What isn’t going to change? A reflection on successful, innovative coaching

This week, James Clear posted a short story about Jeff Bezos in his newsletter.

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two.”

It has been on my mind since I read it. Bezos’s point is that if his business focuses on the things that don’t change (for Amazon, price and speed of delivery), they will remain valuable to their customers. As a teacher and coach, I quickly recognized how critical this question is. This weekend, I attended a coaching clinic, listening to some of the most innovative and thoughtful coaches in college basketball and this question continued to resonate.

Basketball, like most sports, stays the same at its core, with constant change around it. The goal of the game – to put the ball in the basket more times or for more points than your opponent – is the same as when James Naismith invented it. The rules of the game continue to change – from the objective (the lines on the court) to the subjective (what fouls a ref calls). The emphasis on offense versus defense seems to ebb and flow along with the complaints from each generation about the next. At it’s core, however, the game stays the same.

Most coaches this weekend mentioned the ways that they have evolved their strategies to keep up with the evolution of the game. Most coaches also said some version of the same thing. These common phrases speak specifically to what has not changed and will not change about basketball and coaching. They also speak to the core of successful coaching.

Kids want help.

Frank Martin, coach of South Carolina, and a former high school math teacher described how people continue to say that kids have changed. He reminded us that adults are as addicted to our devices as kids are, but more importantly, that kids have always and will always want our help. They want to succeed and they know someone out their can help them. They are really hoping that their coach will be the person that helps them succeed on the court.

To be that person, we have to seek connections and build relationships with our players. This starts with understanding them, not just criticizing what is different about our generations. No matter what strategy you try to employ, if you don’t know the kid you are coaching, it is nearly impossible to teach it well.

None of this is original. These are all things I took from other great coaches and made my own.

Teaching and coaching are notorious for using other people’s ideas. The truth is that these coaches don’t really give themselves enough credit. What they are doing is innovative. George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset defined innovation:

“… as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of ‘new and better,’ it is not innovative.”

These coaches are being humble and giving credit where it is due – to some truly innovative basketball minds. Being a successful coach does not require new ideas, but it does require doing those ideas better. The way a coach packages ideas and implements them with their teams; the small adjustments they make to ideas developed long ago; when a coach makes these effective, they become original and innovative.

The main reason these coaches get invited to speak is not because of the originality of their ideas, but because they have implemented it effectively enough to make their teams really good. This means that, more often than not, these coaches’ teams score more than the other team. Since that goal will never change, neither will the desire to listen to other coach who have accomplished that goal.

This is what works for me and my team. If this helps you, use it. If not, make sure you do what works for you and your team.

These coaches recognize that their way is not the only way. Basketball, like every sport, is a series of problems to solve. How you solve them is up to you and your players. Our job as coach is to give our players a set of skills and strategies that helps them solve those problems. My team may use different skills and strategies than another, which is what makes sports so fun and rewarding – the unpredictability of it all. A good coach, however, makes game scenarios as predictable as possible for their players. Good coaching helps players recognize patterns in the game, understand their strengths and those of their teammates, and then use that information to find a solution.

The best way to help your players solve problems is not to coach like someone else, but to be yourself and incorporate their ideas. Your players will know when you’re just copying someone else (probably because you won’t have the answers to many of their questions). It doesn’t matter whether you run the flex offense or motion, the pack line or pressure defense, whether you play half court or full court defense. Know what you want to do and do it well. Make the ideas your own. As Coach Chris Mack of Louisville said, “Teach what you know. Teach what you’re passionate about.”

If you know your players; if you know what you know (don’t underestimate this challenge; if you are passionate about learning what you don’t know, you can be a successful coach. The last part is critical. You can’t possibly know everything. Your players don’t need a coach that knows everything, they need a coach who cares about them and cares about getting better.

As Maya Angelou said,

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou


* None of the ideas I’ve written here are original. But the way I’ve thought and written about them has helped me. And maybe it will help another teacher or coach to reflect on their own teaching, to consider what is not going to change. If you’re teaching or coaching ten years from now, what will be the same. Remain focused on these.

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