Getting a new basketball Head Coaching job is one of the most exciting times in a Coach’s career. It’s a chance to start fresh, use all the knowledge you have gained from past experiences, and now demonstrate your ability to build a winning program. But where do you start and how can you get your new program off to a successful beginning?
Having taken over basketball programs at six high schools and two colleges in my career, I have a few thoughts and ideas I can share. Some I learned the hard way. Some were concepts I picked up from others and a few I developed on my own. Experience taught me along the way that I needed to be more particular as I moved from one position to another.
When you take over a program for the first time, hopefully you already know what you are getting into. The job was originally open for a reason. What was that reason? No talent? Lack of Administrative support and financing? Or was it poor coaching? Usually it is one of those three. I never took a job without knowing what I was getting into in the first place. Always get as much information as you can about the situation before you even interview. Seek answers to these questions before accepting a new position. Try to have the answers even before you interview.
A. Is There Talent? For high schools, I looked at the lower levels to see what was coming up. In college, I was more interested in the quality of talent returning and the prospects of recruiting new talent to add for the future.
B. Will There Be Financial and Administrative Support? I always checked into that at the interview level. How supportive will the Administration be and will they provide the budget necessary to run a good program? Will you have to do a lot of fund-raising?
C. Can Good Coaching Make a Difference? If I had not seen the previous season’s team play in person, I found whatever video was available and made my own evaluation of that aspect. How much can be improved by my coaching methods? What will the major changes have to be to make a difference?
In some situations, it could be all three of the above reasons why the position became available and more. In that case, you may be in for a long struggle. But fear not. You took the job, so roll up your sleeves and get to work on solving the problems. Here are some suggestions I have for changing the culture, selling your philosophy, and improving the quality of play for your new team:
- Sell Your Philosophy
You sold yourself in the interview. Now it’s time to sell yourself and your philosophy to the players. Start the process at your first team meeting and continue selling during all of your early workouts and practices. Getting players to buy in may take some time, so stay enthusiastic and keep selling. A handout to the players briefly stating your top five objectives is a good way to introduce philosophy. This can serve as a reminder of where you are headed as time moves on.
2. Establish Your Culture
What are your expectations for the team in terms of commitment, communication and cooperation? What are your practice standards and how do players commit to these? Again, as in establishing your philosophy, a handout detailing the kind of culture you want and expect is important. Keep it to 10 or less items that are most important to you right from the start. Others can be added later.
3. Give Seniors Special Attention
The Seniors on the team will usually be the toughest to sell because they have been comfortable with the old system for so long. Quite often, Seniors feel they have a right to play because it is finally their turn. But they need to know that everyone is starting over with a new coach and new system, so they are all equal from the beginning. Seniors have to work hard just like everyone else. In fact, I tell them that they need to work harder because they are the most experienced and should show leadership and a great work ethic.
4. Find That Fountain of Youth
Evaluate all of the talent in your new program. With a new system and new coach, this is the time to find the young talent that might help in the near future or even now. If you are at a high school, invite some of the better Frosh/Soph to work out with the Varsity early on. The youngsters may surprise you, they will awaken the upperclassmen, and they will gain experience for the future. I’ve taken over programs where the upperclassmen didn’t show up for summer workouts or games. The young players filled in and gained a lot of experience. In some cases, they gained enough to beat out the non-dedicated, upperclassmen during fall tryouts.
5. Build Your Basketball Foundation
I have found that the quickest way to improve a new team’s record is to build a stronger Defense. The fastest way to improve the offense is to teach good shot selection. And the third most important way to improve a team is to sharpen up the basic fundamentals of basketball. It’s not Rocket Science. You don’t need an “analytically approved offense” or a wild, trapping defense to win consistently. You just need to do the simple things better. Good defense, smart shot selection, and solid fundamentals will gain improvements in play the quickest. And they will help to build a solid foundation for your program in the future.
6. Hire Assistants That Will Assist
When you are allowed to hire your own assistants, find coaches who will buy into your philosophy 100%. You don’t want to have to waste precious time your first year monitoring, counseling, and correcting a lower level coach. Sometimes though, your administration asks you to stick with an assistant from the past staff. You will usually need to spend some time winning this person over. It is best to be very clear with what you want done and make sure it gets done. Otherwise, building your program will become a one man job. Involve your assistants by attending their practices from time to time and inviting them to help in yours. Also, let them know they are welcome to join you on the bench during games. The entire staff needs to work together with a clear vision of where your program is headed.
Your program will be off to a great start if you work on the above six concepts right from the beginning. Establishing clearly what you want, will make your job as Head Coach much smoother.