At the moment, I am lucky enough to be the GB Jr Men’s Head Coach. Alongside this, I also coach Vixens in the Women’s League, the UK Armed Forces for the Invictus Games, and am a mentor for Basketball Scotland. I have been coaching for a long time but mostly for activities in which I participated. My route into Wheelchair Basketball was very different but still involved me trying to play as an AB for Aces – as you can tell I quickly took to the side-line and into coaching the game, in particular looking at the elite performance side of the game.
Coaching philosophies are strange beasts. I am not sure if my thoughts are grand enough to be regarded as a philosophy, but I certainly have a number of tenets that govern my behaviour, not just in coaching but throughout life. Very competitive, I spent most of my life in environments where losing has a significant cost, a drive that underpins my approach in sport. At International or elite levels, the difference between the winners and losers is rarely physical ability, it is more often than not a mental strength. The players will already have put in the hard yards in training, and if they haven’t they will be found out by the opposition. As a coach, you must be able to get the very best out of a player both physically and mentally when it really matters and that requires considerable ground work in advance.
Any coaching approach must recognise the athletes, the situation, and the opposition. As a coach you must be consistent with the players but retain sufficient flexibility to deal with all circumstances; this is a really difficult balance, but the great coaches demonstrate it can be achieved. A coach must work harder than any player: you must be willing to put in the time and effort. You must plan every session in great detail with a number of options to vary intensity and with clear objectives. Before games, I spend hours researching and watching footage to understand other teams and their approaches. During the World Championships in Toronto, I could tell you everything about every player we faced: their dominant hand, shooting range, idiosyncrasies, favourite passes, strength of their first push, speed, height, which clubs they played for, what awards they had won, their percentages and minutes they’d played. It is a coach’s responsibility to know all that and more and then distil it into usable information for the team. Tournament play is very different to league fixtures; you have 10 games to win gold, and each affects the next with little recovery or adjustment time. You want the players to take it 24 seconds at a time, but you must think through to the finish and beyond.
It is of the utmost importance that a coach understands their players. It takes considerable time, a precious commodity, to invest in the relationship but it is the keystone to holding everything else together. There are no short-cuts and you must build and earn mutual trust. This goes much further than just meeting the players at training; it is understanding their pressures, their concerns, their anxieties, their motivations and goals, their strengths and weaknesses, and their vulnerabilities. It starts with just talking, but should go a lot further. It is not about being friends with them, which can often be an issue. In time many of the players may become your friends but a coach-athlete relationship must be held differently. There has to be honesty and objectivity throughout the whole team, which includes the staff. Whilst you hold the privilege of coaching you also hold the responsibility to give your all to each and every one of your players. I take this on court and off and help players balance the commitments in their lives; believe it or not, life is much more than the 40 minutes on court.
I have seen young men do truly remarkable things, often defying rationality, and almost always at great risk to themselves but for the benefit of others. I have seen the strength of true teamwork and the value of camaraderie, the joy of success and the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching emptiness of defeat. I believe that if you are going to do something in life, don’t just be good at it – be great at it. If I can help someone achieve something great, then why wouldn’t you want to. I have seen a lack of preparation and planning lead to the most devastating of results, and whilst no plan will survive the start of the game, the planning provides you the tools to make quicker decisions in game. You have to stay ahead of the opposition’s thinking. Forming a team is harder than selecting the 12 best individuals; they must work together as a single entity; their personalities must be able to co-exist (not necessarily become friends, but to work for each other); they must each hold themselves and each other to account; and if it works then the team can achieve so much more.
In a very short period of time, I have taken each of my teams to the crowning glory in their discipline: Vixen’s to the Women’s League Title, UK Armed Forces to Invictus Gold, and the GB Jr Men to the World Championship Gold. I have been very lucky with the players who have been in those teams; there are a number of outstandingly talented athletes. They have responded well to my approach, and although not always pleased about early morning sunrise sessions or stretching, they committed fully to the team. A coach cannot win a game, they cannot go out on the court and stop a play, or score a basket, but they can definitely lose a game. Our coaching team thrives on high pressure situations, we actually look forward to them because we know we are better prepared and better at adapting to changing circumstances than our opponents. If you have been thorough in your preparation, if you have done the study, tested your plan, pulled it apart and rebuilt it numerous times then you know you have prepared at well as you can. In the final of the World Championships, we were down in the first period, and still chasing the game at half-time. My reading of the game, however, was entirely different from the players. They were understandably worried, no-one likes being down at half time in the final of the World Champs, but we knew it was always going to be a tough game. I watched the stats, read the opposition players, and knew that we had this game – I was not worried at all, I had the utmost confidence in the team. Of course, as a coach you then have to settle the players, convince them of your belief and address their legitimate concerns, all whilst being hassled for a press interview and detailing the game plan for the second half. Dealing with pressure, valuing logic and fact over emotion and being remaining self-disciplined is a must for a coach. There are times to get passionate and animated, and there are times when players need to see composure.
I have enjoyed so many amazing moments in coaching already. Many revolve around people who have shared my journey with me: seeing their smiles, their enjoyment, their success, their MVP and All Star nominations, enjoying their support when the pressure is on, seeing them celebrate with their families. For me, the most humbling experience I have had was the presentation of some signed Nike from the USA Armed Forces team in recognition of my approach throughout the tournament. Receiving an unexpected gift from the opposition was immensely touching; seeing some of them going on to be coaches in their own right and enjoying success too is the icing on the cake.
In the GB set-up I am very lucky to be working with Pete Finbow and Phil Robinson. There are obvious procedural requirements as Head Coach but otherwise we operate as a team. We sit down and discuss our thoughts and approach; we hold a joint vision. Our strength is that, although the decision is ultimately that of the head coach, we all have a say, which provides a check and balance to any idea. Each member of our team brings unique strengths; Pete is vastly experienced in the techniques and tactics of the game; Phil is very clever, energetic and brings huge experience from different sports. In preparation and in camps we spend a lot of time refining our thoughts before the players turn up. On game day, we each have our role, but the important thing is that the opportunity to voice opinions on everything still exists. This level of collaboration requires the same investment in relationships that a coach has with players.
I have been lucky enough to follow Haj Bhania over the years; from my playing time at Aces, through my coaching qualifications, right up to now at GB. He is a stickler for fundamentals, similar to John Wooden’s “sort the heel”, which plays to my beliefs about looking after the details of everything you do.
There is a constant striving for getting better. The GB Jr Men have the opportunity to continue developing the game, retain their World title, and chase the Senior players for places on the full squad. Vixens have had a considerable re-shuffle of players and are re-building a solid squad. The UK Armed Forces are looking to regain their Invictus gold. For me, I aim to give each player all I can to help them be the best they can be at whatever they choose to do.