Chris Oliver saw a problem with coaching clinics. He watched big-time coaches present a topic on technical and tactical ideas to coaches like himself that were trying to grow. Months later, he watched those same coaches on television. Oliver remembered the details of the clinic, but those details were hard to find when the same coach’s team played on television. The issue was not the team’s execution. Oliver told me that coaches were not sharing authentically at clinics. These coaches did not do or even believe in what they shared with much conviction, but it is hard to blame them.
As Oliver told me, most coaches by nature are extremely competitive. Giving away their “secret sauce” makes it easier for other coaches to emulate their system or overcome it. Most coaches do not want to give someone else an advantage. When I went to the University of Connecticut to see the women’s team practice seven years ago, my assistant coach and I were explicitly told no video. Ditto at the University of Virginia when I saw the defending NCAA champion men last summer.
Chris Oliver was always a coach that saw the tactical secrets of a program in a completely different way. To him, these sacred ideas were an opportunity. He wanted to simply give everything away. And with The Basketball Podcast and Basketball Immersion he has done exactly that. For the few coaches out there that do not subscribe to the podcast, you are hurting your team. Oliver was incredibly generous to spend an hour with me over Zoom and “share the game” as he says and explain how he is where he is.
Why Share Tactical Ideas so Openly?
When Chris Oliver started Basketball Immersion years ago, his goal was to share the game as authentically as possible. Oliver told me sharing the game has a higher purpose for him. He loves coaching and loves coach education. He stopped coaching at the University of Windsor last spring in part because he believes he can make an impact in helping coaches more than coaching his own players.
While at the University of Windsor, he recognized sharing the game as an opportunity to give the program a better brand. Initially he never intended to monetize Basketball Immersion past the basic cost of setting up the website. As a result of sharing his games approach to coaching, Oliver gained incredible access to some of the world’s greatest programs and coaches. He presented his philosophy in front of the Miami Heat and watched other NBA practices.
As a result of these experiences, he went back to his players and shared his perspective. He always told players a philosophy borrowed from Doug Novak of “me first for us.” Through these opportunities he began to give the Windsor players feedback, “I saw Giannis do this the other day, I think it can help you too.” Players knew that he was watching these high level practices and framing it with a mindset of making the team better. And obviously when you follow any feedback with “I saw Giannis do it”, it carries a little more weight.
The Trend Toward Transparency & Branding
Chris Oliver is hardly alone in what is becoming a movement to share more openly. One of Oliver’s recent guests on his podcast was Arkansas women’s coach Mike Neighbors. While at the University of Washington a few years ago, Neighbors invited coaches to mail a thumb drive to him as well as a return envelope with a stamp. Washington would then take the thumb drive and put everything that he collected over his years of coaching. He even conveniently organized folders within the thumb drive. The number of people that subscribed to his newsletter was astonishing, but nothing summed up the growth better than this story from Neighbors’ email newsletter in 2015.
“I went to Moscow, Russia for the 19u World Championships. One morning I was taking in a few sights before the games started. Wearing my WASHINGTON gear walking through Red Square a man approaches me say “WOOOSHINGTON, WOOSHINGTON, baaasketbuuull”. I gave him a thumbs up and said “Go Dawgs”. Became obvious very quickly that his English was as poor as my Russian. Yet he managed to communicate to me that he was a basketball coach and received an email every week from a coach at Wooooshington.” I said, “Yeah, that’s me”, but he didn’t understand. He kept telling me about the newsletter and I kept trying to say that I am actually the one who sends it to him. Finally a friend of his who spoke some broken English got it across to him… We took selfies in Red Square and he took the Russian Basketball Sweatshirt right off his back and gave it to me. Amazing the power and reach our group has grown.”
Process Leads to Results
Fast forward a few years down the road and Washington makes the Final Four behind Player of the Year Kelsey Plum. His unorthodox and detailed systems for organizing his favorite movies, books, and songs appears to be so irrelevant to coaching basketball. Yet it has helped build his brand and separate him from the pack of tight-lipped and Bellichick cloned coaches. The same brand helped Neighbors land his dream job at Arkansas. His stuff is still very visible today.
Chris Oliver on The Games Approach
Oliver is quick to admit he never invented the games approach to coaching. The research has been around for decades. He has had a profound impact though in promoting the games approach and it is really hard to argue with the thinking behind the games approach.
Oliver profoundly said that the number one priority at practice is for players need to enjoy themselves. Somewhere along the line, we determined that practice is for coaches. It’s not. Practice is for players. The games approach is a reminder that you are playing a game. One of Chris Oliver’s pet peeves was knowing that his players hated practice. He always took it personally. It is human nature that we all want to be liked. If at the end of practice players come away saying that they had fun and learned something, then that is a sign of a good coach.
Assessing Your Coaching Style
Chris Oliver told me that two coaches might have completely opposite styles of coaching. I might spend my whole practice doing drills that do not apply back to the game like the 3-man weave. If my team plays his team, I might still win. That is coaching. It does not mean that I am necessarily correct. He used the analogy of teaching. You can be a great teacher and have students fail and vice-versa. Wins and losses are only part of how we should be judged.
Failures and Successes
Chris Oliver aims high when he reaches out to a coach to come on his podcast. Sometimes he gets a no and sometimes he gets a yes. And sometimes he gets no answer at all. To him it’s all part of the game. Coaches are persistent by nature. The effort of working hard to bring a certain guest in is part of the thrill of the pursuit for him. When a coach responds by saying that now is not a good time, he feels good because it is not an outright “no.” In fact, if a coach turned him down initially and he eventually came on the podcast, it made the process even more intrinsically rewarding. Even went so far as to say it is what feeds into the competitive cravings he no longer has as a coach.
One of my favorite takeaways from Coach Oliver was the fact that receiving no answer was the worst outcome. It does not matter if the subject is asking someone to come on a podcast, coaching, or even dating. Yes and no are the best outcomes when you ask a question. Receiving no reply means that you need to keep trying if the answer is worth it to you.
Recruit Players that Love the Game
Toward the end of his run at the University of Windsor, Chris Oliver told me part of his recruiting strategy was to bring in players that loved the game. It might sound simple, but we all know there are players that are better students of the game than others. Players that know the history. The types that turn on a television and their default is to watch whatever game is on regardless of the market the teams play in. As his own brand grew, these players became increasingly easier to recruit.
Oliver found these players to be much easier to talk informally about basketball with. It became not just a point on coaching, but a part of the relationship building and a way to connect with them past their playing time or the team’s state at that point in the season. On the court, players began to watch games with a different lens. They knew they might talk to coach about the game the next day, so they noticed how the game connected to their system.
Scaling Entrepreneurial Model for Education
It was fairly evident that the game is very important to Chris Oliver, but relationships were even more important. I asked him if he thought what he did at Basketball Immersion in terms of pursuing education for its own merits. He sounded optimistic, but ultimately all you can do is control your actions.
Model What You Want Players to Become
He told me there were only two things he wanted for his players. One of those things was to be a great parent. As soon as Chris Oliver’s children were ready to be in the gym, he brought them with him to practice. The norm for many coaches is that the basketball coaching is sacred. The family needs to be separate from the team and will destroy a team’s focus. Coach Oliver passionately disagrees.
Similar to Winthrop High School coach Joe Lowe, Coach Oliver sees the value of his team meeting his children from a relationship standpoint. Ninety-seven percent of coaches want to help their players acquire value. As Coach Oliver told me, more of the kids in the millennial generation were brought up by only one parent. Even those that had two parents probably were not around them as often because both parents were working unlike the world that he was brought up in. Coaches are always imploring the players to make good decisions, but how about we show them?
By letting players into his world as a father, he also introduces them to his work and life balance. Players are battling their own struggles with balance on the court, in school, and in relationships. Modeling to them how to properly balance all of these priorities is a critical skill for long term happiness.
Think about Entrepreneurship
As a result of running Basketball Immersion and toward the end of his run The Basketball Podcast, part of Oliver’s goal was to expose players to entrepreneurship. Early in his career, one of Oliver’s mentors taught him to think about coaching basketball as a business and to model it for the players. He encouraged players to think about future employability not being dependent on someone else. One of his former players is currently running an online business. When Oliver told me about this player, there was a spark of pride in his voice greater than any other point in our conversation. At the age of 20, there are alternatives to living the predictable 9 to 5 life. In the present state of affairs in the country, the advice and model to back it up are especially relevant advice.
Chris Oliver can be found on Twitter @BballImmersion and on the web at Basketball Immersion. If you aren’t listening to his podcasts while exercising or commuting to work, your team is at a competitive disadvantage. Download it on whatever Podcasting app you use by searching for “The Basketball Podcast.”