Allowing players ownership of their team

I watched the 2011 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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