Keeping aggression within bounds
Issue: Volume 28 Number 1
In the recent National Basketball League finals, Brian Goorjian was to be seen out of his seat, prowling the sidelines, barking instructions to his players and "working the referees", as he puts it.
The successful Sydney Kings and Australian Boomers coach is not alone. Most of his colleagues adopt the same approach. In the close and often tense atmosphere of a basketball court, where coaches, officials, players and spectators are all within a few metres of each other, everyone is involved. This is one of the fascinations and attractions of the game.
But is there a danger of this tension boiling over; the noise, the shouting and the aggression getting out of control? Goorjian believes that most people involved at the top level of the professional game know how to keep the lid on aggression.
"As a coach I have to have an aggressive personality, although I prefer not to use that word," he says. "I like to say I coach with energy and passion; I like to be in it.
"I run my teams in a aggressive way, but I would define that as playing to the limits of an individual's skill that's running the game hard, pressure on the ball, attacking the basket."
Michael Haynes, General Manager (Community Basketball) for Basketball Australia and a junior international and club coach, has no problems with Goorjian's approach. "This is the national league, it is their job and they get sacked if they don"t get the results," he says. "Of course their approach has to be different, but there are ways to get your point across at every level, including national league. Coaches must respect (and must show respect) for the officials.
"The problem we have is that the average Joe watching the NBL and seeing Brian and the other coaches shouting at referees probably doesn't appreciate the difference, so he turns up for a Saturday morning junior game and does the same thing."
That kind of coaching aggression is definitely not needed at junior level, where the emphasis is on having fun and learning the skills. "Various associations have tried a number of things, including a sit-down rule whereby the coaches are specifically barred from talking to referees," Haynes says.
"If junior coaches start yelling at referees, even if they have a fantastic point, everyone ó players and spectators - starts concentrating on what the referees are doing and the game becomes secondary."
Studies have indicated that when coaches restrict themselves to issuing specific instructions from the sideline, they are much more likely to get their points across to players.
"But when the coach is just noise, yelling continuously, he is far less effective and the players on court switch off," he says.
"But the players on the bench hear it, and when it is their turn they go on court scared, hoping they don't do anything that will make the coach shout at them like that- in the end that kind of attitude is counter-productive and a really aggressive coach can end up with a conservative and timid team."
That is not to say that a competitive spirit should not be instilled at junior level. Haynes introduces it into his training sessions with drills that reinforce the will to win with punishments- he prefers the word 'consequences'- for those who lose.
"So the players realise that winning is important; it instils the spirit of competition into them."
Haynes stresses the need to know team members as individuals. "That way you can tell when a player is going over the top, and that"s when you call "sub",' he says. "But even when the player is off the court, they have to be handled properly."
"The coach who gets into a player's face the moment he sits down is not doing anything to relieve the situation- if anything, he is helping to maintain the level of aggression and anger. Let the player cool down, have a drink and then give him a few quiet words about what was going wrong.
"That way he can be refocused and ready for the next spell on court."
Strength and aggression is prized in water polo, but Scott Schweickle, the sport's National Development Manager, and a coach and referee at various levels for more than 20 years, says there is a clearly defined line between legal and illegal play.
"Aggression on the ball is okay, but not on the player," he says. "On the ball you can be strong and forceful, but punching and elbowing goes over the top. It is then that aggression is being used as a substitute for skill."
"Sometimes in training games, and due to the contact nature of the sport, the coach has to be aware that players are competing for a starting position every weekend. At this time competition within the squad can become quite intense in the water."
Social factors are producing a society more tolerant of bad behaviour and violence, and that is spilling over into sport.
"I think sport in general has to look at this," he says. "In water polo swearing at a referee earns an automatic exclusion, usually for the rest of the game. Sometimes a week's suspension is added."
Goorjian says the attitude of referees is pivotal to the way in which basketball is presented. "You need to work with the referees to get your points across, while always keeping yourself under control," he says.
"But if the ref is allowing your team to be handled aggressively, you respond with aggression; if the referee allows a block, you block; if he allows a hit you hit.
"We are not a collision sport, but we are a contact sport, and you find out early on what a referee defines as "contact" and play the match within those guidelines.
"At all times I draw the line at punching off the ball or cheap shots- if something like that began to appear in a game, I would call a time-out, discuss it with the referee and, if necessary, report it.
"Outright cheap and dirty play has no place in our sport or in any sport."
- All coaches should know the difference between aggressive displays in the professional game and at junior level, where players, coaches and officials are mostly learners.
- Coaches who restrain themselves to passing out instructions will often be more effective than ones who maintain a wall of noise.
- At junior level, an overly aggressive coach may end up with a timid team that is too afraid to innovate for fear of incurring a tongue-lashing.
- Societal changes are producing a more relaxed attitude towards violence and confrontation with authority. Coaches must guard against this development, as sport, by its very nature, has to be played within recognised and accepted rules.