As the most successful coach ever in Europe's most elite competition, Zeljko Obradovic is known as a master motivator and tactician of the game. Something else he has is lasting power. His ninth and latest Turkish Airlines EuroLeague trophy, lifted last spring with Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, came exactly 25 years after his first. To stay at the top, Obradovic has had to both adapt to changing times and hold onto time-tested truths of his profession, as he discusses in the latest Coaches Corner.
Thinking about these 25 years of coaching, I am certainly on a different level than I was in 1992 when we were the European champions for the first time with Partizan Belgrade. Of course, I remember everything from those days. It is something that is my life. And, of course, 25 years is a huge period and it is normal that a lot of things changed since then.
As a coach, I have surely changed a lot. I remember when I became a coach that the first three months I barely slept because I was always thinking that any drill I set up, players will have their questions, and I need to have my answer ready. I believe that the only authority that exists in coaching, and in life in general, is the authority of knowledge.
Of course, practice and the experience I acquired over the years allow me to do those things a lot easier now. But the permanent education and improvement of coaches is something essential. I try every day, every single day, to learn something new and to apply that something new in the way the team plays. I talk a lot with other coaches and stay informed. In this day and age, with the Internet, everything is accessible, you can see everything. I talk to my players a lot, they always give you good ideas, and I have learned a lot from them.
I think it is natural that coach must change with the times. You can have some basic ideas of what you want to do, but we always say that what is most important is to know what kind of material you have in your hands. And by that, I mean to know the individual quality of your players. So, everything you set, it all depends on how much are the players capable of responding to your demands, and how much are we all together on the same page. To play defense, and attack in transition, and play offense, and play transition defense: It is important that all of us on the team think alike, because if we do, everything comes easier.
In that sense, I have always adapted to my players and to their individual qualities. You cannot always play the same way with different players. So you look for different things that you believe are the best, and you talk to the players and see what they think. In the end, they are the ones making final decisions on the floor and they have to understand that the path we decided to take together is the best one. If they do not understand that, then we have a problem.
Everything has probably been discovered in basketball, but the sport is so rich that so much can change at any given moment. I think basketball is a sport where the coach can have the most influence on the outcome of the game. No matter how much you prepare for any opponent, you still have to be ready to react during the game and that's what makes basketball a special sport.
I do like to give my players freedom, and I actually love the most when a player takes initiative. I am the happiest when my player surprises me with it during the game. Because, I mostly try to anticipate certain situations that can happen in the game, but when a player does something to surprise me, I am the happiest man in the world.
But all the small details I used over the years, from the way you might want to run your offense, to different defenses you play and different ways you try to defend, it all requires a whole lot of work. Nothing happens overnight. That’s why you use preparation periods and practices. Otherwise, if it were so easy, everybody would be doing the same things. Repetition and automation during the practices lead to the best things in basketball.
What might have changed the most over the years is the way we practice. When I was starting, we had two months of preparations in the mountains. The season had fewer games, so that was a logical way to go about it. Today, with the calendars we have, things are different. For instance, this is the first summer ever that I chose to have a training camp that lasted for only four weeks. The reasons are different, from players being with their national teams this summer to my opinion that because of the way the seasons are loaded these days, it was better for players to rest a little extra and be ready to work when they arrive to the club. Before, we had two-a-days during the week, but nowadays that is not possible anymore. We practice once a day, occasionally little longer, and that approach has given us good results, too.
But that is just another example how basketball has been changing. It changed the way you work, the principles you work by, and the times you spend in the gym.
However, one thing that did not change is that no one became a great basketball player by working only during team practices. Individual work is something that is very important and I insist on it. Those players who are devoted, who love basketball, they will always find time for individual work. That's why they are the best and become the greatest players.
Another thing I believe remained the same is that communication, having talks about basketball, is very important. I am not a coach or a person who puts restrictions on his players because I feel such things lead to nowhere. But I do try to influence players to maybe occasionally put their mobile devices aside and focus. Concentrate; because concentration in our type of work is very important. I am lucky, however, that I have players who are aware of this, and I see them talk basketball. I have players that I also see trying to influence, communicate and teach younger players about basketball and about the way to behave, too.
Another thing that did not change with me is the relationship and the mutual trust I try to have with my players. Without it, my job would be impossible; there would be no way to play well and accomplish good results. Trust and respect are crucial. Not only between coaches and players, but respect between teammates, respect between staff members, respect between all the people in the club. With respect, we stay healthy from within.