One of the most important aspects of coaching is psychological: motivating players and keeping the whole team focused and engaged. And there is no better person to share his ideas on achieving that goal than the master of European basketball coaching, Zeljko Obradovic. Here, the Fenerbahce Istanbul coach gives us his fascinating insights into team psychology.
When I am dealing with my players, there is one important thing to always remember: we are all human beings. I try to show them respect. Somebody has given me an opportunity to coach these players, but I am just a person, like them. They know that if they have a problem with anything in their life, I am here to help them. The best friends that I have in my life are my players. We live so many hours together; it's impossible to be any other way.
For that reason, I like to listen to my players and have conversations with them about everything, on and off the court. Players often like to be smart, they have questions, and I like that very much. Sometimes players won't want to ask questions in front of their teammates, so they can come and talk to me alone, and every new idea is very welcome. This is the best way.
"Another important part of my job is shielding players from pressure."
As a coach, you need to know your players, how to react to them in any kind of situation. Being on the bench, you need to understand how the players are — all of them. You have 12 different characters, and not everybody reacts in the same way to the same situation. You might need to be tough with one of them but talk in a softer way with another. The most important thing is that they understand, at the end of the day, that all I want is for them to be better and the team to be better.
Our job is stressful – we need to think very quickly and take decisions very quickly, players and coaches. And I know that sometimes I step over the line. I know that. But when I do, I don't have any problem apologizing. I say to the player: "Ok, I made a wrong step or I said something that's not correct. You know me and you know that I didn't do it on purpose, it was just the momentum of the moment, and I apologize."
I will not change this, because a game is very emotional and it's impossible to control everything. I want to do the job in my best way, to help the team, so sometimes I need to touch someone or be aggressive with my players. Maybe some people will think "Wow!" but this is just between the player and me, and we both know why it happened like this.
My players know my character. I am very direct, and they know I want them to give 100% in every moment in practices and games. There is no excuse for not doing that. If someone doesn't give 100%, I am very straight with them.
Giving 100% is mental, not only physical. You need all the players to be on the same page because at the end of the day everything depends on them and their reactions in the game. During a game, my concentration must be 100%. If I'm not concentrating, it's a problem for the team. So I prepare myself in that way, to try to understand in every moment the best solution. Of course, it's impossible to do that for every second of every game, but I try. And it's the same for players; they have to be concentrated.
At the same time, another important part of my job is shielding players from pressure. I try to do specific things, especially in crucial games, to relax my players. They need to be relaxed and to remember that doing this – playing basketball – is something they've been doing all their life, and something they enjoy.
But sometimes you have to remind them to be serious. For example, during preseason we played in Zadar, and after the first few minutes of the game I turned to the bench and said: "Now what do I do? Should I substitute all five players? Because they deserve this." They didn't have enough concentration. When that happens, the coach needs to react, because the whole team needs to be concentrated for 40 minutes.
Even when everyone is concentrating, basketball is a game of mistakes. In every practice and every game, you will make a lot of mistakes. Even in games that everybody might think were perfect, you will still find a lot of bad things. It's not always easy for players to accept their mistakes. If you talk to them about mistakes during timeouts, or during practice, they might trust you, but they still have some kind of doubt. You know they are thinking: "Ok, yes…but..." The best way to fix this "but" is video. Let them see for themselves.
Whenever there is a mistake, I want to know why it happened so I can help the players, and make sure it doesn't happen again. There is a difference between a mistake, which is normal, and the same mistake happening again. So you have to make the players understand they cannot make the same mistake twice. This cannot happen. This is why a lot of times during a game I will talk to the players on the bench, not those on the court. Because I want to prepare them not to make the same mistakes.
"You have to make the players understand they cannot make the same mistake twice."
Above everything else, there is always one line which must not be crossed: don't be selfish. Any player who wants to do good things for himself, he must also do them for the team. If I see any player being selfish, I immediately react: I take him out of the game or stop the practice. Every player must know that in my team, being selfish is impossible.
I am very clear about this. At the beginning of every season, I sit down with all the players and tell them: "Guys, we have some rules. We need to be a team, to think in the same way, to be on the same page, always. Always. If any of you have a problem with this, the door is over there. Go now." This is from the first day. It's very simple but it's crucial.
Of course, it's very important that all the players also have personal ambition. This is good. They want to be good players, score a lot of points and do everything on the court. This is normal and we want to have ambitious players who are hungry. But there is a line between ambitious and selfish, and that line cannot be crossed. The question is this: Why do you play basketball? And the answer should be the team. Always the team.