Basketball on the Edge – Coaches, Are Your Instructions Specific and Actionable?

Jason Kidd

Have you ever watched an NBA game on TV where one coach is wearing a microphone and his coaching instructions are recorded and played back for the tv audience? What great insights are shared by these NBA coaches? Typically, you’ll hear a coach say things like, “We have to keep playing hard.” “We need move the ball.” or “Let’s really compete these last three minutes of the quarter.” Now, I understand that NBA coaches don’t want their actual strategic statements being shared with a national tv audience, but coaches at every level use meaningless phrases just like these all the time. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to using tired clichés with my players that really don’t help them make meaningful changes to what they are doing out on the court. Through self-reflection and discussion with my assistant coach, Mike Ventura, we are making it a point of emphasis to use clear, specific and actionable instructions as often as possible.

Here’s an example. “Guys, we have to play harder!” What does that mean? If I am player, I’m probably thinking, “C,mon, I am playing hard. What is he talking about?” Instead of that vague statement the coach could say, “There are three things we need to do on this possession. 1. Make sure you are in good helpside position every time your man does not have the ball. 2. Be close enough to touch your man every time he has the ball. 3. Dive on the floor for any loose ball in your area.” Those are three clear, specific, and actionable instructions that the players can attempt to execute out on the court.

How can you improve in this area as a coach?

1. Listen to yourself

Have you ever listened closely to what you are actually saying? You may think you are giving clear instructions, but is that really the case? Ask players what they think you mean after you give them instructions. They may not be getting the message that you intended. Always check that your players, and assistant coaches, understand what you mean. If they don’t, make your instructions more specific and actionable. Eliminate vague phrases like, “Play hard” and “Be strong” that sound great, but don’t give players any actual direction as to what they should do.

2. Less is more

The more concise and actionable your instructions the more transfer there will be to your players’ performance. A research study conducted in the final year of legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden’s coaching career (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004; Tharp & Gallimore, 1976) was converted into a book that preserved his insights about teaching and how to make content comprehensible to learners (Nater & Gallimore, 2010). Coauthored by Swen Nater (a member of two of Wooden’s national championship squads) and Dr. Ronald Gallimore (one of the two scientists who conducted the original study), the book explained that Wooden’s coaching success was a function of quality teaching. The vast majority of Wooden’s words and actions in practices were concise statements of 5-7 words intended for learning a particular aspect of the sport.

3. Don’t overload

A rambling one minute speech during a timeout that covers every thought jumping into a coach’s head will be useless to players. Focus on one or two things you want players to do and then provide specific, actionable instructions so know what they must do to meet your expectations. This is true in practices as well as games. One or two coaching points at a time. Any more and the entire message will be lost.

4. Pay attention after you speak

Do players try to do what you asked of them, (even if the outcome is unsuccessful)? If the answer is consistently no, then something is amiss in your communication. “If they haven’t learned, then you haven’t taught.” is another phrase associated with John Wooden. Don’t blame your players when they don’t get it, look for better ways to teach them. Analyze what you say as a coach and look for ways to improve!

Here are a few other coaching phrases I either use myself or hear all the time. I’d love to hear from all the coaches out there how you’d make these phrases more specific and actionable for your players. Feel free to add to this list of common coaching phrases too. I’ll share any responses I get in a future post.

Be Strong!
D’ up!
Rebound!
Move the ball!
Keep working!
Look up!
Pressure the ball!
Get after it!
Talk!
Give 100% effort!

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