As an announcer, you can say things like Jim Peterson said about Karl-Anthony Towns:
What’s the worst that could happen? Towns avoids eye contact with you on the team plane? Announcers don’t have to maintain strong relationships with the players - they probably don’t want to be relentlessly negative of the guys they’re around often all the time, but they can get away with being critical here and there.
Now, if you’re a coach who questions whether a guy wants to play tonight? That’s a whole different story.
In the NBA, pretty much the most offensive thing you can say to a player is asking them if they want to play. Players are very prideful people. They don’t like having their heart and effort questioned, much less whether they want to be out there at all. Coaches may say something to that effect privately amongst their staff 50 times over the course of a season. But doing it to the player’s face in front of everyone? That’s what NBA coaches refer to as “bullets.” You only have so many bullets you can use against your team every season. Question their effort nightly or excessively, you sound like a broken record and grate on the players with negativity so much that they lose their love for the game. But every coach needs to light a fire from time to time.
January 14th, 2017. Scott Brooks walks into the locker room with the Wizards tied with the (at the time) lowly 76ers at home. He looks right at Markieff Morris and says, “Keef, do you want to play tonight??”
Wow. Shots fired.
Keef responds back angrily. “What the [expletive] you mean?” followed by a bunch of other profanities. Brooks responds, “Yeah, get mad at me all you want! I don’t care if you’re mad at me! I want you to be mad at the Sixers! Ersan Ilyasova’s got like 20 points on you! He shouldn’t be able to score on you!”
This goes on for a minute or two as Brooks continues to yell at Morris, and Morris continues to bark right back at Brooks, neither backing down.
I’m not sure poor Ersan Ilyasova was able to get a clean shot off in the 2nd half.
Postgame in the locker room, after the team had really come alive and crushed Philly in the second half, the team came together for their routine post-game huddle. Keef started it off by apologizing and saying, “My bad, Coach. I was tripping at halftime. Won’t happen again.”
Brooks smiled and said something to the effect of, “Still love all you guys, even if you drive me nuts.”
In coaching, the toughest balance to find is knowing when to use those bullets and when to hold back and be positive as much as you want to explode on a guy.
Players have tons of ‘yes men’ around them already. Some players don’t handle criticism particularly well and enjoy always being told how great they are. Some thrive off criticism and use every slight—perceived or real— as extra motivation.
Working as a CoachUp coach, I’ve given private and group lessons to players of all ages, genders, and skill levels. From the 5 year-old boy in LA whose parents promised him he could take his first b-ball lesson when he turned 5 to the recent college grad getting ready to play professionally overseas. As a Coach, you have to realize that every single player is different. Some need confidence and you to be endlessly positive and believe in them. Some need a jump-start and someone to hold them accountable.
I coach a terrific kid who played ball in high school and has his hopes of playing in the G-League some day. I remember when we were about to do our first lesson. A day before he texts me to let me know he has a film crew coming with him to film a documentary on him and put together a highlight tape. Just wants to make sure that’s ok with me.
Nope. Absolutely not. He was a decent high school player but then didn’t even play college. I tell him he’s focused on the wrong things if he’s talking about having a crew come out to film his first workout with me. Get in the gym. Go as hard as you can. Let me see what you’re made of and what we have to work with.
It’s not about highlight tapes or documentaries. It’s about putting in the work when no one is watching and getting yourself to be as good as you can possibly be.
This served as a wake-up call for him. To his credit, the player realized that he didn’t have his head on straight and nixed any filming. He decided to get in the gym and work. He’s a very hard worker, calls everyone ‘sir’ and asks for my coaching advice even as we’re now on opposite ends of the country. And I’m proud of him for trying out for the Capital City Go Go and apparently holding his own! Not making the G-League at open tryouts is nothing to be ashamed of, but he kept working and made a local ABA team and still has his eyes on the Go Go next season.
With the Wizards, I prided myself on being a guy who kept it real with players. I knew they had plenty of positivity in their lives and enough people to always tell them how great they are. I tried to carve out a niche as someone who wasn’t afraid to criticize the players from time to time and give them some “tough love.” Even though coaches had to be mindful of their ‘bullets’, in my position thankfully I was able to love and support and praise guys when appropriate, but I also had certain guys who liked being told the truth and used that to fuel them to get even better.
At the end of the day, everyone is different. Coaching is about finding the right buttons to push to motivate and connect with each and every player.
Bryan Oringher spent the past 7 years working in the NBA. He spent 4 years traveling with the Washington Wizards as their head Video Coordinator (‘13-‘17) and last season as a regional advance scout for the Raptors and Hawks. Currently he’s providing basketball analysis online on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
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