This is my fifth season as a head coach. I was previously the head coach of three other Serbian teams. I worked two full seasons with Vojvodina Novi Sad, the last two with Spartak Subotica, and I finished last season as a head coach of FMP Zeleznik. It feels nice to be given this brave opportunity by a EuroLeague team and a big club like Crvena Zvezda to be appointed as head coach at age 31.
Being young and a head coach leads to facing some double standards as far as hearing opinions on the ages of coaches. People see it as they feel it. When you win games and manage to beat opponents like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona or Maccabi Tel Aviv, then it is great that you are young and they tell you how you are the most talented. But when you lose in the EuroLeague, your age becomes a problem and suddenly there is a lack of experience.
However, this situation I am in is not new for me at all. I got my first head coaching job when I was 27. So I have been considered a young head coach for five years now, and I guess I will probably be considered young for a few more years. I am quite used to carrying the title of "the youngest", too, because when I was starting out at age 22, I was the youngest assistant coach in the Serbian League. For me, it all felt normal. But even then, or afterwards when I moved to Vojvodina as a first assistant, or took over my first head coaching job there, I never had doubts about how am I going to do the job at hand. It was the exact opposite.
In each previous situation, I felt it was a great new challenge that I approached with excitement and motivation to do something good, get results. And I would always set goals. So, when I would come to hold the first practice, I would already feel a certain respect for what I am bringing with me to this position in the team. It is the preparation. It is what you say. It is what you show. It is the communication you have with people and players on the team. So, some of the things I go by as a head coach came to me naturally and were proven to be the right way to approach things, and some other things I learned with time. And time is often the best judge.
So far in my career, I never had a problem working or building relationships within a team, and in these five years as a head coach it was impossible not to have at least one player every season who was older than me. So, I learned a while ago about approaching situations where there are players on my teams who are older than I am, which from the outside looking in might look and feel strange to some.
I understand that, traditionally, people are used to seeing a coach being older than his or her players. I guess it looks more natural. However, in your everyday workplace it is not uncommon to have young people in charge. What is more interesting is that in all the teams where I have been a head coach, the best relationship I have had with my players, including this season with Zvezda, is with the older players. It is because the older, veteran, players have been through many situations, have been on different teams, had different coaches and different types of coaches, so they understand there are no stereotypes and they understand how things work. In my opinion, that is the only way to approach it.
I think – and this does not only relate to basketball but to any job out there – that you either know your job or you don’t. You are either dedicated or you are not. You are either professional or not. Age does not play a role in any of that, and players recognize as much.
For the players, the first thing they measure is if you know what you are saying. And the second one: do you have answers to all their questions? Only after those two are there other variables, such as dedication to practices or mutual respect. As a coach, if you want your players to respect you, you first have to respect your players. Once you sum this all up, I think coach's age comes at the very end of the list. That's why, I think, my relationship with my older players is excellent.
The best key for this relationship is that when a player gets certain information and a role on a team – whether a big or small role, whether strict or not strict treatment – he has to see the benefits, to make him a better player. Making sure he has a better season than the previous one, or giving him a little advice on what to change and then he sees it is for the better, that's what "buys" the players. If he sees that he will do better if he listens to his coach, then he will listen to his coach again. But above all, the respect has to be mutual. The coach has to show the same respect for his player as is expected from a player to respect his coach. That's how you build relationship and trust. However, it is not something that is built overnight. It is built over weeks, months, or even over several seasons. But it is also something that can be lost in a moment.
And age is not a factor in building relationships in such a way, as it is not a factor on our team. We can even joke about it, and I have no problem whatsoever joking about my age with my players simply because I don't have any problems with my players during practices. The feeling is that me being younger than three of my players this season is weirder to everyone around the team than it is to us on the team. That is not even a topic among us.
On Zvezda this season, Taylor Rochestie, Pero Antic and Milko Bjelica are older than me, and my relationship with them is one of the keys. But that's not because of their age and them being older than me, but rather because of their roles and importance on the team. Because they have the quality, and they mean a lot to this team and the way we play. And also because they are good guys who are very professional, probably more professional than the majority of younger players out there. It is how they go about practices, game preparation, games and, in the end, about how professional they are in communicating with the coaching staff and everybody in the club.
What is positive, actually, is that I might be closer, generation-wise, to some of the younger players, which might help me understand them better. It also helps me get some of the things that they cannot pass by me, but they might get by some other coaches. I find it funny sometimes. But I believe I do understand some of their problems better by being closer in age to them.
Regardless of age, in general, one of the most important human attributes and characteristics is managing to adjust to a given situation. It reflects on your intelligence and culture, to adjust and not to stubbornly stick with things that don't work. However, you cannot lose the essence of yourself. At least I am trying not to lose it, and will not cross the line where I would lose myself. You have to adjust, but you do not want to lose yourself.
But because the sport of basketball is ever-changing, no matter what your age, you have to move and change with the game. And you are not allowed to stop, no matter the age. Great coaches, like Zeljko Obradovic, are great because they keep adjusting even at the elite level that they reached.