I’ve been watching video this week of Mike Ellicott, a coach with Empire United‘s academy in Rochester, NY. I’d arranged to tape Mike as part of my effort to observe and learn from top coaches. I’m going to share some video of him soon. But I want to share a couple of small things that he consistently does in his session that are both effective–I think–and easily replicated.
1) Mike teaches his players HOW to communicate. I think that most coaches probably read that and say, “I do that already.” But Mike strikes me as a little different. I see a lot of coaches telling players that they must communicate but not as much telling them how and when. They tell them that they are ‘too quiet’ or that they ‘need to talk.’ But is “more” inherently good? Better to tell them what to say and when to say it. So, for example, Mike stopped one exercise and told a player who was calling for the ball, “Don’t say “Ava”. That doesn’t help. Say, ‘Switch.’ When she hears that she knows what it means.” He also pointed out that she should be calling because 1) they had said that switching the field of play was a priority and 2) her defender was far away. In other words he helped her refine her words (and use the right volume) and gave her two criteria for deciding to call for the ball. On my daughter’s basketball team the girls have not been taught these things so for much of the game the player with the ball is greeted by a cacophony of players shouting her name or saying “pass it!” The talking they are doing surely reduces performance- and makes productive communication impossible.
Another time Mike stopped the girls and said, “Yes, Natalie. ‘Split’ is the right word to use there. That’s the fastest way to tell her what you want her to do [split two defenders with a pass]. Much better than ‘here’ of some other things I’ve heard yelled today.” In other words he was refining their vocabulary and matching it to fit the situation.
2) The above example, “Yes, Natalie. ‘Split’ is the right word to use there is also an example of another thing Mike did very well: something i call Precise Praise in Teach Like a Champion. (You can read about it here and here)
Mike spent a lot of time pointing out very specific things his girls had done right. Many teachers and coaches think of positive reinforcement primarily as a tool for making people feel good and perhaps motivating them to work harder. They call out things like, “Good job, Gabby!” This succeeds in helping Gabby feel good, maybe, but not in getting her better: does she know what action was good and just maybe why? If not she isn’t likely to be able to repeat it.
Mike, it was clear to me, thought about positive reinforcement as a teaching tool. He wanted his players to know what they had done well so they could replicate it. His praise was more specific, technical and actionable than most. So Natalie, in the example above, now knows what she did well. She used the word “split” in that situation… now she knows to keep doing it. This is important for a variety of reasons one of the most important is that players get stuff right all the time and don’t realize it–or how important what they’ve done is–so they fail to replicate it. Great teachers seek to help players know when they should keep doing something. That is as important as fixing a mistake. And in fact it’s not just important for young kids as Steve Kerr shows in this interaction with Steph Curry. Mike helped his players recognize and replicate success again and again.
3) That reminds me of one more small thing I liked about Mike’s interactions with his girls. He was as interested in decisions as outcomes and he recognized that sometimes players did important things right but their effort still resulted in failure. This is especially true of decisions and specifically decisions to try new things. In one characteristic moment during a possession drill where he was teaching the girls to make penetrating passes, one of his players gave the ball away when she tried to split two defenders to reach an open teammate. You could almost see her recognize the opportunity but it was new to her and she reacted a second too slowly.
What do most coaches say there?
Maybe they critique the outcome: “Better pass, Sarah! We can’t give the ball away there!” What Mike said was “It’s ok that you played it late. The fact that you saw it was the key thing.” He praised the decision. I saw him do that several times. I’m not saying coaches have to always do that. I’m not saying the flawed execution gets ignored in favor of the mental game. But he did an excellent job in my mind of letting his coaching reflect the truth of the game: that the decision is sometimes as important to coach as the execution- sometimes more important.