The Challenges of Progressive Coaching

Joe Mazzulla and The Challenges of Progressive Coaching

Guest Blog by Kareem Kalil

There are challenges for any coach who uses progressive coaching methods which counter traditional norms. This includes Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazulla. Earlier during the regular season, the Celtics found themselves on a slide, losing 4 of 5 games. Predictably, critics spent time going after one of the easiest targets—34-year-old first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla. Criticisms such as not calling timeouts, allowing for too much player autonomy and shooting too many threes were highlighted. 

Are the critics correct? Or are they holding onto traditional approaches which do not account for evidence-based practices? Progressing coaching strategies take into account the power of player autonomy and using evidence-based practices that may make some uncomfortable.

What is Progressive Coaching?

Sports coaches face several challenges when shifting from a traditional to progressive approach. One of those challenges is the adherence of players, colleagues, parents and the media who have grown up with traditional coaching paradigms. Hence within a progressive approach, a coach may seem like they are doing the wrong thing simply because they aren’t doing the same thing.

The table below shows the differences between the progressive approach and traditional approach.

Joe Mazulla

The Case of Joe Mazulla

In examining these two approaches, it becomes how apparent how critics may struggle to understand what they don’t already know. They view the game through the lens of a traditional approach because this is the accepted norm. Joe Mazzulla has developed a reputation as a “player’s coach.” He is mild-mannered and rarely loses his temper. After the March 5 loss to the Knicks, Celtics beat reporter Jay King noticed that he was showing emotion that deviated from his normal temperament.

Mazzulla rarely calls timeouts while the other team goes on scoring runs, encourages the Celtics to shoot one of the highest 3-point shots rate in the NBA, and allows players to read the game and call their own sets versus constantly dictating what to run on offense.

The Player Empowerment Era

These tactics are becoming a major part in the NBA’s player empowerment era. They are aligned with commonly accepted facts in the league— post-up play has been eschewed in favor of the 3PT shot, and most seem to understand that players are the greatest determinants of a team’s success or failure. However, some of the criticism that Mazzulla has received demonstrate how hard it is to be a coach who pushes boundaries and diverts from the traditional approach of coaching—slamming chairs, calling time out after every run and swearing at his players

“I don’t think you take some of those shots if you respect your coach,” former Celtic and first take analyst Kendrick Perkins declared on a recent episode of ESPN’s First Take. Perkins is not alone. “Is Mazzulla really the right man for the job?” a recent Boston Globe piece written by Gary Washburn questioned.

Joe Mazzulla received even more criticism during the start of the play-offs when the Celtics dropped three games in the series against the 76ers. Detractors say that Mazzulla needs to be more firm, regimented, and put his players in their place as his subordinates.

This runs entirely contrary to what we know about good leadership which exists in healthy organizations. In such places, ownership is shared and the leader facilitates a strong environment for their employees. There is no evidence that a leader who controls with fear is effective. Contrarily, there is plenty of evidence which states that approach is ineffective in the long term.

Pundits like Perkins are ultimately taught to believe that the coaching they experienced is the best way to coach. They are (as we all are) susceptible to survivorship bias—the idea that their success (for Perkins, winning a championship) was due to the methods they experienced. This ignores the perspectives of players who were also coached using a top-down, traditional approach who did not win a championship, and could have had more success doing things within a progressive way.

Universal Challenges

This type of criticism is not unique to Mazzulla. But it serves an example as to how basketball coaches who coach progressively can be placed under a microscope. It is much easier to throw stones at those aiming to traverse a road less traveled. This type of criticism also serves to maintain the status quo in the coaching world.

I coach high school basketball in Denver, where using the ideas of Basketball Immersion, I employ evidence-based ideas that deviate from traditional approaches. Some of the activities we do in practice make observers ruffle their eyebrows–they haven’t seen this approach before. Players make mistakes and observers question the efficacy of the work we are doing.

In contrast, no one bats an eye when they walk into a gym and see a traditional drill such as form-shooting, the three-man weave or doing defensive slides back and forth. These drills do not represent the actual game of basketball at all as players do not make mistakes.

Whether the goal is solely to win games (like in the NBA) or to mix winning with development (like in HS), the purpose of coaching is not to protect yourself from criticisms and pundits like Perkins. The purpose is to develop the athletes in front of you to be better basketball players and stronger leaders. Many times, the best way to do that is by going against the grain. 

Salute to Joe Mazulla and all coaches not afraid to do things in a better way using progressive approaches.  

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