Brad Stevens + Google = NCAA Championship (almost!)

At a coaches basketball coaching clinic, Brad Stevens shared he has a section at the end of his individual workouts with players called Dreamtime. This is when the player decides what to work on. When I first heard him say that it made me raise an eyebrow and think “wait… what?” Isn’t the coach’s job to be able to identify areas his players should work on, determine the necessary drills, and put in the hours to help his player improve? Isn’t it part of my job as a teacher to explain to my player how doing the drills I assign him will make him a better player as well as help the team? Why would I not take advantage of my time with the player, but give the reigns over to this teenager who could potentially undermine what I’ve been trying to implement?

Because freedom makes players better! Brad gave a great example of Matt Howard. Matt Howard was a forward/center for Butler University and played three years with at least one foot in the paint at all times. During Matt Howard’s Dreamtime, he and the coach would work on pick-and-pop three point shooting. The repetition gave Matt Howard the confidence to expand his game and become one of the team three-point shooting leaders his senior year. Howard went from attempting only 20 three-point shots his first three years in college to making 53 his senior year and shooting 40%. Wow!

It reminded me of Google’s famous 20% time. Google encourages its engineers to take 20% of their time and work on something company related that personally interests them. Since Google was it’s hands in every tech related cookie jar known to man, engineers pretty much can spend a day every week doing whatever they want… this could also be called dreamtime. Amazing products, like Gmail and Google News, have been created by engineers during their 20% time. It was, in my opinion, the best example of taking a founding pillar of one of the best run companies in the world and applying it to an elite basketball team.

When we read or hear about company employee programs that work, why do us coaches not apply them to our basketball teams? Brad Stevens has, and he has back-to-back national championship game appearances to prove that it works. I began to ask myself more and more questions and wondered what lessons I had missed out on at different coaches conferences. In my quest to improve my knowledge of basketball tactics, my colleagues and I sought out an organized a collection of notes from different conferences in order to discover what we could learn and apply to our respective teams. I decided I would no longer try to “figure it out on my own” and learn as I go. If others have already found different building blocks to success, I’ll start where they left off. Brad Stevens did it with Google and I can as well.

 

How Peach Fuzz and a Leg Kick Made me a Better Coach

Before the summer of 2010, when the word “communication” was said to me regarding basketball, there were two images that would pop into my head. The first image was of an elite basketball coach like Hubie Brown on one knee with a clipboard in front of players sitting on the bench during a timeout. The second image is of a tall man with high socks, short shorts and a puffy afro (I’m a 70’s love child) yelling “pick-right” as the person he was guarding set a ball screen on a perimeter defender. Regardless of the images that pop into my head or into your head, when we hear the word communication on the basketball court I’m positive we both think of at least one thing in common… verbal communication.

Communication changed for me one afternoon on November 19, 2008. I was waiting on my wife, and had heard a ball bouncing so I stuck my head in side the gym where I saw three middle school aged kids chucking half court shots. The smallest kid was clearly having to use every once of strength he had to try and make a respectable toss. At the end of his “heave-ho” shot, he would do a weird kind of a leg-kick thing that would cause him to lose balance and sometimes fall. The two other friends laughed at the small kid who would purse his lips and yell out, “Shut up, I don’t kick out my leg!” After several failed attempts to stop laughing the tallest one, who has a shadow of peach fuzz above his lip, motioned the small one over and said “I’ll show you”. I hadn’t noticed but the peach fuzz boy had been recording the small shoot half court shots. All three set down on the floor and the small kid saw visual proof that he did, in fact, do a wired leg-kick thing. Then the most amazing thing happened. As peach fuzz gloated in his “I told you so” aura, the small one picked up his basketball and shot a half court shot completely differently. The new form allowed the boy to stay balanced and he hit the bottom right hand corner of the backboard! “Close, but you still suck,” said the boy with peach fuzz. “Wow,” I said as my wife tapped me on the shoulder to leave, “I just learned how I’m going to teach my players.” That was the best 10 minutes I ever spent waiting on my wife. Seeing those kids goof off completely changed how I communicated on the basketball court, and it started a trend in my coaching that made me significantly better. The number one principle on my list became “Video is the Ultimate Truth.”

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The above story about the three kids is not mine. It’s from a former NBA coach I heard speak at a basketball coaching clinic during the summer of 2010. I was thinking on the drive back from the conference, how many stories like that have I missed out on? How many conferences could have made me a better high school basketball coach? How many basketball lessons have other people learned that I could apply now instead of learning it the hard way on my own several years later? This last question really resonated with me. The idea of recording my player shoot free throws with my camera phone to show him a defect in his shot had never occurred to me. It was by far the easiest, quickest, and most effective “basketball tactic” to get him to change. I left the conference wanting to go home and attend every basketball conference I could find in a Google search result! But since that is not realistic. I decided there is no point in me trying to be like the small kid in the story and continue to do the same thing… use the same form, coach the same way, and expect different results. It was time for me to listen to ‘my own’ boy with peach fuzz and find a better way.