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Basketball Coaching - Pre-game Preparation

By Dr. James Gels, from the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook... lots of great basketball stuff. Come on - join us!
I am referring to the immediate pre-game time... not the week of practice before the game. This is an important time for the players and coaches to get comfortable with the situation at hand, and focus on the job to be done. Being organized, and having everyone under you organized, I think is very important... so that everything is "routine", no surprises. But every coach has his/her own way to get his team ready.

It's a "routine"...

This is what seems to work for us (high school level). Your approach could be different and if you coach a youth or AAU team most likely will be more simple. But the key is to have a standard routine. We follow this routine, and do these same things for every game, whether we are on the road or at home, have won ten games in a row or lost three in a row, whether our opponent is 0-10, or if we are playing in the state championship game (yes, we've been fortunate to be there a few times).

standing for the national anthem

Look and act "professional".

Looking and feeling good, and acting appropriately, are important. Our high school varsity boys and coaches all wear a long-sleeved white shirt and tie, with a team vest that has our colors and logo, along with khaki pants. Our girls wear attractive team shirts again with our colors and logo, with khaki slacks or skirts (that are not too short).

We expect everyone to act with class as gentlemen and ladies before, during and after the game. Parents, teachers and fans are proud to see their kids looking good and in "team" attire. I felt highly complimented when an opposing fan commented to me after a game that when we walk into a gym, we look very "professional", and that our kids act that way too.

Allow enough time

Allow enough time to arrive at the gym. Rushing around at the last minute creates a disorganized, frantic mood entering the game. You want players and coaches to be relaxed, calm and "in control" starting the game. Arrive at least 45 minutes before the game (or sooner if you have a home game and want to watch game film, or the JV game).

Players need time to get dressed, get ankles taped, stretch, perform warm-up drills, and practice shooting and free throws. We allow about 5-10 minutes for the players to get dressed, while we organize the bench, get clipboards and stats sheets ready, make sure we have enough chairs/seats for our players, etc.

Then the coaches enter the locker room (all players should be dressed and taped) and we have our pre-game meeting (about 10 minutes). Make sure you have a clipboard, marker pen and eraser. Then we take the floor. If there is a preceding game, our players will go to the locker room a few minutes into the second half, and the coaches will enter at the end of the third quarter.

pregame photo

Things to do before the game

There are routine things to be done before each game. Have this organized in advance so there is no last minute confusion. You can designate much of this to your assistants, or managers, giving you time to visit with the refs and opposing coaches.

  • Review with your assistant coaches the starting lineup and defensive match-ups, substitution patterns, and any special strategies for this game.

  • Have an assistant get the opponent's starting line-up from the scorer's table. Assign the defensive player match-ups (if man-to-man defense). The assistant can then write the names of the starters on the clipboard along with the number of the player they will be defending, and can then inform the starters (while they are doing their warm-up drills), who they will be guarding.

    We prefer to have our starters know ahead of time who they will be guarding, rather that just "matching-up" around the center-jump circle. And we don't like to waste time in our last huddle going over match-ups.

  • Assistants should know their roles and where you like them to sit. For example, we have one assistant keep track of player fouls, our number of time-outs left, opponent's individual fouls and try to get a sense of who are their best scorers and worst free-throw shooters. Another assistant may help in looking at X's and O's, offenses and defenses, press offense and press defense, etc.

  • Have your official score book roster entered in advance. You can have an assistant do this, but you make sure the entries are correct, or a technical foul could result. For away games, you can do this on the bus.

  • Have an assistant responsible for having enough chairs/seats for everyone. If you have 15 players and have a couple assistant coaches, managers and a trainer, you may need to request additional chairs.

  • Have your clipboard(s) ready, with extra marker pens and a cloth/eraser to wipe it. Don't waste half of your first time-out looking for the clipboard or a pen that works.

  • Make sure your medical kit is available.

  • An assistant can recruit statisticians, assign who's keeping which stats, and have the stats forms ready on clipboards with sharpened pencils (unless you do your stats with a computer).

  • Have your manager(s) collect, fold and stack the warm-ups. They should make sure each player and coach has a water bottle with his number or name on it (if no water cooler is available). A quick trip to the concession stand for water bottles may be required.

  • If you are in a strange gym, with ambiguous lines, walk your players around the floor, even before they get dressed. Show them where the out-of-bounds lines are, the 10 second line, etc. Sometimes these lines are not obvious if the gym is used for volleyball and other sports, where multiple lines are painted on the floor.

    Show them where the bench and scorer's table will be for checking in the game. I remember a game where the scorer's table was at the far end of the gym... not between the two squads. Show them the location of the scoreboard/clock.

  • If it is an AAU competition...have all your player's ID cards and birth certificates ready ahead of time in an envelope.

  • Know in advance or any special rules... such as running clock, number of time-outs, etc.

  • Stretching... players can do their stretching exercises in locker-room or hallway, before taking the floor.

Players on the floor

After the locker-room meeting (see below), players take the floor, and start stretching and doing their warm-ups. We like the 3-line lay-up drill as a warm-up because it not only gets the players moving and shooting lay-ups, but also because this is an excellent passing drill.

We stress that the kids keep good spacing, zip their passes, and convert the lay-ups. We do this from the right and left sides. But any drills that get them moving and sweating a little are fine. We have even let the kids pick out their own favorite drills. The game is a form of entertainment and we let them have some input in "designing the show".

We do make sure to get in enough free-shooting with players taking shots they are most likely to get in the game. Finally, if time permits, shoot team free throws, everyone around the lane.

The team meeting (before taking the floor

This meeting is used to focus our players on the job at hand, discuss our game plan, and review the things that help make us successful. We might first start with a story, something that happened to one of us, something that might make us laugh, or even make us cry, but will bring us together for having shared it. Telling a private story can strengthen our feeling of "togetherness", that we are sharing in something that only we are privy to.

Set a calm tone for the meeting. I don't think you gain anything by trying to point out the importance of this game... you are likely to make them more nervous. They already know the significance of the game. Instead of trying to get them "fired-up", you need to calmly reassure them that everything will be OK, and that we are here to have fun... and that we will focus on doing the good things that have made us successful in the past.

pregame team meeting

We announce the starting line-up and then review our defenses, half-court and full-court, and any special adjustments that we have worked on in practice specifically for this opponent. We point out the opponent's best players and how we plan to contain them.

We discuss our half-court offense vs man-to-man and zone defenses and any special plays, out-of-bound plays, etc. We might remind the players about maintaining good spacing, to move without the ball, set screens, and the importance of offensive rebounding. We might mention keeping under control, and avoiding turnovers.

We will discuss how we want the game to "flow"... the tempo. We remind everyone to box-out and rebound and play hard on defense. We want three attitudes on defense: contest every shot, protect (deny) the paint area, and "one-shot only" mentality... no opponent offensive rebounds, no second and third shots.

We remind the kids that if we just do our jobs and do the things that have made us successful in the past, we will be OK.

Then hands together in the huddle, we yell a cheer and are ready to go (I hope).

A word about starting line-ups

At the high school level, it's often the same starters, but we might want to make a line-up change here or there. When doing so, we point out that this is not a punishment (unless it is) or something negative for the starter being "bumped", but that we just want to try something new to get things started, or give someone else a chance to start a game.

If you are coaching a youth team, I wouldn't make a big deal out of who is starting. With youth teams, let all of your players take a turn at starting, as I think this creates better team chemistry (although I certainly will have three of my best out there).

Often, the first few minutes of the game is a "feeling out" time anyway, when teams are not yet in the groove. I like to bring in a couple of good players off the bench 3 or 4 minutes into the game.

My players know that "it's not who starts, but who can finish the game". With some youth teams, I have had my assistant do most of the substituting (following our pre-designed substitution pattern), so I can concentrate on the game. I will vary the substitution pattern depending on the game situation, foul situation, and crucial times in the game.

Motivation and the "big" game

Sometimes we coaches want to come up with a great, passionate "win one for the Gipper" speech or inspirational quote to get the team "fired-up". In actuality, the kids already know that it's a big game and may be over-hyped and nervous.

Instead, I think a calming, business-like approach is better. It's how you prepare in practice, and how you work on fundamentals, team skills, etc that really counts. We try to maintain a very business-like attitude with our high school players... everyone has to go out and do his/her job every afternoon in practice and during every game.

Hoosiers pregame team meeting

Kids get nervous about playing in big, over-hyped games... you don't usually have to pump them up, but rather calm them down and reassure them and have them focus on what your game is and what you want to do. I have told players who tell me that they are nervous (before a big game), not to worry about playing good or playing bad, winning or losing... just go out and do your job like you always do. This seems to help.

I reassure them that being nervous is normal and can be a good thing if they channel that extra energy into playing great defense, rebounding and hustling for loose balls. Playing hard on defense and scrapping under the boards are good ways to "settle-down".

We use this job-like mentality in helping counteract "outside" influences too... like breaking up with your boyfriend (or girlfriend) on the day of the big game. Just like all of us... we may have some personal problems, but we still have to go to work that day and do our job, regardless of what happened at home.

Same way with our players... no matter how bad your day went in school, when you step on the court... "do your job"... and enjoy the moment and have fun. In the overall scheme of life, for most players their basketball career is really short, so they should try to enjoy every game and every moment with their teammates as much as they can.

Helpful DVDs:

Pat Summitt's Game Preparation

Pat Summitt's Game Preparation
By Pat Summitt, former University of Tennessee Head Women's Basketball Coach; 8-time NCAA Championship Coach, over 950 career wins.

Price: $39.99

Basketball: The Don Meyer Way

Basketball: The Don Meyer Way
with Don Meyer, Northern State University (SD) Head Coach; the All-time winningest coach in NCAA history (903+ wins).

Price: $79.99

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