible, or get the player to set more achievable goals. It’s a skilful and subtle conversation. It forces the player to be precise and focused. There needed to be a great deal of skilful communication to tease this out. This starts with lots of open questions. These questions move from the general aspects to the specifics and will help engage the other in taking responsibility. A side-effect of this process is that it helps build and strengthen the relationship. The questioning process may start with ………….

“How do you feel your career is progressing?”

“What are the most serious challenges you face?”

“Are there any particular problems you need to overcome?”

“What will happen if those problems aren’t addressed?”

“What do you need to do?”

“How can I help?”

Obviously it won’t be as simple as asking six questions. This is the start. These are the types of questions the coach is aiming to get some understanding about. It’s a two-way communication process. The coach asks questions and listens to the replies. Invariably what the player needs doesn’t match with what they think they want initially. The coach needs to keep questioning and listening until what the player wants and needs completely overlap. At the end of the conversation the coach needs to be as specific as possible about the problem and ensure the player is clear about the problem and what they truly want and need. Now there is something tangible to work with.

The next part of the discussion is about the coach’s willingness and ability to meet that request – a “Willing and Able Conversation.” The coach needs to honestly ask themselves whether they are willing and able to meet the request. They need to consider whether they have the necessary skills, knowledge, attributes to make it work. If they haven’t, then say so and try to work out a way to still help – suggest others, look at different approaches, but again they need to ‘stay in the conversation’. The really skilled coaches don’t stop and walk away until they are absolutely 100% sure they know what’s expected of them. They have learnt from experience that unless this happens the coaching won’t work as effectively as it could. Skilled coaches know that the ‘problem solving fairy’ won’t miraculously appear and sort things out when the problems are ignored. The problems just stay there and grow and grow. It’s a bit like the washing up you meant to do yesterday, or the day before – it won’t wash out. It’ll just get a little harder to deal with each day. Coaches need to have those difficult conversations as soon as they arise – before they arise even.

So, the best coaches deal with these problems as they arise. They stay in the conversation until they’re happy and the player’s happy. This all seems so clear and sensible I know, but it can be difficult. The good thing though is that it does get easier. The more you do it – the easier it gets.

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