At a recent high school basketball game I attended, a very frustrated coach called a timeout with only 3 seconds left in the third quarter. Several spectators, including myself, wondered what the coach had in mind when he burned a timeout so close to an actual timeout break. Whatever play he set up didn’t work, and his team failed to even get off a shot as time expired. When they eventually lost by one point, I wondered if the coach wished he had saved that timeout until nearer the end of the game?
Among the many things that cause a coach to be second-guessed, the use of timeouts ranks right up there near the top. As the old saying goes, “You can’t take them home with you, so you might as well use them.” But when and how to use them is often a key to victory or defeat. Some coaches use T.O.’s early and often, and then have none left for the end of the game. Others seem to hold on to the timeouts for the end, but the game is already lost by that time. So what is the best way to use your timeouts in a game?
As long as you have a philosophy for your use of timeouts, you should feel comfortable. Know the time on the clock. Know how many timeouts you and the opposing coach have left. Know your team. Are they young and need a break now and then to rest and be encouraged? Or are they a veteran team that needs to play through tough times and they have the ability to overcome momentum swings? As coach, you need to know your players and how they handle adversity.
I once coached a high school varsity team that was very young (sophomores mostly) and had very little depth. They played hard, as I demanded, but usually didn’t have the energy to keep up with more experienced teams on our schedule. My use of timeouts that season was very different than in other years. I would call a T.O. somewhere in the middle of each quarter to give my team an extra rest period. I would try to call it after we scored so that they came to the bench feeling good about themselves; thus, eager to get back on the court after a brief rest. I felt it helped keep us in games that we otherwise would have gotten blown out, and it eventually allowed us to grow up and finish the season strong with several key upset wins. Two years later, this same group was a veteran team and I called very few timeouts for them. I actually only used up all five during our only two losses that season.
When are some important times to use a timeout? Again, it depends on your team and how they handle fatigue, adversity, and late game situations. Every coach should strive to have a team that never needs any timeouts. If they could handle all situations on their own, then the coach would have done a great job in transferring leadership. But is that realistic? Probably not, but teaching your leaders and team how to handle adversity should be a part of the total coaching process. Timeouts can be used to help stop “runs” by the opponent. They help by getting everyone together and discussing the strategy needed for the next part of the game. Sometimes timeouts are needed to give players a rest or to settle them down. Whatever the situation, as the leader, the coach must be composed, precise in his instructions, and reassuring to his team. There may be a time or two when a “wake up call” is needed where the coach will convey disapproval of the effort on the court. But in almost all situations, it is better to be positive and reassure the team that they can and will play better out of a timeout.
Staying calm and being able to think rationally is important in coaching. Doing it during timeouts is even more important. Have a philosophy for your use of timeouts and stick to it. Know your team and show them the guidance and encouragement they will need in times of stress. And when things aren’t going the way you planned, in the immortal words of Dick Vitale, “Get a T.O. Baby.”
Suggestions to Improve Your Time Out Usage:
1. Have an Assistant keep track of your timeouts and the opponent’s too.
2. Have your scorekeeper inform you of the number of timeouts you have remaining, if you don’t have an assistant on the bench.
3. Try to use no more than two timeouts in the first half (assuming you have five). Hopefully you can use even less than two.
4. Before calling a timeout, quickly check the opposing coach to see if he is about to call one for you. (Actually, for himself.)
5. Don’t lose and go home with two or more timeouts in your pocket. Use them to coach your team.
6. Let your players know late in the game how many timeouts you have left. Give them one to use if they need it in a tight situation, provided you have extras.