by Arron MacDonald
Coach MacDonald shares his top three tips for Assistant Coaches - and calls back to his first day as an Assistant for some valuable lessons learned...
At ONE2ONE BASKETBALL we want to help players and coaches to engage and grow in the sport that we love.
When we think about coaching, it’s easy to think solely of Head Coaches, however, good Assistant Coaches are invaluable assets to a programme.
Firstly, let me get this out of the way - I've spent almost all of my time in coaching as a Head Coach. But I've been really fortunate to work with some fantastic Assistant Coaches through the years, as well as learning some really valuable lessons in my (brief) time as an Assistant.
With that in-mind, here are my top three tips for Assistant Coaches…
The most important part of being a great assistant coach, is being trustworthy. Nobody wants to spend a year (or more!) of their life with someone that they simply do not trust.
Trust is a tricky thing to build, particularly if you don’t really know the coach too well coming into the team, but here’s a few tips to help you to gain the trust of your colleagues:
Firstly, as an Assistant Coach, you have to understand that your role is to support the Head Coach in delivering their vision. The final say on everything sits with them – as does the relevant blame or praise for that decision – so support them every step of the way, and ensure that you’re doing this both vocally and with positive body language – as when the team sees you engaged with what the Head Coach is saying, they are more apt to also engage positively with the Head Coach.
It’s also your role to challenge that coach… but only EVER away from the players! The first thing I learned as an Assistant Coach is that you have until the door to influence the Head Coach’s decision, from that point on you must fall in line.
Another very impactful way to build trust is to ensure that when you’re talking about the team, don’t use “I”, “me” or “mine”. It’s “us”, “we” and “ours”. Also, an under-rated communication tool for trust-building is “Pyramid Messaging”; simply put, this is having the same names for things as the other coaches – this ensures you are all “singing from the same hymn sheet”.
At some point in time, you will deal with a player that’s unhappy about playing time, or some other perceived sleight from the Head Coach. While it’s really positive that the player is sounding you out, and shows that you’ve gained their trust, it’s essential that you don’t breach the trust of the Coaching Staff in that interaction by having the player believe you’re on their side…
The easiest phrase to use in this situation is probably the most dangerous: “I understand where you’re coming from…”. While many of us have likely been in similar situations, and we want to show empathy, communicating in this way can easily be misconstrued.
If you want to show the player that you’re listening, and demonstrate empathy, tell them that you “understand they’re frustrated”. You can then either explain that while you’ll pass along how they’re feeling to the Head Coach, ultimately, that’s a conversation for them to have between one another, or (where you and the Coach have already had a conversation on this subject) succinctly explain to the player why this has been happening, and what changes the player needs to make in order to get their desired outcome (if, indeed, this is possible).
After trust, the next most important thing Head Coaches look for in Assistants is a positive work ethic. I consider a positive work ethic to be a willingness to work hard, all the time, with a positive attitude, doing whatever is needed for the team.
Very quickly, I learnt about the work required in being an Assistant Coach. I was sat in the Head coach’s office for our first pre-season meeting, and had been added to the staff as a junior member literally an hour beforehand, there was myself and one other Assistant Coach, who was significantly more experienced than me.
The Head Coach asked us what we could pick up on game days and the response from the Lead Assistant shocked me… “Tell me what you want me to take care of, and cross it off your list”.
It was a powerful message to the Head Coach, and to me. Your job as an Assistant Coach is to willingly pick up what the team needs you to do.
If your Head Coach needs you to do stats and you’re worried about it, then go and stat some NBA games on TV, the scrimmages in training, local league games going on nearby. If it’s a different role they require you to do, and you’re not sure how to do it, then ask the Head Coach (or a more senior member of the coaching staff) how they want it done, or look it up for yourself! It won't take too long to build your competence and confidence in any game day task.
Another lesson I learned very quickly was that no job can be beneath you if you want to build positive relationships. If someone’s shooting, go rebound for them. If the water cooler is empty, go fill it up. If the floor needs sweeping, then sweep it. By showing an ability to see what’s going on and solve problems yourself, you’re demonstrating a positive attitude and authentically “playing your role” – which will help the team by providing a role model for everyone else in the team to play theirs.
Going back to that meeting on my first day as an Assistant Coach...
I would be remiss not to mention, as I sat there panicking, the first thing the Head Coach happened to mention he needed was in-game stat-tracking. While the other coach had said he would do whatever was needed, he was also brutally honest about his own shortcomings, and said very quickly “If you need me to do that – I can try, but if you give me a tablet, I won’t know what to do with it!”.
I picked up the in-game stats for the team for the short time I was with them – but learned a very valuable lesson on day one: do what is needed – but you must add value in doing it!
In order to add value, you must make sure your role on the staff is clearly defined.
All good assistants want to take stuff off the Head Coach’s plate – so make sure you know exactly what is expected of you during training and games…
Does your Coach want you to referee/run the scoreboard during scrimmages in training, or would they rather you coached one of the sides and they can observe?
Does your team have a coach run the warmups? If it’s the Head Coach, would they rather hand this over and give themselves some time to prepare for the game?
During the game, what can you do to add value? I always tell assistant coaches who shrug at this question to look at an NBA game – where you’ll see the best part of a dozen coaches and analysts, furiously scribbling in notepads, analysing tablets and laptops for every moment the game is in-play, and that's in a league where the majority of the time, the shots go in… so there simply has to be something to do at every other level of the game too!
If your Head Coach doesn’t have anything in-mind right now that they’d like you to focus on, then ensure that you’re echoing them through the game, but here’s a couple of suggestions for you…
There are thousands of other resources out there for Assistant Coaches, not least your own Head Coach who should be working throughout the season to develop you, so please don’t think for a moment that this is a definitive list of everything a Head Coach is looking for from you – but we think that if you focus on being trustworthy, being hardworking and adding value as a foundation of your role, you’re much more likely to have success.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line, and for Coaches looking for a hand with session planning – don’t forget that the ONE2ONE Basketball coaching curriculum is available from our store, and by subscribing to our mailing list, you’ll get 10% off your first purchase!