Basketball on the Edge – “Coach, are we pressing?” Avoid This Question by Using Timeouts Wisely

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It’s a tight game. The momentum has swung back forth between the two teams all game long. One team scores two quick baskets in a row to take the lead. The opposing coach calls timeout. Now what happens?

I was reminded of a valuable lesson this past week regarding how to use the minute or so I get with my team during a timeout. I called timeout during a stretch in the game when we had several turnovers in a row against our opponent’s press. The game was beginning to slip away from us. During the timeout I quickly explained an adjustment or two we wanted to make against the press, we talked about how we were going to adjust our half-court defense to try and get a few quick steals with a trap near half court. Finally, I reminded the team to box out on defense and attack the basket on offense. As we broke the huddle to head back out onto the court one of my players asked, “Coach, are we pressing?” I looked at my assistant coach and said, “Did he really just ask if we were pressing?” At no point during the timeout did we discuss our team getting into a full court press. Was the player listening at all? I thought to myself in the moment, “How could he ask that question?” Later, after having time to reflect I asked myself, “Why did he ask if we were pressing?”

Here’s why players, including the player from my team, often get nothing from a timeout. Coaches frequently give the players way too much information to process in a very small window of time. In my case, we talked about at least four things: press offense, a defensive adjustment to start trapping, boxing out, and attacking the basket on offense. In those four items there were even more specific directions related to each point. In the pressure of the game players can’t follow that many instructions and realistically be able to focus on each one. As a result of trying to hit on every key point I could think of, my message was lost. Emotions are running high, players may be fatigued, they are under pressure to play well, and there is, quite simply, a lot going on.

What could I have done to make sure my players heard and understood what was being said during that timeout? Here are my recommendations for how a coach can maximize the value of his or her timeouts.

  • Make sure you have the attention of all your players. Establishing eye contact is critical.

  • Don’t focus on mistakes that are already in the past. Criticizing a player at this point does nothing but demoralize the player and drain their emotional tank.

  • Ask your players what they see. This helps them to think the game and should happen quickly at the start of the timeout or not at all.

  • Focus on ONE specific adjustment you want the players to make after the timeout. Make your message as simple as possible.

  • Avoid generalities. “Play hard”, “Get after it”, and “Hustle” are all well-meaning statements that are ultimately meaningless. Be specific with your instructions. Example, “Force the point guard to his left and deny their wings the ball.”

  • Speak slowly and calmly. As a coach your emotions are running high just like the players. Demonstrate calm under pressure and your team will follow your lead.

  • No matter what is going on in the game try to remain positive with your players. When they know you believe in them they’ll rise to meet your expectations.

In summary, dial back your expectations for what can be accomplished during a timeout. Calmly focus on one simple thing your team can do after the timeout and be positive with your players. Follow these guidelines and you’ll avoid a question like, “Coach, are we pressing?”

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