Long-Term Vision and Coach Development in Global Basketball

I’ve been fortunate to travel and observe numerous academies and club structures from Mini-Basket to U20’s, particularly within Europe. Especially over the last seven years, I’ve been collecting a lot of my ideas from both places I’ve worked at and clubs I have visited: ranging from EuroLeague academies with big budgets in major cities to small clubs in rural locations. Two things stand-out when observing these various academies and club structures: the need for a long-term vision related to coaching methodology, style of play and a coherent coach development structure.

Particularly in Europe, there is so much potential for an academy which adopts a holistic outlook with “as many as possible for as long as possible.” With this approach, players will naturally transition into the higher leagues without the pressure and early selection that currently plagues the basketball landscape. Most academies are focussed solely on turning players into professionals that they can earn money off, resulting in many of the holistic and transformational elements of coaching being completely neglected. On the flip side, some academies may succeed at the transformational components (which I would argue are more important) but then fall short on having a coaching methodology and structure which helps players maximize their basketball potential. This leads to players potentially losing out on further opportunities (whether that is a college scholarship or playing professionally). Why can’t there be an academy or club succeeding in both areas?

When people ask me about the ‘most complete youth program in Europe’, it is for this reason that I find it very difficult to provide an answer. It is difficult to think of one place which succeeds in a wide-range of areas: certain places may excel at particular things but then they fall short in other categories. One coach may adopt more modern thinking in their work with one age group team, but then another coach in the club acts like a drill sergeant still running three-man weave and zig zag drills. This is the reason I decided to start my own program in Italy to address the gap in the market which exists, as well as aspiring to act as a case study for basketball clubs and programs all over the world to emulate. 

In this blog, we will look at two factors which I consider to be critical for clubs of all levels: having a vision and a plan for coach development. In part two, we will look at other ideas that clubs may wish to adopt, such as culture, wellness, athletic development and much more.

 

The Czech Basketball Federation have a great vision for youth basketball spearheaded by Milena Moulisova who has been on The Basketball Podcast

 

1. Having A Comprehensive Vision

This is one of the biggest thing missing from the clubs I have observed in Europe. I am not aware of a single program which has a detailed coaching philosophy and vision typed up, aligned with motor learning research, and accompanied with presentations and video.  This is not just the game model (e.g. offensive and defensive concepts) but a much more all-encompassing framework, including ideas for coaches on how to coach and bring the style of play to life using the CLA (constraint-led approach).

During my time coaching in Belgium, I produced a complete offensive style of play to guide teams and coaches from U12 to U21 (I am working on finishing the defensive version right now!). I changed this significantly and added a lot from my research over the last few years, eventually creating the BDT Offense which is now used by hundreds of coaches and programs all over the world.

It was a lengthy project which took several months as well as lots of internal and external consultation to get the game model just right. While I could use this content anywhere in the world at any academy, there are also some unique constraints to be aware of which are specific to individual clubs. It is impossible to take a style of play model from one country and copy it entirely to another. Cultural considerations based on the country or region a club is located in, the individual constraints of players and coaches, as well as the resources and practice time available all shape the overall game model. Too much of the time in basketball, coaches look at “successful basketball countries” which have traditionally had success, immediately assuming that coaches from those countries will be successful using the same methods in another location. This isn’t how the game works. Coaches having success in a particular environment does not guarantee they can do the exact same things when coaching in a different context.

Returning to my style of play framework, once I had completed the complete offensive vision and produced a polished version with graphics and diagrams, it came to presenting the strategy with an accompanying video playbook. I then invited the other coaches in the club to read and view all the documents and send any feedback or concerns onto me before publishing the final version. 

Within the offensive plan, the 70 page manual was complete with technical drawings and covered the following areas:

  • Basic Overview and Aims of Offense
  • Dominoes
  • Shot Clock Stages
  • Technical Drawings
  • Spacing Terminology
  • Transition & Two Side
  • Half Court Concepts
  • Post Reactions
  • Triggers: Solos, Duets and Trios
  • Sets
  • Special Situations

This is an example of a style of play framework which is modelled upon dynamic systems theory, embracing the idea that basketball is a complex system and allowing players and teams to play in a way that aligns with this, as opposed to traditional basketball systems whereby coaches attempt to control every possession down to the last detail.  

 

I started with offense first, with the plan to introduce the defensive equivalent after followed by “how to coach” last. The how to coach part is the most important, and focused not just on practice design and delivery but also in-game coaching. Coaches can argue as to the order in which to do these, but I wanted coaches to get familiar with the offensive and defensive concepts first and foremost to provide a context and framework for how to coach.

Some coaches reading this may wonder why I place such an emphasis on a shared vision in the first place. Upon arriving as manager at Barcelona, the football legend Johan Cruyff found that all youth teams were trained in a style specific to their own head coach. 13 different youth teams could mean 13 different styles. This meant kids had to re-learn something every year as they moved up the program. It is exactly the same in basketball. Even in the big EuroLeague teams I struggle to watch some youth games as there is no coherent style of play, let alone consistencies from age group to age group. The same can be said about practices, with a random collection of drills in each age group team. Often you can watch several different teams from the same club practice, but there are absolutely no commonalities in coaching methodology and style of play.

Having a common style of play allows coaches to continue the work carried over from previous coaches done at younger age groups. By having a majority of the offensive focus on teaching concepts (such as dominoes and coverage solutions from triggers) as opposed to what to play (sets, motion offenses and patterns etc), this aligns with principles of dynamic systems theory, which underpins the ecological approach. We have to view basketball as a complex system. There are many variables and unpredictable interactions which occur during the course of a game. As such, the game cannot be controlled by the coach from the moment of the first jump-ball to the last buzzer sounding. Yet the way many teams are coached is the opposite to this. If we acknowledge that basketball is a complex system, why not prepare players in a way which aligns with this and allows them to adapt to what emerges in front of them? This is why a focus is placed on playing with concepts such as triggers and coverage solutions, so players can adapt to the task constraints present during each possession to figure out an effective solution to their team. The opposite to this is “controlling” offenses such as strict set plays where going off-script is not encouraged, continuity motions and the read and react.

Once produced it is critical for technical plans to be living frameworks which are updated continuously as the coaching staff continues to learn and evolve. The game is changing at such a fast rate, but also as coaches we should be continuously discovering new things. Already since producing and presenting the first style of play document that I wrote, I updated it an endless number of times. It is no good to write a plan and leave it for five years unedited: coaches from the club should also be encouraged to have an input and submit ideas for revisions when relevant.

Growing up in the UK as a young coach I saw a number of coaching strategies and style of play documents introduced. While it is extremely valuable to have such resources, the most important part is actually what happens after the plan is introduced to bring it to life. What good is it having a philosophy and style of play if it only exists on paper? This was a thought which stayed with me over the years and I was determined to ensure that once introducing the plan, even more effort and dedication would go into the implementation phrase. Most clubs in Europe are fortunate to have a youth coordinator or technical director, and I believe that producing and implementing a technical plan is one of the most important components of this job.

Once the offensive vision and ideas of how to develop it (e.g. technical diagrams and videos of Small Sided Games etc) are complete, it is time for this implementation. The actual delivery of the plan and ensuring all coaches in the club are comfortable with its contents is tied into the coach development plan. If coaches are not aware or educated of the plan, the whole club suffers. 

 

Credit goes to the Swedish Basketball Federation, one of the first federations in the world to create a new player development framework and coaching education system which is underpinned by ecological dynamics

 

2. Coach Development

Having a coach education and development plan allows for the comprehensive vision within the club to be realized. I have learnt a lot in this area not just from Chris Oliver, but also observing the great work done by Pete Lonergan in Australia and Mike MacKay in Canada.

Once the technical plans are introduced the youth coordinator/ technical director has to have a plan for helping coaches bring the plan to life. Having coaches contribute to the plan increases the buy-in as opposed to coming in and saying “this is how you must coach.” This is simply not something which will make any youth coach feel valued or part of the process. Technical directors must make their coaches feel comfortable, picking the most important things to align on. Regardless of whether coaches are volunteers or professional has no difference: the challenge is to find a way to make it work with who they have available on the coaching team.

Alex Sarama delivering a coaching clinic in Lisbon, Portugal. For clubs aiming to create a comprehensive pathway, having regular coaching clinics is critical to ensure club coaches are on the same page.

 

A lot of the coaches at clubs I have observed in Europe are so busy with practices or other basketball activities, that it leaves little time for their personal growth and coach development. I am a big believer in having a program which invests in personal growth and coach development. Not only does this lead to coaches feeling better about themselves, but more coaches wanting to be a part of a club which genuinely has their best interests at heart.

Here are some other coach development ideas to consider:

  • Bi-monthly coaching clinic. This doesn’t have to be lengthy but the youth coordinator/ technical director should deliver something from the overall player development framework/ game model, or a particular emphasis area which players or teams across the club may be struggling with. Bringing in guest coaches to deliver these are a great idea as it allows the club’s coaches to make new connections in the coaching world while also providing a fresh voice and perspective. 
  • Getting on the floor with coaches. Ideally the technical director is not completely stretched coaching multiple teams. Only coaching one team gives time to jump in with other sessions and create a bond with coaches by being on the floor with them. It is much easier to develop a relationship and suggest ideas when the relationship is an even one vs the technical director talking down from a position of power. This applies to Youth National Teams too: what I love about Australian Basketball is observing high level coaches getting on the floor frequently to run practices across the country working with players and coaches alike. This is needed for developing relationships and growing the game.
  • Conversations. Again this is something I learnt from Lonergan. For clubs that have an office with professional coaches this makes it really easy: for instance now at my academy we have nine professional coaches and we work out of the office when not coaching. In Belgium, my work was very isolated as we had a team of largely volunteer coaches. This meant my contact time and conversations with other coaches was extremely limited. Clubs have to find a way to make this work. The lead coaches / directors must meet every week at least once to talk basketball and ensure they are aligned on major areas. Finding ways to have ‘flight path conversations’ as Lonergan calls them are critical, especially if it is with a coach you don’t often see during the week. 
  • Providing a small fund for continued coach development. This could be something small like 50 or 100 euros per year for a coach, but regardless this is something appreciated by coaches. This could be used for books, clinic registrations, coaching memberships etc.
  • Brioche and coffee morning once a week to go through random and miscellaneous topics. Topics could be set before or it could be an open format Q&A.
  • Using a communication platform such as Slack makes it easy to share and store ideas in an organized manner. This also acts as a forum where coaches from the club can instantly connect, help each other out with questions and share practice plans. Keeping all the season plans and practice plans saved each year is also critical. The technical director should spend time reviewing these and talking about them with each age group head coach.
  • X’s & O’s break-out sessions. I got this idea from Efficient Sauce. Once in a while, get all the club coaches together and go through special situations on the whiteboard which coaches have to draw. A great development opportunity and lots of fun talking through imaginary line-ups using players from the club! Use a 60 second timer, ask the coaches to talk to their line-ups on the board as in a real game (!) and play dramatic music to add to the effects. A small part of a game in my opinion when compared to the importance of coaching methodologies and using the CLA, but a great way to start building a common language. 
  • EuroLeague / NBA pizza or BBQ night. Invite all the coaches from the club and watch a EuroLeague or NBA game. Can do this socially, or turn it into an organized activity (key to get the balance right!). Templates can be used to generate topics such as what adjustments would you make if coaching this team at half-time, what coverage solutions are you seeing being used right now, and more.
  • Introduce coach development plans. I create player development plans for my players, so why don’t we do the same as coaches? The technical director should meet with each coach and listen to their goals and plans for the upcoming season. Then have a basic template with the coach’s three most important goals and how these will be measured. This plan can be updated twice a year. It can be nice for each coach to share the plan with their players, so the players can help hold the coach accountable and give them a friendly reminder if they stray too far from their goals (e.g. talking too much in a practice).
  • Introduce a shared bookcase for coaches. Put this somewhere like an office or the main gym which you use for your club.
  • Lessons from Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is one of my favorite programs on Netflix. While in Copenhagen, the chefs at the restaurant Bourdain profiled met up bi-weekly to talk about making new dishes before tasting them. Everyone was encouraged to speak up: regardless of whether it was the head chef or apprentice. The goal was not about creating a new dish to put on the menu and show it off to the world but rather for the chef’s own benefit and happiness. If a chef produced a new dish which was a masterpiece, it was their masterpiece: the restaurant would not take credit for it. If acting in a technical director role, I would be happy if other coaches at the club experience success. This could be something minor like coming up with a new idea, a new SSG, something to add to how we teach or even something bigger such as a coach going onto a new job with a bigger team or club. These are all things to celebrate instead of resenting and claiming success for. Personal enlightenment for all involved should be the number one goal.
  • Buy a club membership for Basketball Immersion… no description needed for this!

 

At the end of the day, I find it perplexing as to how organizations and clubs are spending such vast amounts of money on buying pro players and youth prospects but not surrounding them with adequate resources and a proper coach development program. The only programs in the world I’m aware of who are adapting some of the concepts mentioned in this article are the Nurnberg Tornadoes in Germany (shout out to a good friend of Basketball Immersion in Razvan Munteanu) and the great work being done at Wyndham in Australia (lot of credit for this goes to Immersion member Gerard Hillier, as well as Lucas Allen and their great team of coaches). Hopefully over the next few years this will change as more clubs and professional teams see the value behind implementing a coherent vision.

If you are a club reading this and interested in finding out more about using Alex’s player development frameworks and style of play documents, please get in touch with Alex directly through asarama@basketballimmersion.com.

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