By: Lee Rose
Originally Published in: Winning Basketball Fundamentals
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Winning teams, almost without exception, are made up of players and coaches who are committed to shared goals and have a single agenda: doing what ensures the team's success.
Then why don't all coaches - high school, college, NBA - demand it? Because building team chemistry is like trying to grab a fistful of Jell-O. It's harder than it looks. Chemistry is not something tangible that can be created by a coach's speech or turned on like a light switch. Chemistry is an elusive bond, a feeling of unity that is vital for good teams but difficult to capture.
Good chemistry is more than huddling, stacking hands, and shouting in unison, "Defense!" Building team chemistry involves composition, behavior, structure, and relationships in which teammates all work together toward a specific goal. A few obvious players who exemplify these special chemistry qualities include Steve Nash, David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and playmakers Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd.
Although there are no guarantees that a coach can build chemistry with a given team, I found that three basic principles must be established and put in place if it's to be accomplished. The coach must create an environment where good chemistry can flourish. Here we will take a look at five chemistry-building steps that every coach should consider.
1. Be fair and consistent. The most important time a coach will ever spend is when he is defining the concept of fairness. Nothing is more important to an individual player than feeling that he is competing on a level playing field. If the coach's rules and guidelines on fairness are subjective, he is asking for problems and probably a long, unproductive season. The coach must create or design a fairness system that eliminates any hint of bias or deception - one that is completely free of playing favorites. It's not easy, but it is necessary. The system I designed and created to maintain fairness on my teams is called the performance rating system, which is explained in chapter 3.
Every day the coach puts his integrity on the line with the team. Players understand how and when they are evaluated, and if a discrepancy appears, they recognize it immediately. For example, in my system, a player who grades out better on the depth chart should play ahead of those below him. If this does not happen and the player with the lower ranking plays ahead, the higher-ranked player will never forget it and will know that he is playing against a stacked deck. After policies have been established, regardless of the issue, if the coach rules unjustly or inconsistently, the players will know it and the coach will lose the trust factor. Whether the offense is being late for practice, not attending a class, or stealing from a teammate, the coach must enforce the rules voted on by the team. The goal for every coach should be to build a program that promotes mutual respect. Being consistent is a vital part of that concept.
2. Take on your best player. For a disciplined system to work, the coach must have the fortitude to penalize the best player, or the biggest bully on the team, when and if rules are broken. Having been in the NBA for over 20 years, I've had many experiences - some good, some not so good. On one of the NBA teams I coached with, we were running a shooting drill. The squad was divided into two equal teams, and we were shooting three-point shots. It was a competitive drill at the end of practice to see which team could make 15 shots the quickest. Among the rules was that for the shot to count, the player had to shoot from behind the three-point line. As the drill got under way, one player began cheating by not getting behind the three-point line. I cautioned him, saying, "They only count if you are behind the line." The next time around, he again shot the ball in front of the line, so I called him on it. He became irate, and I asked him to leave practice, which he eventually did (getting run out of practice meant that he would be fined). The next day in practice our trainer (who was in charge of collecting fine money) asked me if I had run that particular player out of practice. I said yes, and the trainer said that I should know that the head coach called him and rescinded the fine. No further mention of the situation occurred, but a team is a small unit and information gets around. The team found out, and respect for the head coach was compromised.
3. Build a relationship of trust through policies and input. A coach must build relationships of trust with his players, regardless if he coaches at the high school, college, or professional level. Gaining trust is not a given. It's not automatic, nor can it be built overnight. Trust begins to germinate when the players really believe that the coach wants and encourages their input and participation in making the rules and policies that govern the team. When players serve on team committees that help determine team policies, define acceptable player behavior, and set academic standards, conditioning goals, and expectations, they believe that they have ownership in the system. Why would they want to break a rule that they helped write? Policy participation opens the door for players to take a more active role in what transpires on the game floor. Having a healthy trust system - the coaches trust the players and vice versa - covers what goes on in the locker room, at practice, at individual and team meetings, and with bench decorum. All concerned have absolute understanding that the coach wants and encourages input and will never embarrass the players in public.
One sure way to destroy trust is for the coach to jump all over players during the game. Practices and halftimes are private and out of view of the public. They are the appropriate times for a coach to address the players. A good contract that a coach can have with the players is this: "The practices are ours; the games are yours." Even if a player makes a mistake coming out of a time-out and covers the wrong opponent, resulting in the winning basket for the other team, the player knows that the coach will not throw him under the bus to the media after the game. Neither will criticism occur following the game, not when emotions are running high. Immediately after the game, a wise coach might limit his remarks to "That was a good win" or "I think we're better than that." The mistake can be corrected during video study the next day. Video is known as the truth machine. Players often say, "The eye doesn't lie." They're too smart to argue with what they're looking at on video. I've learned that it takes seasons to build up trust, but it only takes suspicion without proof to destroy it. That's how fragile trust is. My advice to coaches is to maintain composure, withhold critical comments, and never personally attack a player. Let the machine - or the eye - do its work.
4. Explain the difference between a reason and an excuse. The difference between a reason and an excuse is enormous. This distinction has great ramifications on how we exercise judgment on the activity. Team rules and penalties should be determined and voted on by the players and coaches. Some things are sacred in team building: being on time for all activities, meeting classroom assignments, adhering to dress codes and trip requirements, and respecting others and their opinions. When a violation occurs, the parties involved refer to the players' agreement and resolve the disagreement. An explanation during the rules discussion about reasons and excuses helps clarify the issue. For example, when a player oversleeps and is late for practice, that is an excuse. When a player driving to practice is hit from behind by another car and is detained by the police, that is a reason. Players understand and respect this form of leadership.
5. Eliminate subjectivity in evaluations. Rules apply equally across the board to players, but their personalities are different. The coach must recognize and respect those differences. If you really want to destroy team morale, let your star player get away with stuff. Show him favorable treatment. That approach is a killer. For example, if the coach overlooks a road trip curfew that is reported, the entire team will know about it within hours. If the coach shows favoritism in handling such a violation, he will more than likely lose the support of the team. Such mistakes have been known to cost a coach a job. There must be no star treatment. None. How can a team have chemistry if the 10th player on the roster believes that one set of rules governs his behavior while a completely different set - a more lenient set - governs the star player? The coach must demonstrate that all team rules apply evenly for every player.
Coaches are famous for doing all that they can to motivate their players and themselves. Some use movies before big games, others have former players come in to speak to the team, but almost all use quotes and sayings from successful people. Coaches hope that these comments will cause the players to think higher and deeper about their goals and how they should move forward.
Here are five positive statements that apply not only to basketball but also to the broader issues in life, such as academics, graduation, and individual personal growth. Whether you are a coach or player, consider these five leadership thoughts to drive your determination: