One of the main responsibilities coaches face each year is effectively teaching twelve athletes the importance of acting and behaving as a team on and off the court. In order to help achieve this goal the coaching staff: provides identical uniforms and costumes to the team to be worn when travelling and dinning, chooses their roommates instead of letting them chose themselves, spend time at expensive restaurants as well as expensive hotels, and long term preparation at the mountains. I have even heard of teams going camping and attempting to build a solid team foundation by breaking stones with hammers and hoes. Most of these are good ideas but I believe there comes a time when we stop our efforts and allow the players time to build good relationships and good chemistry. We must not forget a very important aspect of this concept. In order for us to see the results we are hoping for; we must allow our players to make a personal decision about the importance of team relationships and hope they do the things necessary to continually build team chemistry. Past generations have a different mentality than our present generation, for example, twenty to thirty years ago it was enough for a coach to give an order and 95% of the time the players would execute it just because the coach said to do it. However, the present generation, which I refer to as the “Why? I doubt” generation, wants to analyze the play and understand what it is all about before they execute it. In the event the player does not grasp the entire concept of the play either he will not do it at all or not as efficient as the coach wanted it done. So back to our original issue, if we want to make twelve players a real team we will have to do more than to clamp to them. It is necessary to take them by the hand and lead them step by step. It is important that we talk to people maturely but not so mature that they do not understand what we want them to do. We must never stop teaching our players even if we feel we need to. We don’t only teach defense and offense, correcting their mistakes, but we should teach the athlete things that will make them better people. Remember your very first steps as players, and remember your very first coaches. Surely these coaches are the most beloved coaches of your career. Why do we love these coaches so much? It is very simple, he/she is your very first basketball idol, because he/she was inspiring you with magic love and passion for basketball even if he/she talked about more than just basketball. I thankfully remember my very first coach with so much love. His name is Costas Bogatsiotis. He created a large generation of good players and some of them continued with a successful career. None of us will ever forget when he required us to show him our term papers and threatened to cut us from the team if we did not show clear progress the following semester. That man was an inspiration to us not only in basketball but also in life. We should never stop being such a type of coach no matter what the level is, a pro team or a six years old team. One of the greatest coaches in Europe, maybe the greatest, Zeljko Obradovic says, ““… you can be as astringent and martined as you want to inside the court, but at the same time you also have to be close to their problems outside the court, otherwise you’ll not achieve anything....". And from my experience with both pro and six years old teams, I can assure you that all kinds of players; superstars, amateurs, or children will face all kinds of personal problems.
With my new team Athinaikos, from the very first practice in June, I tried to make my players understand the importance and usefulness of a connected team. I heard many rumors in the past about bad relationships between the players but I tried not to believe what I had heard. Instead I emphasized even more the importance of the team in my speeches. I tried to explain to them that in order to achieve our goals we had to make some steps together. If the first steps are not a solid foundation then the whole building would collapse with our expectations. Our very first step had to be a conscious effort by each player in order to be a team. I placed individual responsibility on each player. I told them that the construction of the first step was on them and the other steps I would and could help with. I told them if they did not build that first step then we would not achieve anything. Although my players seemed to get the point a few days later I realized my words had flown to the air. I will explain to you what I mean. Three players on the team as well had the honor of playing on the National Team of Greece, as myself as their coach. The National team of Greece at the time was trying to qualify for the European Championships. Three of the qualifying games were taking place in Athens therefore Athinaikos moved the practice time up so the team could attend the National Teams game specifically their three team members and myself. I asked them to attend the game but no more than two of them came. I was so frustrated. Before the next National team game I again gave the same speech about the same issue. This time it seemed they understood. It seems that no one had understood how important it was to their teammates; who played on the national team, the importance of the qualification to the European championship, and generally for women’s basketball in our country that they attend. I reminded them of times they had been there for their friends during graduations or weddings and explained to them that qualifying for the European Championship was just as important for these players. I explained to them that in order to be by the side of your teammate it does not require you to like them or have the same personality. They simply have to stand by their teammate’s side because she is one of “us”. It might seem like I forced my will upon them but I insist they do these things to help build our relationships. It was a pleasure to see them at the next National Team game but deep down I knew we had a lot of work to do to improve their relationships. I used many of the tricks I mentioned at the beginning of this article but my intentions was to talk to them heart to heart. I tried to convince them that in order to achieve our goals it was not necessary that the players be friends, they just had to respect each other. They must respect what each person can and cannot do. Our goals focused a lot on the respect of each other, and this was the beginning of friendship and love. Because simply no one cared if they were perfect or not, because each person knew that they were respected for whom she was.
Finally the team had a perfect season, i have never seen a group of players (women or men’s Basketball) old, new, young, stars, not experienced, not much playing time, and foreigners and Greeks have such a great connection. But what impressed me the most was when someone had difficult times, every one of her teammates was by her side trying to make her feel better.
A week ago, (ten months after my first speech/practice) my father passed away. All of my players wanted to be by my side no matter what they had planned to do after the season was over. They supported me not only individually but as a team. Their presence and their words made me feel a lot better. This also showed me the reason why we took the championship without any defeats, although no one thought that were not the best team, it was the fact that the whole season we were united. With a conscious effort they became a team, and whatever the next goal they were going to achieve, they did with a conscious effort!