Coaching Conduct: Winning ... and Losing ... with Class

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

There is at least one common bond between the novice youth coach and the professional basketball coach. That commonality is that we all want our players to do their best. We want them to be successful. We are the players' most ardent fans, in a sense. We closely share their accomplishments and their failures. Coaching has an extremely personal relationship to the game even though coaches are not directly involved in the game itself. During a game, our influence on the outcome is limited to what we say in our limited opportunity to talk to the players, and to a drastically smaller degree, what we voice to officials. Basketball is a passionate game. And when the passions are running high, they manifest themselves in the things we communicate to players and referees. When coaches are jumping up and down on the sidelines, its just those unspoken emotions trying to find a way out.

Coaches should care about their public appearance, though. Even if you are great to your kids in practice, the parents will likely judge you by your game behavior. A coach's actions reflect on the team, the league and other youth coaches as well.

Here are some suggestions and examples regarding coaching conduct.

Winning with Class

1. Playing all your kids vs only favorites

Coaches often insert their second string when the game is in hand. This appeases the parents of the bench players who dearly want to see their kids play and it also gives a little satisfaction to the bench players who desperately want to get in the game. A better way to manage the substitutions is to make all the players an integral part of the game's outcome, win or lose. That takes some courage and trust on the part of the coach, but in the long run it builds a stronger team and a much happier team family. See the article on Playing Time.

One of the ugliest things you'll see in sport is when a team is assured of victory yet still plays the starters to the end of the game. Whether the purpose is to build statistics for certain players or to send a message to whomever, I don't know, but it is a reprehensible coaching move.

2. Managing scores vs running up the score

Some coaches justify building huge margins of victory because at some point in their past, they had a comfortable lead then lost it when the starters were pulled or tactics were changed. In the professional and collegiate levels, the competitors are adults and can deal with extreme competition. With children, however, there is no place for humiliating an inferior team. Running up scores benefits no one. The winners learn nothing and get sloppy; the losers may quit the sport altogether.

Scores can be managed to some degree. For instance, you may adopt a policy that once you are up 20 points, you'll stop pressing. If you are a coach that promotes the first class and second class player concept, 20 points would be the time to let your bench players in the game. Another example is when you are up a bunch and the other team is down to 4 players due to foul trouble. Do you press your advantage (what is possibly gained?) or do you have your kids take turns in staying back on defense so that your offense is 4 on 4?

We've all seen games where one team runs their full court press even when they are up 40 points or more. The coach's excuse is something like, "It's the only style we know." Well, that's pretty narrow-minded, isn't it? Learn something new. Instead of pressing, practice your half court set. Practice your stall. Practice some courtesy and self-respect.

3. Congratulating the other team vs ignoring the losing team

Once the game is over, the competition is over. Its time to acknowledge your opponent. Be gracious, be respectful. All that needs to be said is "Good game". It nice when teams line up and slap or shake hands afterwards.

Two behaviors occur from time to time that indicate a poor case of sportsmanship, or at least thoughtlessness. One is when the winning coach collects the players into a huddle after the game and loudly credits his team for the victory, and goes on and on and on... while the losing team is patiently lined up to shake hands. Keep your message short and sweet immediately after the game. Shake hands and get off the floor. Team meetings can be held elsewhere.

The other example of poor sportsmanship is a disgusted coach leaving the floor as the buzzer sounds. Even if the game has been an embarrassing experience, endure it for a couple more minutes. It will reflect highly on your character to be a good sport under adverse conditions and it may have a profound effect on how your players handle similar circumstances.

4. Give credit to the players vs claiming personal credit for the win

One of my pet peeves to hear coaches brag about "their" win-loss records. Make no mistake. The game belongs to the players. The coaches do not shoot or play defense. They are advisors, counselors, teachers and fans. But they are not players. The kids must implement the plan and use their skills to win, just like the other team must do. The team that wins is the team that best uses their talents and experience. If coaches want to take credit for wins and losses, they should take up chess.

I realize that winning is paramount the higher you go in a sport. But, we are working with children. Give them ownership of the team and responsibility for winning and losing. Be their guide, not their god. They will form stronger bonds with each other as they build their team than they will as servants of a common master. When the team wins, praise them for all the things they did right. And when they lose, praise them for all the things they did right. If there are certain factors that led to a loss, point them out as things that need work, not as faults.

When a coach says, "I've never lost to Coach So and So", credit is being misdirected. Would the outcomes of those games been the same if the kids had switched teams? One season may bless you with some outstanding kids while another coach is struggling with low interest or talent levels. It doesn't mean you are the better coach. Next year, the tables may turn. If you have been gracious, the favor will be returned. If you have boasted, you may regret it later.

5. Praise the losing team vs denigrating the losing team

Have a good word to say about your opponent. Sometimes that is hard when you feel they played dirty or you didn't like their attitude. Nonetheless, if somebody asks you about the game, just say something positive about both teams. Its the only way you can come out looking good. If you put your opponent down, you are only creating emotional baggage that may weigh you down later. Word gets around. You don't need to provide your opposition with extra incentives to beat your team.

and... Losing with Class

1. Playing all your kids vs only favorites

When the game is a lost cause, there are some tough choices to make regarding playing time. The easy answer, and perhaps the best answer, is to let everyone play about the same and share the game experience. However, there are certain situations to consider. If you are getting blown out of the game and the other team is smothering you with a relentless press, it may not be the best idea to put in the weaker players. It possible that they do not want to be in the game at all. All the game is to them is a lesson in enduring humiliation and intimidation. Your more experienced players may be able to better cope with the pressure. Do what is best for the kids. If they all want to play no matter what, the answer is obvious.

I have seen a few coaches that play only their top 5-6 players no matter what. The other kids are merely filler material. If the league has a minimum playing time rule, that's all they get, and the coach resents those minutes. The usual result is the bench players quit. That takes pressure off the coach because if the subs aren't there, who else can he play but the starters?

2. Playing to win to the very last second vs quitting and going through the motions

It says a lot for a team when they play as hard as they can even when they are losing badly. That takes a special kind of courage and love for the game. Nobody likes to lose. But, there is no better way to lose than giving a full effort every minute. How can you not respect players with that attitude? If you beat a team like that early in the season, watch out the next time you play them.

The usual response in a mismatch is that the trailing team starts hanging their heads, taking desperate gambles, blaming each other and the referees for everything that goes wrong. If this behavior is deeply ingrained, you may not be able to change it. Recognizing the early symptoms, you can warn your team and encourage them to snap out of it. At the least, it is a worthwhile discussion to hold in a practice (or as a practice) to set expectations of conduct in tough situations. Its not that some kids have weak character, its more likely that no one ever explained to them how they should act in frustrating situations.

3. Accepting responsibility for the loss vs blaming your players or the officials

One habit that is easy to fall into is one of constantly criticizing players during the game. Anybody can see that some action didn't work or was the wrong thing to do. The trick is telling players what to do next, not what they should have done a second ago. Chances are, you are playing games long before you have practiced everything you want to cover. The players will be making decisions in many cases without much training, especially if they are new to organized basketball. It doesn't help to shout out things like "Not like that!" "Think!" "What are you doing out there?" These phrases have no instructional value whatsoever. Its an unconscious attempt by the coach to separate himself from the team. Tell them what you want them to do, then tell them again. If they make a mistake on something that hasn't been covered yet, just make a note for next practice.

When your team gets beaten, it gets beaten and that should be the end of it. Accept it, learn from it and move on. There is no need to explain how it wasn't your fault. Nobody really cares for the explanation anyway. Blaming a loss on the officials is a common response, but that just shows a lack of responsibility. Worse, some coaches publicly blame their players. Don't put yourself above the team when they lose. Share the loss with them, even though they were on the floor, not you. "We didn't hustle enough tonight. The other team consistently beat us to the loose balls". That sounds so much better than, "These kids have no heart. You can't coach a group of kids who won't work hard."

4. Complimenting winner's abilities vs whining about the other team's tactics

The only way to save face after a loss is to be gracious. Complaining about anything doesn't carry any credibility because, well, because you lost. All you can gain is a reputation as a sore loser. You look much stronger when you congratulate the other coach for the work he has done with his team. Some of the other coaches in your league may end up being good friends. After all, you have common interests. Its fun when you get to the point where you share ideas about coaching basketball and actually help each other out. When your teams play each other, you play your hearts out, but its in an atmosphere of respect.

5. Demonstrating self control vs inciting the crowd

OK, lets say you're in a tight game and the referee has just made, in your immediate opinion, the worst judgment call you have ever seen. Now the other team has the ball and a chance to win the game. How are going to handle that? The crowd is reacting, the kids are visibly upset and you feel angry that you've been treated unfairly. Which path are you going take? Do you: (a) kick your chair over? (b) run out on the floor and call the referee names? (c) turn to the crowd and say, "I can't believe this!" (d) call time out

I have seen all of these choices exercised. The first three ended with an ugly loss and some form of public apology by the coach. The last option, calling time out, was fruitful. The crowd settled down, the coach calmed the players and gave them a plan. The plan worked, the team won and the controversial call became a minor footnote.

I don't mean to pick on the referees to set the scene for this example. Maybe a player throws a punch or does something outrageous. The point is that the coach has the power to calm things down - or to make the situation worse.

6. Staying in the game plan vs playing rough or dirty

Losing is frustrating, to be sure, but don't let your players vent their feelings by playing cheap. Examples are rough picks, holding shirts, over-blocking shots, fouling the shooter long after the shot is away, sticking knees and hips into ball handlers instead of playing good, positional defense. The likely result is somebody's child getting hurt. That's not the point and such actions won't turn the game around. Further, nobody gives a dirty team any quarter, so anybody who can will make future games unpleasant for you. Most kids just need a reminder to play clean.