TLC: You’ve Gotta Have Rhythm To Coach

In addition to TLC to heighten learning, ‘discovery learning’ activities that carry over to on-court teaching is very effective.

It all starts with some TLC. Not tender loving care, that is, but knowing the difference between a teaching activity, learning activity and competing activity. Let me explain…


In order for a coaching staff to run more effective practices, coaches need to apply a little TLC.

T = Teaching Activity

The intensity of these activities or drills will be low(-er); whereas the concentration expected of the athletes will be high on the chosen key performance indicators (KPI). There needs to be an agreement among the coaching staff as to what those KPI’s will be and how they will be emphasized.

One problem that occurs during teaching time is that different coaches, in the same drill, will have different points of emphasis. This misalignment causes confusion and/or frustration for athletes.

Discussions need to be held – prior to the practice – to determine what will be emphasized and how the “loading” of the drill will occur. Will the loads given to athletes be technical, physical, mental or socio-emotional—or a combination?

Also, roles should be designated as to what each coach will observe during the activity. For instance, I’ll often assign a coach to stand along the baseline to watch the offense and a coach at half court to watch the defense. Accordingly, their feedback will be only on the aspect of play they’re tracking. This improves the efficiency of the practice, avoids duplicate (and potentially conflicting) feedback and allows that athletes to know where they should be looking to get feedback.

In ‘teaching’ activities coaches should feel free to stop the action whenever a teachable moment presents itself.

Example: Players are being introduced to the jump shot for the first time. The following have been discussed by the staff as all the possible performance indicators for a jump shot of the dribble:

  • Proper grip
  • A high release point
  • Eyes on target
  • Holding the follow through
  • Loading the legs
  • Quick feet (1-2 stop)
  • Diagonal lifting of the ball
  • Jump (pop the hips)
  • Hard last dribble
  • Get under the ball
  • One motion shot

For the introduction of the drill, the coaches have agreed that the KPI’s for this particular practice will be:

  • A high release point
  • Loading the legs
  • Jump (pop the hips)

With that, these are the areas that all the coaches give feedback on (rather than any of the others). All coaches can make feedback on these areas. Each assistant coach can then be assigned a couple of athletes to work with. The head coach can then oversee all of the athletes. Later on, the coaches may agree as to what areas each individual can concentrate on in subsequent workouts and can individualize the points of emphasis as well as the type of feedback.

L = Learning Activity

In a learning activity, the intensity now approaches that of a real game. The athletes’ concentration should be on the application of the skill. The idea of when to use this skill is now introduced. There may be guided defense or offense involved to force the athletes to make decisions.

Feedback can be given on the fly without frequent group stoppages. In ‘learning activities’, the goal is to ensure that the athletes get multiple repetitions. And, like in ‘T’ activities, coaches should agree in advance on the KPI’s and each coach should know what s/he is accountable for watching.

A common problem that occurs in ‘L’ activities is that coaches will begin coaching little details that are not KPI’s or the agreed upon points of emphasis. This is called a negative variance.

For example, if we are working on the decision to drive right or left based on the position of the defense, the feedback should revolve around that decision rather than on the footwork the athlete is using. The only time the drill should be stopped is when the majority of the athletes are struggling with a concept. If an individual is having problems pull him/her to the side to give smaller corrections instead of stopping the whole group. The idea is to keep the activity flowing.

C = Competing Activity

In a competing activity, the intensity and concentration should now be at game speed. The players need to treat the activity like the game. Coaches should not stop the activity except for at the designated times. For instance, start at one basket and play out two transitions or for a set amount of time. Coaches (or players) can also act as officials to create a more game-like environment.

Feedback in ‘C’ activities should be similar to the type given in the game (i.e. like a tweet… 140 characters or less!). One useful tactic is to use one’s feedback just like in a timeout in a basketball game (i.e. both in length and location to where/how kids stand during the game).

It is very important to debrief ‘C’ activities to draw out from the athletes any key learning’s.

This concept of TLC is another Mike MacKay-ism that I used quite effectively with Canada Basketball national development programs. In that training environment, there was one head coach (me in this case) and 8-10 assistant/associate coaches; all overseeing 36 athletes that had been identified, through tryouts and selection, as the top 12-17 year olds in their region.

At the time, we split the athletes based on their stage of development and competency. And, using our Long-Term Athlete Development model, we often used the same ‘drill’ for the older and younger athletes; however, how we taught within the drill, when we intervened to make corrections, or the loaded the progression varied based on TLC. Once we put this concept into practice there was an immediate shift in the rhythm, flow and effectiveness of our sessions. All it took was seconds for coaches to sync up and determine if their activity was going to be a T, and L or a C.

In years prior, had you attended a session, you’d often have one coach stopping what seemed like every other minute to correct and adjust; whereas, the other coach partnered with that group would be standing there thinking, “Hey… just let them play!”

Does that sound familiar to you? It is for me. I’ve seen it in basketball practices all over North America — even at the collegiate and professional level.

This is a sign of having no rhythm as a coaching team. It’s inefficient and often frustrating for those involved.

TLC eliminates this disconnect among coaches. It helps the athletes too . As a coaching staff, one can quickly say to your athletes: “This is a ‘teaching’ activity. So, what you can expect to see is us stopping the action quite frequently to make adjustments and give reminders. Your job is to mentally be ready to take in that feedback and apply it.” As a result, expectations are aligned and athletes know what’s coming.

Hey… let’s keep it real. If you remember your playing days, most times kids are thinking during stoppages: “Coach, just let us play!”

While at Canada Basketball, as the head coach overseeing those sessions, I worked to have that doggy-eyed awareness; scanning three basketball courts at a time trying to assess the quality of the learning environment. At times, I would see something that I felt needed correcting. Well, instead of jumping in and stopping an activity, trumping the authority of the assistant coaches leading it, I could huddle with them quickly and ask if the drill was a T, L or C activity. (“Jill, is this a T, L or C?”) If it was a T, I’d could then interject and stop play. Whereas, if it was an L or C, I’d wait for the next stoppage or say to the coach: “Hey… what I’m seeing is _____________. What do you see? Are you comfortable giving that feedback to the athletes on your next stoppage?”

Give some TLC the next time you’re on the hardwood.

Coach impact-fully…. (and creatively!).