I watched the unfortunate collapse yesterday by the Orlando Magic against the Boston Celtics. It was difficult to watch and from a coaching perspective, you feel some sympathy for what Stan Van Gundy is going through. It's always tough when a million eyes are on your every move and now that Dwight Howard has come out publicly to put the blame on Van Gundy, the whole situation has gotten really complicated, really fast. Instead of the blame game, who didn't do what, etc... I look at the bigger picture of the inherent problems in the relationship between coach and player. Clearly, there is a failure to communicate. When people talk about a coach "losing the locker room" -- that's what's happened here.

Every team goes through what the Magic are going through. Teams have blown big leads before. Coaches make mistakes. But why has it manifested itself so publicly? Howard has decided to lash out because either player and coach haven't established the kind of open relationship where they can discuss these issues face-to-face, or the relationship has been so poisoned that such a meeting can no longer take place. Irregardless, the only way player and coach can get back on the same page is if they are open and honest with one another. Is it too late for that to happen still?? Perhaps not, but clearly there is a major schism that has developed in the Magic locker room that will take much longer than 1 game or 1 series to repair.

I'm not saying that these situations are easy to deal with. In fact, it's the hardest part of coaching. There is a power dynamic in the player/coach relationship that must be acknowledged, and a social contract which must exist between player and coach. I like to say coaching is basically like teaching (which is why the best coaches are teachers). In the classroom, you deal with situations all the time. Teaching isn't simply spewing out a bunch of stuff for students to absorb. There is a psychology involved with which teachers use to motivate and tap into the cognitive processes.


  1. db  

    May 14, 2009 at 1:34 AM

    All true, but while the analogy with teaching works at college/prep level, the pros are a different ballgame.

    It's kind of like being a teacher at a school where one or two top students make 5 times what you do and are the main reason the other kids come along. When you're teaching in that situation, you can't use the standard techniques - instead it's really about ego management and knowing that keeping everyone happy is the best way to success, over and above the basketball issues.

    SVG might be able to X&O Phil Jackson out of the ballpark, but there's a reason PJ has the rings, and it's a lot tougher than people think, as you capture well.

  2. bruchu  

    May 14, 2009 at 4:21 PM

    I take your point. There is a difference between the pros and prep/college. But only to a degree. I would argue that in many respects they more similar than different.

    There is a lot of ego management going on at many of the Varsity-and-below teams where I've coached at. Players who thought that the they were the center of attention, propped up the student body and local media.

    I agree on the SVG vs. Phil Jackson analogy. In many ways, psychology is more important than knowledge of the game. In this way, teaching is the same way.