Perspective - Coaching Inbreeding
and Being Yourself

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I have coached basketball since I have graduated college, in 1977. I stepped away from the sideline twice in that period. The second time was to do what I am doing now, training players. The first time was after 18 years of coaching, travel and recruiting. I felt I needed to regain some perspective on what I was doing and why. Both times I got what I felt I needed. I look at coaching drastically differently than I did when I was a 21-year old graduate assistant.

One of the things that I have learned in that time was that coaching is a very incestuous profession. We inbreed. We teach as we were taught, often without thinking about the value of what we do. I have said many times that, as coaches, we often act as we believe that we are expected to act, whether we believe it has value or not. Things such as yelling and screaming at players during games, trying to control every aspect of what the players do, running drills that have no meaning, forms of punishment or ways of enforcing discipline that is counterproductive to our goals (anyone run suicides) are routinely practiced without evaluation. Stepping away from the sidelines probably taught me more about coaching than all the games (and there are close to 800 of them) I was on the bench for.

I am keenly aware that a lot of my thoughts and philosophies are 180 degrees from traditional thought. I also know I have different experiences than other coaches. We all do, all of our experiences are unique as are the way we process them.

I started to change when I had some really bad teams. I learned two things during that time. First, you can't out coach your limitations. You can coach up bad players, improve them, stretch their potential, but not enough to beat teams that pull dollar bills off the top of the backboard and then leave change. Second, you have to listen to your players to help you sort out what is important and what is not. You might be running something that you believe in, but if they don't believe, you are better off selling popcorn.

In my experience, I have found that as the people that I have met, associated with, coached with and against move on with their careers (read: get older), more and more think I am less crazy and come over to my way of thinking. Not necessarily believe what I believe, but become very introspective towards their methods and beliefs and make changes. I guess that is called experience. It does, to an extent, make me feel validated in regard to my own development.

I have 2 friends in my life. To some that might seem like a small number. To those who know me, I am sure they are wondering how I have that many. In fact, I am sure they are wondering about the sanity of those two people. Though my two friends have never met, we all have one thing in common. We never see one another. I have a suspicion that is how I can keep them as friends. They both, unwittingly, have reinforced my sideways view on coaching.

My first friend coached for a long time. He spent 16 years at the same school, 8 as an assistant coach and 8 as the head coach. He took several of those teams to the NCAA Tournament. He was a very good coach, his teams were always prepared, played hard and were difficult to play against. He got caught in a power struggle between 2 administrators and wound up losing his job because of it. That is a scenario that is all too common in college sports. He was out of coaching for about two years, which is a common length of time to regain enthusiasm and I asked him, "Do you miss it? Are you going to try to get back in?" He said he was going to settle into something else. While he would like to coach, he had 2 children in their teens and was near family. One of the hidden factors in coaching is that 99% of the time, when you change jobs, you had to move (I moved 17 times for 7 jobs). He did not want to uproot his kids at this time in their life. He's been out about four years but we still talk basketball and coaching. Earlier this year, he said something really interesting. He had been watching his son practice (who was now a college freshman). There was a new perspective. He said, "I can't believe the things I did intentionally while I was coaching to steal the joy of the game from the kids I was coaching. The 5 am weight training, the 3 hour practices, the running and other punishment for things that were incidental, and all the other things just to exert control over my teams. I never let them feel good about themselves. Laughing was forbidden, just winning wasn't enough and I don't even want to think about what I did when I lost. I don't know how anybody ever played for me." He didn't know any better. He coached the way he was coached. He hated his coach. As most do he said, "If I ever do coach again, it will be a drastically different approach." We continued to talk about how important it was to give kids a positive experience, one that is realistic but positive and let the players take care of the games. Interesting thought.

My second friend has been my best friend since the 4th grade. We went to elementary school together, jr. high and high school as well. We even went to college together. After graduating, I went into coaching and he went to law school. In the last 30 years, I think we had seen each other 4 times. We still talk every week. His family and mine are friendly even though they have never met.

He sent me something the other day that made me think. It was an article by Michael Gartner, who was the President of NBC News. I thought it was too long for this space so I posted it on my website. Here is the link: Left Turns.html

I encourage you to read it. You will get a good laugh and it will certainly give you a different slant on life. It is about his father who lived a long and happy life. A life that he attributed to living on a road less traveled. In his life, the simple things were certainly handled in an unconventional manner.

The purpose of this piece is not to bring you over to my side of the fence. You might not like it here. But it is meant to encourage you to be yourself. Don't be afraid to experiment. If you are not having fun, think of what your players are going through. Solve your own problems the way you are comfortable and by what is effective, not by what you hear others do. Be immune to outside pressures if you believe you are doing a good job (I was once scolded by my boss for not yelling at my players enough - in the middle of a 19 game winning streak). Be strong enough to take the road less traveled, don't make left turns - if that is right for you. Be introspective, react to your players; needs, think about what it would be like to play for you.

Enjoy the game. Enjoy the job. Teach others to enjoy it. Everything else will come in its own time.

To view coaching products from Don Kelbick, go to Don Kelbick Products.

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Bill Brantmeyer says:
12/18/2015 at 8:43:09 PM

I am years beyond the initial responses to this.
Nevertheless, I wanted to tell you how professionally salient and personally meaningful this was for me.

I so appreciate the time you took to share your insights,



Dave says:
3/1/2011 at 8:17:26 PM

I''m proud to be your friend and we need to stay in contact more.


Joe Haefner says:
1/30/2011 at 10:31:21 AM

Hi John,

Don wrote an article on that topic at this link:


John kohut says:
1/26/2011 at 6:13:16 AM

Don, I coach girls basketball overseas's on a U.S. Military Post and would like to know about different drills to practice when other teams use a box-1, diamond-1, and triangle and 2 defense against my one and two best girls? So far I have them working on coming off of set picks to get open, using the defense to get open and just trying to get new ideas or plays that I can implement to get the most from the girls. thanks john

  1 reply  

Ryan says:
1/1/2021 at 6:13:02 PM

Run your zone offenses


Frank says:
1/8/2011 at 6:36:56 PM

I remember early on I was screaming and yelling and probably way too critical of my players. I've changed slowly...year by year. I've been coaching for 10+ years now. My goals have changed. Last year was my most successful year coaching as far as wins and losses and titles are concerned. After our last game, I asked one of my players what he would say if someone asked him what I thought of him. Without hesitation he said, "Coach thinks I'm great." That meant more to me than all the games and tournaments and titles we've ever won.

I needed this article to remind me of the goal of coaching and the opportunity we have to impact the lives of generations of young men. We are the most blessed of all to wear the title, "Coach".


Dr. Laurence MacDonald says:
1/7/2011 at 10:04:02 PM

Don: I have been in this game close to 40 years, I would like your side of the fence. Coach Mac


Dave B says:
1/6/2011 at 1:50:04 PM

Good article. I think about this a lot. My two favorite coaches are Knight and Coach K. I have been coaching for 6 years, but this is my first as head varsity coach. I go through battles where I think I am too easy, or too hard. I think: Knight would have hammered that guy, or I think Coach K would have given him a hug there. It''s tough for sure. I am sure I will continue to learn, but the balance is so tough.
I think it is even tougher in the added sense of life purpose. In the end who will care if guy can break the 2-3 zone in some city league later in life, if he is a punk? How do we balance skill training and life training in such a hectic time? Plus I also want to make a spiritual impact on them. I guess this is why I continue to read and try to learn from Wooden. I never saw him coach or knew a great deal about him until a few years ago. But his lasting impact on everyone he met is incredible. I wonder how many coaches without 10 titles have the same impact? How do you focus on being the impact guy, and not lose? Continue growing I guess...
Thanks for the site and post.


Bill says:
1/6/2011 at 1:05:43 PM

Very insightful article. I am a new H.S. Girls varsity coach this year and after one particular game, I mentioned to the girls that I wished they would keep up the intensity when I am not yelling and looking like a raving lunatic on the sidelines. I was trying to make the point that they really need to keep their intensity at all times while on the floor. To my absolute amazement, the girls said "we like it when you do that, it gets our head in the game and shows us you care". so I guess for this season I get to look like a raving lunatic on the sidelines.....not really my style... sometimes I don't understand teenagers... But I love coaching and I am learning already that I will need to adjust my coaching style each season for what works best for THEM and ME.


Larry says:
1/6/2011 at 11:52:33 AM

I agree with rhe article, however I played for a coach that was very intense during games and practices. He demanded attention to detail and hard work. He has been very successful winning games, but even more successful with building relationships with his players. The 3 hour practices, before school shoot arounds, the demanding practices was tough at the time, but I enjoyed every minute and the winning. I feel he prepared me for the toughness of life after basketball and I appreciate the fact that he treated all of us fairly. I love sitting down with my old coach and just talking baketball and life. I feel a coach can take the positive fun approach with certain kids, but some kids need a demanding coach to help them reach their full potential. Different ways to skin a cat!!


Joe Haefner says:
1/6/2011 at 10:50:42 AM

Great points, everybody.

Michael, I think I'm going to steal this one from you:

"There is nothing wrong about getting after a player for a lack of effort. But it is wrong to get after one for a mistake. "


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