Basketball leadership is a game changer. Leaders make a positive difference by helping those around them develop from good to even better. And every member of a team, not just the captains, can and should be a leader. Everybody should look for opportunities for leadership in their own ways, and consider how they can make a positive impact on their teams.
So today, we take a look at some tips for better basketball leadership, and learn from greats such as coaches John Wooden and Pat Summitt, and players Michael Jordan, Natasha Cloud, and Sue Bird. Let’s get after it!
John Wooden, the former UCLA men’s basketball coach who was named Greatest Coach of the 20th Century by ESPN, led the Bruins to 10 NCAA basketball championships, and an 88-game winning streak. He captured his leadership strategy in his book, writing: “Before you can lead others, you must be able to lead yourself. Define success for those under your leadership as total commitment and effort to the team’s welfare. Then show it yourself with your own effort and performance. Most of those you lead will do the same. Those who don’t should be encouraged to look for a new team.”
A strong, positive leadership style is crucial because destructive criticism and bullying doesn’t do much to motivate people. In fact, it often has the opposite impact, causing players to shut down and stop trying.
When WNBA Champion and New York Liberty Forward Stefanie Dolson arrived for her first season of college basketball at UConn, she was scared. “I’m the type of person that the more you are around, the probably more surprised people are at the fact that I went to college for basketball, that I play in the WNBA. Because I’m usually scared, I’m always nervous. I think I have so much pressure I put on myself, I just want to be really good. So if I’m not, I freak out. So I was so scared, like petrified.” she said on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
As a result, her first semester of college she went home every weekend. She was crying all the time, and almost quit. She even told Head Coach Geno Auriemma she didn’t want to play there anymore. But then a switch happened around Christmas after the first semester was over. Everything changed, and she started playing really well. She credits much of the change to Geno coaching her differently.
“I remember [Geno] just being like, ‘How do you want to be coached? I’m doing it this way and it seems like it’s not really working. How do you think you should be coached?’ And I remember just telling him certain things whether it’s a little more positivity. I’m a very big on just being positive. I know when I mess up. So I don’t need someone to yell at me four times. So it’s more like, ‘You know what you did wrong. But that was a great pass.’ Positive reinforcement. And then he did it…and it worked. Because the second half of the season was really good for me as a freshman. And then from there, my confidence kept going up.”
It is best to lead with an affirmative approach. That will tend to produce relationships based on trust and mutual respect. Always be encouraging, up-front, and honest in your communication. Strong leaders communicate well, from setting expectations through to encouraging teammates.
“I think you have to establish a culture in your program. If you just let anybody – we all come from different backgrounds and different upbringings – so no matter if they’re good or not, if you just let anybody into that program and let them do whatever, you’re not going to be able to control what you want to do. If you have your culture, and you have your rules, very much what Pat [Summitt] did: what you go by, we’re not folding or bending on any of these rules. I think it helps establish a foundation.” said Dallas Wings forward Izzy Harrison.
One example of how the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, Pat Summitt extended her clear communication beyond the foundation she set, is how she had players confirm they heard her feedback.
Pat observed that when her players didn’t hear feedback, they assumed the silence meant they were underperforming, worthless or unlikable. At first, she struggled finding the sweet spot between too much praise and too much effectiveness. So she devised a feedback system where a player had to say “two points” when they heard her praise, and “rebound” when they heard her criticism. “It was surprising how much better it made everybody feel,” Pat wrote in Sum it Up.
Having a positive attitude can also be a difference maker. “My freshman year I was playing behind 5 All-Americans, and 4 out of the 5 were in my position.” said Isabelle. “So obviously, you go into college, you have that freshman arrogance…I was doing that and [Pat] definitely saw my confidence go so, so, so low. At the same time, this was when she first announced she was having her early onset dementia. She sat me down during a practice and she was like, ‘Izzy, it’s literally never OK to have a pity party.’”
“She said that and it kind of shocked me back to reality. I’m worried about basketball and playing time, and she’s literally like losing her memory. She can’t remember her closest friends around her. And I remember looking in her eyes, of course I was scared, but I was like, ‘Man I really feel what you’re going through.’”
“And I carried that with me throughout Tennessee. If something wasn’t going my way, I was never going to complain about it or bring other people down. I was going to be Izzy…Then being drafted to the league I was drafted to Phoenix: Penny Taylor, Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree, I was never going to play. It was never going to happen…I just was so happy I had that experience with Pat because I could have came in and really burnt myself. I might not have been on a team. They didn’t care what I did at Tennessee. If anything I was an energy player. I was able to lift up everybody else while I was playing there.” reflected Izzy.
As a leader, use your voice. Las Vegas Aces‘ dynamic young guard Jackie Young said the first time she was in practice with Sami Whitcomb she thought, “She’s talking the whole time, she reminds me of Sue Bird.” Seattle Storm guard, WNBA Champion, and Olympic Gold Medalist Sue Bird is very vocal during practice and games. She encourages her teammates as they make good moves, she shares her perspectives on plays, and calls out what she’s seeing on the floor. Check out her practice session with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team to see how she leads.
Another key is to learn from your mistakes. “Success comes from good decisions. Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.” as the old adage goes.
To be a good leader you have to take calculated risks and you will certainly make some mistakes along the way said USA Basketball. Admit them. Learn from them. Don’t repeat them! These mistakes can be in the classroom or on the court.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” basketball icon Michael Jordan famously said.
Leaders can also ask for help from others. Being a good leader means knowing your limits and reaching out to others to help fill any gaps you see. For example, in Game 23 of Athletes Unlimited pro women’s hoops, Team Captain and Washington Mystics’ guard Natasha Cloud could tell her energy was down after the last game. So she asked her teammate and Connecticut Sun guard DiJonai Carrington to help carry the team.
“Tash said she needed me to pick her up, and pick up what she couldn’t bring today. And as a leader I definitely respect that she is cognizant of her own abilities day to day. So at the end of the day, she’s still our leader, she’s still a vocal person who was in everybody’s ear. But you know for the physical part I had to step up.” shared DiJonai.
Even among elite performers, certain athletes stand out as a cut above the rest. Here are ten suggestions for becoming a champion leader from The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow.
Use all these basketball leadership tips to develop a style that fits you. Identify and play to your strong suits (do you enjoy speaking up? are you a natural leader by example?), and then push yourself to grow a little out of your comfort zone. While you don’t have to lead the same way as your favorite pro, you should try to develop your leadership skills in a way that’s true to you. Up next, learn how basketball mindfulness can also help you unlock your full potential.
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