Allowing players ownership of their team

This weekend I watched the World Cup Handball final. For anyone who doesn’t know the sport – which you probably wouldn’t unless you live in Europe or South Korea – it’s a bit like a mix of soccer and basketball, played indoors at two goals, but with the hands. Have a look at some highlights here:

Well, this weekend Denmark played France in the World Cup final, in Sweden in front of 16.000 spectators. Denmark had the ball but were down by one goal with 29 seconds left when they called a timeout. In handball 21 seconds is basically time enough for one offense.

We all know what most basketball coaches would do; take control, draw up a play, let the players know exactly what to do.

The Danish coach did something very different. As soon as the players came in he goes:

“What do you want to run?”

The next 30 seconds the leading players quickly came up with a plan, then the coach gave them a few pointers to individual players. In other words, the coach let the players use their feeling of what was working on the court and their knowledge of the opponents to decide what would work out there.

The players had total ownership of their own team.

With three seconds left Denmark equalized and forced overtime:

Ulrik Wilbek, the coach, has won more than most coaches in any sport. Olympic gold medals with the Denmark women. World and European gold, silver and bronze with both women and men. Club European Champions League runners-up. In other words, a very successful coach.

Alowing players to have ownership of their team is not a thing exclusive to handball, though.

If you have watched “Kentucky All Access” you will see Calipari talking about it all the time. He wants to put the players in a position where they can make the best decisions for themselves, not rely on the coach shouting at the sideline for every move.

The best-known example in basketball of a coach who lets the players take ownership is probably Phil Jackson. He’s known to let his teams play through rough patches in the regular season. The other team will go on a run, and Jackson will sit on the bench quietly, waiting for his team to respond. He will let his leaders lead, not take the responsibility out of their hands.

It’s not for everyone, and not for every team, but I’m sure long team this coaching style empowers players to take responsibility for their own wins and losses.

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One Response to Allowing players ownership of their team

  1. JNS says:

    A few quick thoughts on this -

    1. does this mean it only works for offense exclusively?

    I´ve been developing my perspective on this, with the team Ive been coaching for quite a few seasons now – and i found it, to be a tad difficult for the players, to administrate, when they were younger. – Taking responsiblity, making adjustments on offense, with or without to´s. In my opinion, the offense is the most difficult thing to teach, especially with new players. (new to basketball, that is) But since I still wanted to give them some kind of responsibility from the very beginning – I began implementing it on defense first. They were old enough to have the zone as an option, with the league-rules, and so on. So for us, in games, we started building our character on defense, switching things up, or even small things as changing match-ups in-game or forcing someone right, even though it´s towards the middle, if the player´s really lefthanded eg.. Today, though, such a time-out as you described with Wilbek, will probably happen once or twice every single game for us.

    2. so how do you do it?

    Well, to me, it starts with practice, like everything else – and again, it comes down to the smallest of things. Maybe giving different players a small portion of different practices, to work as “coaches” – instructing and administrating drills from a given topic, can seem like a waste of time, especially if the team you´re coaching is playing to win, say, a championship in u16 or similar – BUT investing a small portion of your practice in this, over a longer period of time, will definately pay off bigtime.
    We also use the player´s to coach eachother in practice. Giving immediate feedback, while the drill is progressing, but also before and after. We have an established, but not final, hierachy on the team, and the more experienced guys could probably teach a drill pretty much like I would, word for word almost – this creates the open window for letting us let the players have more of a say.

    3. coach-player relation
    One challenge, that becomes crystal clear, when you start working with this type of coaching-style, is that the coach has to take a step back, and let the players figure things out on their own. Coach can step in, when the team is “treadmilling”, but all in all, he has to let the players make mistakes, then maybe stop and talk, to see, if the players are able to figure out what went wrong. It can be awfully painfull in the beginning, to watch the team disentegrate into chaos and anarchy in the :) They will get better over time though.

    0. It is also equally important, that you let the players know your change of strategy and approach each time you are going to do it. This goes for all “coaching”, as a teaching form, – the transparency of YOU, that lets the players know, that it is up to them, to figure something out from “within”, via logical deduction and creativity. Not because you don´t know, or even have a meaning, but because they have to go though the process of knowing, so they know WHY they know. It´s about bigger insight, and it´s about honing their problem-solving-on-the-spot kind of skills.

    What kind of drills do you use, for implementing this with you team, Mads?

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