How to Appropriately Discipline Your Basketball Team

men playing basketball

This is a complex topic to cover in one post, as it should be a book, but it always comes up in online chatrooms and forums. The questions coaches ask goes something like this:

My team was in the stands watching a girl’s team play. During the game, my player started throwing stuff at the opposing team’s cheerleaders.

The example doesn’t matter as they are always different. One or two players are misrepresenting the team on or off the court, in or out of school. As a coach, how do you handle those situations with your team?

Physical Punishment

The most popular response to this question is some form of physical punishment. “Suicides”(I prefer to call them Ladders) are the number one suggestion. Followed by burpees, pushups, and sit-ups.

Right now, every coach is thinking of their favorite punishment drill. That’s great; that is what we are talking about today and thinking through.

The Most Common Response

Unfortunately, the most common response is nothing. I applaud the coaches that post these situations online and are looking for help. Because for everyone that asks, 1000 ignore it. 

The coach that ignores this type of behavior might have their reasons. Perhaps the coach is the History teacher and he is told that it is part of his job to be the basketball coach and his heart is not in it.

You Must Address Poor Behavior Or It Will Kill You

The History teacher might need to understand this type of behavior. If left unchecked, it will be like a virus and spread. It will make your team unbearable to coach. Not addressing it will affect your authority on the team. Especially if the players know you know about it. Then those kids will eat your lunch for the rest of the season. 

Our society is so devoid of conflict that people are always caught off guard when you “nip it in the bud.” But it would be best if you did it swiftly and consistently regardless of the player. Coaches don’t play favorites for fear of one player upset with them. If you upset that player and quiet the team or have to bench them for x amount of games, you have to accept that loss. Step back in your season to move forward with the rest. We must teach our players life lessons, not just try to win the next game. 

Cut The Player’s Playing Time

Another popular response to poor behavior is to suspend players from the team. Or sit them out for x amount of time or games.

If they are a starter, this hurts the team and the player. Depending on where you are in the season, this could be a good or a bad option. If you are early in the season, then taking that one loss might be ok. If it is your championship game and one player made a mistake, it might not be appropriate to sit them.

Making a player sit and watch a game or games is the hardest thing for most kids. Especially if that player is a hardcore competitor, it would be torture to sit out. 

Warning: If your team loses, the player you sat out might be tempted to say something to their teammates. Now we are back to where we started with more poor behavior and a bad attitude. Immediately address that with the team. If you lose, tell them why they lost. Let them know it was not because John sat out. Get in front of this kind of team talk.

How To Prevent Poor Player Behavior

Preventing poor player behavior in the first place is the ideal strategy. That starts at tryouts and how you interact with the team. The kid that distracts others and is not focused is the problem you must address right out of the gate. 

Physical punishment (whatever form) is a must, right from the start. You cannot let anything go and have to set the tone for the entire season right here, right now.

Each season I have to remind players to please stay off the court before practice starts. Then I have them stand at the baseline. Then I have them all walk around the court and tell them no one is allowed to step on the court, not one foot. If they walk all the way around it without cutting a corner or stepping on the court, I give my speech about how the only time I expect walking is on the outside of the court. But I won’t bore you with that speech now. But if a kid cuts corners, steps on the court or thinks it’s a joke, we stop and run Ladders or side to sides. I mean, we run!!! It’s probably the hardest I would run them all season. Then I talk about if we step on the court, there is no walking ever and we save walking for when we are off the court. 

Regardless of what they pick, they know the coach is not joking around. Another example of this when coaches call everyone into the middle with a whistle. If anyone walks to the huddle, they run. I like that, too and I do that for every huddle I ever have.

Get Your Team Captains Involved

Have your team captains involved in any issues you face with poor behavior. As they will help you through social pressure and keep the team in line. Every time I call a huddle, you can hear my captains reminding everyone, “no walking.” They help manage expectations. Cultivate your captains and you will be rewarded.

Remove The Player From Your Team

This should only be used as a last resort. If you have repeated behavior with a player who is never remorseful. You have to remember that these teen’s brains and even early 20s players’ brains still need to be fully developed. So give them chances and a lot of them! If you have a player that is always saying, “sorry coach,” “my bad,” and they own it, you have a good kid.

Many schools, especially High Schools, kick kids off teams. The principal or athletic director doesn’t like getting dirt on their faces. They say they do it for the good of the school, but that is a selfish lie. They do it to make their jobs easier and don’t care much about the team. I have coached some good kids who got kicked off their High School teams for dumb stuff they did. But these bureaucrats did not understand that basketball was the only thing keeping these kids from far worse decisions. I was working hard with those kids to try and help them make better life choices. Those kids often have nothing after you take away basketball. Shame on them for throwing away those players. Sorry for the rant, it still hurts my heart to think about it.

What Is The Heart Of Your Team?

I’m a firm believer that we do EVERYTHING as a team. Ups and downs, highs and lows, but we do it all together. So if you feel it is appropriate for a physical punishment or a combination of the above, do it together. It is ok to have a conversation with that player, but it also needs to be the entire team in on it. Everyone wins and fails together. That is how you build team culture. 

I’m afraid I have to disagree with the one coach who responded to our opening problem by making the team run. He then put the problem player in the middle of the court to watch as the team runs around him. Embarrassment doesn’t work as a punishment. You will lose the heart of the problem player. No one likes to be belittled and it hurts your reputation with the entire team if you are that type of coach. I never ever understand coaches yelling and belittling a single player or the whole team. Disappointment ok but if you are belittling kids/players, it’s time to hang up your whistle.

As a young coach, I embarrassed my entire team, lost the team’s heart, and ended up stepping down from that team. I knew I was no longer the coach they needed or trusted. This is a confession of a bad decision I made in one practice that cost me a team, a lesson in what not to do. I have had some middle school boys who all shot at a very low percentage, under 10% from the 3pt line. They all thought they were Steph Curry. In transition, they would get the ball up the court and shoot the first open 3pt shot even if they had a layup. I had it with the lazy playing and told them no more 3pt shots. Then explained that, as a team, this was a horrible percentage shot for us. So far, nothing lots of coaches have not said or done. But then I took it too far. I said I’ll prove that none of you can shoot this at a high percentage. “Who wants to prove me wrong?” I asked. One boy on the team raised his hand and said I can shoot that shot. I said ok, let me see it if you miss, then the team has 5 down and backs. Do you still want to prove to me you can shoot it? He said yes, then they ran 5 down and backs. Every player on the team said they wanted to prove it to me and they missed 12 shots in a row and ran 60 down and backs. I proved my point but lost their respect by embarrassing them all. They never played the same for me after that night. After a few more games, I stepped down to give them a chance with a new coach. I have never told anyone that story until now. Hopefully, coaches, you can learn from my mistakes.

What Type Of Punishment Is Best For Your Basketball Team?

Coach, you know your team. In our opening example, a coach asked the question because he just wanted permission to take action. He wanted affirmation that he was going to make the right decision. Go on with what you feel is appropriate but do something. No action is an action. Control the situation. Teach kids to apologize and that the team must take responsibility for themselves. I firmly believe no team is stronger than its weakest link. So sure, up that weak link and get back to practice.