Building a Winning Basketball Program

A 6 Step Approach

After spending 35 years as a high school and college basketball coach, I can look back and reflect on what I believe made my eight different head coaching experiences successful. Yes, often times it was the talent I was blessed to have in those programs. In fact, in my six high school head coaching jobs, I can be pretty confident saying I had the best run of talent in those schools’ histories to that point. But I also believe that I did some things at each of those high schools, and my two colleges, that helped create a better basketball program. Below are six of the most important that helped me achieve that goal.

  1. Do something a little different offensively and defensively than your opponents in league.

My philosophy of basketball was usually quite different from many of the high school coaches I went against. While others were using switching man to man defenses or playing a zone, running deliberate offenses or perimeter attacks, and controlling the pace, I liked to fast break, use the post players inside as a focal point, and employ straight man to man defense along with some “Surprise and Change” defenses too. I always figured if the opponent had to spend extra time preparing for what we did differently, and they weren’t familiar with our pace, than we had an advantage. As a coach, you need to do what fits your style and personnel the best, but consider whether you want to be like everyone else, or do a little something different that can become your trademark and cause opposing coaches concern.

2. Be fundamentally sound in your program.

Poor fundamentals lead to breakdowns and turnovers that usually ruin chances for success. By placing an emphasis on the basics and making your team fundamentally sound, you can increase your chances of winning more games almost immediately. When I took over a program, I often watched video of the previous season . This gave me an idea of the types of problems present and helped me organize a plan for change. Sometimes I would even go over past year’s video with my new team and point out these problems so they would see exactly what I was emphasizing in our workouts and practices. That often included my own past teams too as we moved on to the next season.

3. Work to make better players, but use those more that become better.

One of a coach’s main jobs is to make better basketball players. Not only do your players need to understand and develop the fundamentals of the game, but they should also learn to play smarter and with more skill over time. A good coach should teach proper shooting mechanics, ball handling skills, passing, rebounding, and defensive techniques. Another area I felt was important was the use of our taller players in the post area. Teaching them to take advantage of their size and reach was crucial to their development too. In the end, those who take your teaching to heart and improve to a level above others, deserve to play more in the games. Pointing out deficiencies and weaknesses to your players in private discussions will help them to understand their place in the rotation, and maybe encourage them to work harder to become better players.

4. Don’t be afraid to advance youth & take some lumps now to be better in the future.

I was never afraid to move a sophomore or freshman up to the Varsity team. If I felt they were ready to compete at the Varsity level and could help our team, then I wanted them up with me. Of course, I had to be pretty sure they would start or be in the top two subs when moved up. Playing time is important to development and confidence, so I usually tried to find out early if a young player was going to be ready. This would mean playing with the Varsity team in the summer, and practicing with them in the fall, where I could observe them in action with their older, potential teammates.

The first year at a program, I often looked to have younger players on the varsity so they would help us obtain success in the future. If I determined the present prospects weren’t talented enough, and some younger ones were exceptional, then I wasn’t afraid to look to the future and go into a “building mode.” Sometimes I even went into “rebuilding mode” when a talent dip occurred after I was at a school for a couple of years too. For one reason or another, a class or two would lack the depth or talent needed to make a real competitive team.

Moving up a very good, younger player always seemed to make our team better. And the young player advanced in skill and experience to become one of our better players in later seasons. I am pretty sure everyone I moved up became an All League type player eventually before they graduated. Most all became recruited players by colleges of different levels, including several at Division 1. I believe early experiences playing with and against older players helped their development far more than being less challenged at lower levels with their own classmates. Since I had that experience myself as a high school player, I always felt confident in this approach.

5. Keep things simple and do them better.

Being different with your offense or defense doesn’t mean you have to get complicated. Keeping it simple, fundamentally sound, and with the better players performing is a solid base to build on. Some coaches like offensive systems that take a big part of the season for players to become proficient. Others prefer defenses that call for major scouting, walk throughs, and adjusting to be successful. I always liked to start with some fundamentally sound basics on offense and defense, then build on them as the season progressed. Players learn to player quicker, smarter, and better when things are not too complicated.

6. Educate yourself to be the best Coach you can be.

Doing the five suggestions above requires a coach to constantly learn and refine his/her teaching skills. Staying up on the latest trends and finding new ways to present your philosophy, will help you create a system that is a little better and a little different from others in your league. You can find the best ways to teach the fundamentals you feel are most important. You can also discover ways to make your players better individually as well as molding them into a well-rounded team. By attending clinics and studying others, you will stay on top of the game and be prepared for what other coaches will try to do against your team too. Finding new ways to “keeping things simple and doing them better” is a big part of a coach’s education.

For more on Coach Battenberg’s Philosophy of Basketball, check out his book, “You Can Run With Anyone.”

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