What It Takes to Be a Great Coach

Knowledge alone is not enough

Coaching in sports is a complex profession. You need to truly live and breathe it 24 hours a day to develop the necessary knowledge and skill to be poised for success. Having a mix of psychological acumen, charisma and a knack to socialize will get you a long way as well.

Learning and Developing

Sport is a living thing. It develops continuously and as a coach you need to be in touch with all of these modifications, because every day is an opportunity to learn and apply something new. That’s probably the top most virtue of the best coaches – their ability to adapt to change.

Let’s take Zeljko Obradovic, for example – a basketball coach who won nine Euroleague titles over a span of almost two decades, from 1992 to 2017.

In the 20 years he has worked as a professional coach, Obradovic managed to be successful despite all the transformations, big and small, that happened in basketball during this time.

The game has become increasingly physical, European players are swelling the ranks of NBA rosters, many of the rules have changed, resulting in numerous novelties in tactics, player attributes and skills that are needed to win games and championships.

“This is a key issue. As a coach, you need to react quickly and adapt to changes. For instance, a rule that was recently introduced in European basketball has markedly sped up the game. After the offensive rebound, you now get only 14 seconds of possession compared to the 24 seconds you had prior to this change. There’s only time for a short play, a pick and roll or something of that sort”, explains Dejan Milojevic, a former player and gold medalist with Yugoslavia at Eurobasket 2001, now the head coach of a very ambitious project called Mega Leks.

So, how do we obtain vital coaching knowledge?

First of all, a coach has to be extremely dedicated and willing to listen. The amount of knowledge available on the internet is mind boggling and this includes coaching clinics. YouTube provides a vast array of interviews with elite coaches giving tips on specific subjects. But that is not enough, Milojevic warns.

“A coach needs to be aware of their team and the traits of their players. You can see a great play or move that the Golden State Warriors are pulling off, but if you don’t have the players in your team to implement that same thing, there is no point in trying to copy it”.

Apart from attending or observing coaching clinics, you can learn a lot just by watching basketball, football or any other sport. It is something one might think should go without saying, but there are some coaches that tend to focus only on their own team and the next opponent.

One should always muster up the energy and time to see what’s new, or whether there is anything worth seeing in other teams that might help your own efforts. For example, Dejan Milojevic picked up the half-court defense and introduced it in Mega Leks by watching Tony Bennet’s Pack Line defense at West Virginia.

Another key aspect of improving as a coach is learning from your own mistakes. This means being self-critical and conducting an in-depth analysis of all the matches you played. “What could I have done differently?”, that’s the question that should be the starting point after losing a game.

“I analyze my matches constantly – it is in human nature to approach defeats with a lot more attention and zest, and I have learned the most after some of my toughest losses. However, it’s equally important to analyze games you have won with the same amount of vigor and critical approach“, adds Milojevic.

Mega Leks is a basketball club from Serbia that has in recent years become globally recognized as a fountainhead of young players. Their poster boy was Nikola Jokic, who went to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets directly from the club and had a great first season averaging 10 points and 7 rebounds per game. The average age of Mega’s roster is a stunning 19.5 years, but they have reaped a huge amount of success by winning the Serbian National Cup and finishing as the runner-up spot in the ABA League, a regional competition gathering the best teams from the former Yugoslavia.

Transferring knowledge to your players

Knowledge is a necessary precondition for being a good coach, but having it only scratches the surface.

We have all had that one high school teacher that could not quite get through to us, no matter how hard they tried. It’s similar with some coaches – they “know everything”, but have trouble passing knowledge on to the players in an effective way and applying their experience in specific situations. There is one simple rule – be open and very clear when communicating with your players.

“It is my belief that players need to understand why they are performing a particular drill or play in practice. If they are not able to recognize its benefit during match time, then it is all for nothing. I always emphasize the meaning of a particular exercise, play, type of defense and so forth. A coach should not wait for a player to shower them with questions. The explanation has to come at the beginning of every drill. That is the foundation you build on”, says Milojevic.

Football or basketball players tend to complain when practice becomes boring, which leads to frustration and lack of motivation. Therefore, one of the many assignments a coach has is to diversify their practice sessions in order to avoid monotony.

A player needs to be creative and able to improvise on the pitch, but in football and especially basketball, certain actions need to become automatic, which is why repetition in practice is of the utmost importance. Shooting guards in basketball have drills where they have to make at least 500 shots a day.

In such circumstances and especially with all the other commitments a coach has, it is indeed challenging to make practice sessions entertaining and innovative. On the other hand, the extra effort does pay off – coach Milojevic has various ‘tactics’ to keep his players aware and fully motivated during practice.

“Whatever the drill is, we are competing. So, there are always some kinds of consequences for those who lose. This way you also develop the competitive spirit of a player and you’re engraining into them the ’I don’t like to lose’ feeling they will need during a match”.

This is not the only way, of course. As a coach you can accomplish the same goal through different means. Moreover, different coaches from the entire coaching staff of a team will deal with different groups of players every day, so they can insert their little personal mark on every practice session they hold, which is enough to spice things up.

“You can change the context of the same drill by adjusting just one small detail. Different ways of counting points. For instance, we could be doing the same drill, but change the way we are competing. Sometimes the winner is the group that successfully defended most of the attacks, sometimes the ones who made the largest number of stops, or you can decide that an offensive rebound removes a point from the opposing team’s score, etc”, explains Milojevic.

Furthermore, a coach can ask players to accomplish specific goals within a particular exercise. In basketball, they can play ‘five on five’, but with an emphasis on defending the low post or playing wing pick and roll. In football, you can ask players to hit a specific spot during a shooting drill or alternate the number of allowed contacts with the ball and so on.

The key takeaway from all of the above is to keep an open mind and to always look for new, original solutions.

The bottom line is quite simple – if players are having fun, they will practice with more intensity, which will in turn speed up their improvement and produce better results when it matters the most.

Common mistake

Dejan Milojevic: “I have had a lot of coaches during my career, but only a few have told me, loud and clear, what was expected of me. Some of them thought that certain things should go without saying, but a coach can never assume that – no matter how good a player is, they must understand exactly what they are being told to do.

Getting to know the players

The opinion of the players in determining what constitutes a great coach is equally important as that of the coaches.

It’s interesting that when talking to players, they tend to give less weight to a coach’s knowledge of the game and more to human virtue.

“A coach has to know their players profoundly, not only as sports professionals, but as individuals – who they are and how they feel. It is really important for a coach to connect with their players and have conversations with them all the time. By making the effort to know someone better, you will have more success helping them become a better footballer“, says David Babunski, Red Star Belgrade’s 22-year-old attacking midfielder.

David joined FC Barcelona as a preteen and trained at the club’s world famous youth academy La Masia for a decade, where he learned that team spirit was one of the most important factors in achieving your goals.

Marko Simonovic, a basketball player for Crvena Zvezda (Red Star in English) and silver medalist from the  World Cup 2014 with Serbia, has a startlingly similar perspective, considering he’s coming from another sport and from a different social environment.

“An absolute must for a coach is to have a good relationship with the players – he needs to create a balance between friendship and authority. That is how the players like it and if that is the case, they are willing to pull out all the stops for their coach. In my opinion, this is the basic requirement for success – a good atmosphere and team spirit“, says Simonovic.

Speaking with other athletes on and off the record, not just football or basketball players, almost all of them emphasize the need for well-defined, balanced and honest relations between player and coach.

“Conversation and trust are the keys – that is how I know the players’ problems, things that are bothering them, and this allows us to solve these issues together. I am always honest and direct with the players and that is why all of them appreciate me – there is no greater joy than to stay in touch with a player who has left your club and that happens to me often”, says Milojevic.

Finally, it is imperative to treat all of your players equally, otherwise you can easily disrupt the harmony within a team.

“I have never liked coaches who cower away from directing a critical remark to the best player on the team, but will then find a younger player or kids to yell at and make an example of“, Milojevic flashed back  about his experience as a player.

“I would never do that“, he concludes.

During the match

In the end, it all comes down to her majesty – The Match.

A coach has put in a lot of hours to make brilliant preparations for the game, but sport is unpredictable. There is always something that will not go according to plan or that may catch you by surprise.

You have to be ready for these situations and all the past work and experience will come to the fore at these moments. An authentic idea will pop up in your mind or you will pull out a trick from your sleeve that you have never used up to that point. These capabilities are not something that you learn, but rather come as a natural consequence of the accumulated experience and hard work invested throughout your career.

However, it is not always that simple.

“When you are in a situation like this, it’s talent that comes into play. You cannot learn that sort of stuff, but the combination of experience and the talent I just mentioned will infuse the coach with a feel for what needs to be done in a particular situation”, Milojevic points out.

Naturally, it is better not to be caught off guard, which is why coaches should have as many possible match situations already worked out and solutions drilled during practice.

Still, finding answers during matches is one of the crucial elements that separate ‘the good’ from ‘the great’.

A coach needs to be creative and brave in finding solutions and perhaps, most importantly, never make the same mistake twice. Dejan Milojevic tells us an interesting story dating back to the days when he just started working at Mega Leks.

“We were up by three with 1.5 seconds to go, we had possession, but I did not ask for a time out because I wanted us to make an inbound pass from the attacking half of the court. I thought: ’We will just pass the ball and it will be over’. But we lost the ball and, although they luckily did not hit a three pointer, I instantly knew I had made a mistake that could have cost us the match”.

Mental preparation

“It is not easy to manage a group of 30 people. The psychological aspect is very important– to address the feelings and the mental state of a player in moments leading up to a match”.

Indeed, as David Babunski puts it, ‘the mental aspect of the game is just as relevant as any other, if not more.’

The role of the coach in maintaining peace when the squad is getting anxious ahead of a big match is essential, but on the other hand, you need to get the team pumped up if they are too loose. It is a fine line that the coach has to balance on and Marko Simonovic explains how that looks like:

“It depends on the situation, but the coach needs to be a skilled psychologist in order to properly detect the state of their team. If he feels that his team is too relaxed, the coach will put more pressure on us – a greater workload, but will act more casually if he senses that there is too much tension in the air, especially ahead of the big matches”.

How does a coach do that? As mentioned earlier, the key is knowing the personality of the player and acting accordingly.

“Different players have different personalities, so you cannot motivate each of them in the same way. If you raise your voice, it can prove to be a motivational boost for one player, but hold back another, who will react negatively to that kind of input”, says Milojevic and then adds:

“Generally, a coach needs to be positive and confident, so that players can draw that confidence from them. When a coach is self-assured, it reflects on the players as well”.

Marko Simonovic also made a point about another important thing that players look for in a coach – trust.

“If I could name one thing that means a lot to all players, it is the belief a coach has in them. When he looks me in the eye and says: ’I know you will score’ or ’I know you can do it’, I instantly feel like I could fly if I wanted to and I am certain that there will be no other outcome but a positive one”.

Simonovic worked with legends of the game of basketball such as Milan Gurovic, Aleksandar Djordjevic and now Dejan Radonjic, the coach with the most wins in the history of Red Star Belgrade.

“Their influence is enormous. When born champions and strong personalities such as them tell you: ’Get out there, don’t give up’, their words reach deep inside and manage to motivate you and instill the necessary confidence. In my opinion, those are the most important things a coach should have”.

Being a coach is not simple or easy, but if your primary driving force is love towards the sport, then all of the above becomes a challenge you’re looking forward to.