Phil Jackson and Our Perceptions of Coaching

Alonzo Mourning started this ridiculous discussion which is now an undercurrent of the NBA Finals by questioning whether Phil Jackson even bothers to coach his team.

To tell you the truth, Phil doesn’t have to do anything but call time outs,” said Mourning, the former NBA star who helped lead the Miami Heat to the 2006 championship and twice was the league’s defensive player of the year.  “Kobe is the facilitator. He is the one driving the mission of this particular team right now,” Mourning said. “The communication level he has with his teammates out there, you can just see it.  I think Phil is just showing up, to tell you the truth, and Kobe is doing all the work to make this team successful.”

On a youth basketball site, I saw this question posed:

Does a coach who has great athlete considered a good coach? If that coach had no talent, would he be considered still a good coach? What are your thoughts?

The public criticizes coaches who have good players. When I was young, I sat in the stands and listened to some coaches criticize the coach of one of the best teams because “he just rolls out the ball and let’s them play.” Ignore the fact that the coach worked at a school that was also a children’s home.

After I wrote about Stan Van Gundy last week, my friend sent an email and said:

“If the coach does not yell, scream and stomp his feet, then how do you know he is actually coaching?”

I basically said the same thing last winter:

How does yelling at a team make her a good coach? The above comment offered no instruction. She did not explain the mistake. She simply told the team something that one expects she told them at practice over and over, judging by the comment. I don’t see coaching.

For some reason, we expect our coaches to yell and scream. We want to see them coaching in order to believe that they have an impact on the team.

When Phil Jackson sits calmly through a game and trusts his players to make the right play, somehow that diminishes his coaching ability or reputation.

This public criticism permeates every level of basketball. New coaches watch the games and listen to a player pop-off about Jackson’s non-coaching, and suddenly he adopts the opposite approach with his son’s under-10 team, pacing the sidelines, yelling at players, calling plays every time down court, questioning officials, etc.

New coaches model this behavior because it seems that is what we expect from a coach.

If a coach sits back and trusts his players, and his team wins, the perception is that he just has talented players and anyone would win with that roster. However, if the coach sits back and trusts his players, and his team loses, people (fans, media, parents, administrators) blame the coach because he is obviously lazy, disinterested or doesn’t know what to do.

However, if the coach stands and actively coaches throughout the game, yelling, calling timeouts, pacing, etc., and his team loses, people believe that he is working hard and maybe the team just isn’t talented enough. If his team wins, he receives the credit for his masterful coaching job.

Coaches often like to say that they are teachers and that the practice gym is their classroom. It’s a great analogy. However, if practice is the classroom and the game is the test, how many teachers run around the classroom yelling at their students during a test? How many give the students the answers? How many stop the test half-way through to go over a problem? How many scream at a student when he makes a spelling error?

That would be nuts, right? Parents would have a teacher fired if he suddenly screamed at a child for misspelling a word on a test. But, why do we condone or even encourage a coach who screams at a player for missing a block out? If we would question a teacher who yelled instructions through an entire test as his students tried to write an essay, why do we praise coaches who yell instructions while a player tries to find the open man or make a shot?

Somewhere along the lines, we confused yelling with coaching. There may be times when a coach must raise his voice to get attention – especially in a loud gym – but coaching and yelling are not the same things. Making game adjustments is not coaching – it is one aspect of coaching. We overrate its importance because it is the part of the job that we see publicly, but it is still only one aspect of the job.

Ironically, a coach who does a great job teaching during practice does not need to yell and scream as much during games, or make adjustments, because the team is well-prepared for different situations and its opponent.

The idea that Phil Jackson is “just showing up” is absurd, but it illustrates a fundamental problem with our perception of coaching: what we see and characterize as good coaching often is not, while we often fail to recognize a good coach when we see him, unless he happens to be blessed with outstanding talent.

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~ by Brian McCormick on June 15, 2009.

2 Responses to “Phil Jackson and Our Perceptions of Coaching”

  1. Good points, Brian. I’m sure many would agree that there’s also a middle ground that requires us to move away from the extremes of yelling vs. being calm.

    I agree that yelling is negative, but I’d say that raising your voice in a positive way can be a great middle ground that is appropriate for youth basketball, where the coach might be very active and vocal, but always trying to be positive.

    In fact, I’d say that being calm and quiet wouldn’t be a sign of good game coaching in my situation.

    I don’t think coaching has to be synonymous with either yelling or being calm and quiet. I see it as a question of personality and situation that dictates which of these two extremes a coach is inclined to gravitate toward. At the youth level, I’ve seen calm coaches who haven’t a clue and vocal coaches whose teams might not have performed as well had the coach not been as active. And just the opposite, of course.

    Classroom testing analogies aside, in my situation of coaching 14 year olds who don’t have a ton of game experience, I’d have to definitely lean toward being on the more active side. However, my goal is to keep it short, using quick catch phrases as reminders of stuff we’ve worked on in practice. I’ll use the same catch phrases in practice and in game huddles.

    Absolutely, we should let the kids play, but you just can’t recreate the stress of a game in practice. This means that, as a youth coach, I have some great opportunities with less experienced players in guiding them to understand something about a game situation while they’re actually on the court in a real game. I’m talking about helping them recognize recurring situations. I often talk with the players on the bench during games with this same purpose in mind. Luckily for us, they’re playing in gyms where the noise level isn’t too high. They’re learning, and I’m teaching. Sometimes I’m calm, sometimes not. The older these players get, the less guidance they’ll need during games. I guess you could say that we’re building trust, but we’re not quite there yet 100%, which is appropriate for the age group I’m working with. I don’t think they would prefer it any other way.

    I recently attended a training course for intermediate-level basketball coaches, and we had a discussion about what makes a good coach. Then I asked how the people in the room thought a good coach could be measured. One of the instructors responded, “If the parents are happy, and the players come back next season, then it probably is good coaching. If the parents aren’t happy and most of the players don’t come back next season, then it probably isn’t good coaching.”

  2. Phil Jackson “yells” at his players, from time to time … just like any good coach might need to do, depending on the circumstances.

    What Phil Jackson doesn’t do, however … or does less than other types of coaches … is yell constantly, or yell the wrong things, or yell at the wrong time/place, or yell in the wrong way, or yell at the wrong player.

    What PJ does is simply beautiful to watch … and exemplifies The Art Of Coaching Excellence.

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