Need Coaching Information? Ask other Coaches

When I was a very young coach and trying to establish my identity, philosophy and system, I was basically clueless defensively. So, one summer I looked at the previous season’s NCAA team PPG allowed stats and hand wrote each head coach in the Top 20 asking for any direction each might be able to offer.

One reply came shortly from one Bobby Knight, then the head coach at Army, where of course Mike Krzyzewski was one of his players. Coach Knight responded that he had a pamphlet for sale entitled “Let’s Play Defense”. A lot of coaches were asking about his defense as he was regarded as a rising star in coaching circles- so he came up with the pamphlet. I immediately sent my $3.00 and soon received my stapled copy with a cover illustration of a fire-snorting devil in a defensive stance.

The impact of my original inquiry and that subsequent purchase were easily the most significant events in my development as a coach. I devoured the information and it became the foundation of how I approached defense from that day forward. I went from virtually clueless to being a confident teacher of a sound defensive system.

While Coach Knight’s pamphlet was a commercial enterprise and while out of 20 letters sent with only one other response, the truth remains that if I hadn’t originally written, I wouldn’t have had the early opportunity to get in on Coach Knight’s ideas. Of course, not too much later he was hired at Indiana and he and his defense became well known nationally and he was perhaps the brightest star those days on the clinic circuit.

Today, writing 20 handwritten notes wouldn’t exactly be the most techy approach one would use to inquire about some aspect of the game from an expert coach. However, the need to know information in a fairly quick manner precludes the randomness of waiting until the right clinician shows up in one’s area.

This is hardly thinking outside the box, but if I were having trouble against zones, looking into the Syracuse Orange zone offensive attacks might be the first source of ideas. Who better knows the sets and actions vs. the 2-3 that are most troublesome than the team that practices against itself each day and has to game-plan against some of the best minds in college basketball? If anyone knows 2-3 zone attacks, it’s Syracuse. In the same line of thinking, I might research Virginia’s attack vs. pack-line defenses, how Michigan attacks the half-court 1-3-1 and how West Virginia attacks full court pressure, as just a few examples.

Direct communication with these and other staffs may not even be necessary as there are so many ways more ways to access information today than there were in the letter writing era. However, some staffs are happy to hear from coaches and will readily share ideas if the timing isn’t an issue. In-season inquiries are the most likely to go unanswered. Obviously, the very best solution is to attend pre-season practices for your target teams and to find out when they’ll be working on your area of interest. Coaching staffs will generally be very accommodating in this environment.

One comment

  1. In 1978 I was looking to get into coaching. My mentor coach suggested that I pick a successful coach and contact him. He suggested Coach Smith or Coach Knight. I randomly picked Coach Dean Smith. Coach wrote me a letter (which I have yet) and suggested that I watch some film (which he sent) and come to North Carolina in the summer. I studied the film (remember, this is before ESPN) and went to Chapel Hill for a week, watching film that the assistants provided and having access to them after camp hours. That began a relationship that lasted until today.

    A few years later I was watching Indiana play a late night game on television and noticed that Indiana was switching screens a lot, almost to the point of playing zone. I was confused, as I had read a great deal about Coach Knight’s philosophy and he “never switched”. I asked my mentor about this and his response was “Call Indiana and ask them.” Which I did. (Remember, no internet lookup of phone numbers. Directory assistance, Indiana University. University switchboard. Basketball office). The phone rings, a man picks up (I was expecting a woman/secretary?) I introduced myself and told my story. The man at the other end said, “This is Coach Knight. ” He then talked to me for five minutes about the game and how he believed that they had struggled defending that team in the first meeting and that he wanted a surprise move, which they used in the second half. Two weeks later I got a box in the mail with a note from Coach Knight and a film of that game. He invited me to a practice the following year and said that if I had more questions to write him and he would be sure someone got back to me, and they did.

    I tell these stories for several reasons. First, as your article states, contact the coach if you have a question. More recently I have had success contacting an assistant (easily done in the age of the internet). Be sure to say “Thank You” (I send a hand written note card). Second, study teams who are successful in specific situations, in your example you suggest contacting Syracuse for a zone offense. I studied Pittsburgh and Villanova, two teams who have had good success scoring against the Orange. Third, be outrageous in your willingness to help other coaches. Coach Smith and Coach Knight are prime examples. I coach at a small college and every year we have local high school coaches who come to our practices and for whom we make time to attend one or two of theirs. Think of ways that you can “pay forward” the hospitality you hope to get from other coaches.

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