Despite being a two-time NBA Coach of the Year and winning four NBA championships, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is still underrated. He doesn’t grab the SportsCenter highlights or cause waves to get attention, and his players are generally not caught up in drama. The three best players during his Spurs tenure – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker – are quiet superstars. The core of the Spurs continues to age but the team just keeps winning.
In a meeting with the media before last Tuesday’s game, Popovich shared a little-known fact about how he sometimes handles timeouts and setting in-game strategies.
“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.'”
Most coaches during timeouts in late-game critical situations will grab a dry-erase board and design a play or set a strategy with their players. While such activity gets the team prepared to work together, it takes the decisions about what’s best to do to win out of their hands. The play is the play, and to deviate from that plan is to run the risk of execution failure.
But not Popovich. He has been with the core group of veterans long enough to trust that they know their plays and strategies and that they’ll figure out what will work best and bring a successful result. He puts the impetus of execution and making decisions based on what the defense allows in the hands of his players.
By giving his players the creative freedom to do what they think is best to correct their mistakes or react to what the defense gives them, Popovich empowers them. This mindset is a far cry from the typical do-as-I-say coaching mentality of the NBA and NCAA.
“I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people.”
Sure, Popovich will call plays or impress strategies on his players when necessary (such as when he wants some nasty), but his empowerment makes players accountable for their own success or decisions.
We can make a great distinction here between a genuine coach versus a dictator. Coaches teach and work together with those who are executing the activity in order to maximize the opportunity for success. Most coaches (in name) are actually dictators in that they tell the players how to act or behave and expect it to be done.
True leaders don’t always have the solutions. Sometimes everyone knows the answer and it simply comes down to execution, where the responsibility for execution belongs to those who have the ball in their hands.