Making the Most of a Timeout in Basketball

I sat down with Brooks High School Men’s Basketball Coach John McVeigh. Earlier this year I sat down with his father Mike McVeigh, who coaches with him now after a long and successful career at North Andover High School. The elder Coach McVeigh told me that John hates to call a timeout because of the fatigue factor. I asked John about making the most of your timeouts in basketball games.

The Fatigue Factor

John immediately cited toughness, depth, and fitness as strengths for his team. He thought that the longer a game goes without stoppages, the more that their team has an advantage. Timeouts negate the advantages of those three team strengths.  This year, his team will be new, young, and very different. He expects to call a lot more timeouts this coming season!


John cited the fact that his team, and any team needs to learn to play through adversity. By blowing timeouts in the early stages of games, there is one less timeout for the later stages of the game. The big thing isn’t so much blowing the timeout, it’s that learning how to play through adversity is critically important. Coach McVeigh would rather them do it early in the game when they have a chance to fix things than down the stretch when the pressure is increased. The first time they have to play through adversity shouldn’t happen late in a game. If they need me to fix it every time, the team is in trouble.

Depth & Fitness

The theory of depth, pace of play, and keeping the pedal down is not new. Many teams embrace this strategy, so I wanted to know why John McVeigh thought his team’s depth was better than the opponent. His answer surprised me. They can’t scout in the Independent School League, but he sensed they were a lot deeper than teams. He was certain of two things:

  1. Their practices are up-tempo and as game-like as possible.
  2. Their practices are extremely competitive. Many of their players that come off the bench end up playing college basketball.

All that said, McVeigh’s original point about not knowing the scouting report meant that like any coach he needed to make adjustments. He acknowledged that no two games are alike and that he does not have a policy he is married to. He trusts his assistant coaches. All of them have been with him for more than ten years and all of them have the green light to disagree with him and share their insights.

Practicing Timeouts

A point of emphasis at Brooks practices is teaching how to “do a timeout.” I once went to a practice there where at the halfway point the team literally went to the locker room as if it were halftime and Coach McVeigh reviewed the keys to the upcoming game. When they practice timeouts, McVeigh wants his team to get to the bench fast. He despises the idea of a player or a coach arguing with a referee during this time. The argument is not going to change the call that was made. It is wasted emotional energy.

In practice, he works with his players on ensuring that the coach does not have the only voice in the huddle. At the same time, not everyone in the uniform will be able to talk because nothing would get accomplished. He spoke of the importance of eye contact for certain kids to step forward in a given huddle depending on the situation.

McVeigh showed me his copy of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. One of the key points Coyle illustrates in The Culture Code is that vulnerability enables leaders to step forward. During a timeout when the opposition has taken all the momentum, a team is extremely vulnerable. Coyle brings up the Navy Seals preparation and how they simulate missions to incorporate various unexpected surprises. Obviously the mission of a basketball team and the Navy Seals are in two different stratospheres in terms of importance, but the basic concept is true in any organization. If you can practice being confronted by an unexpected hurdle, you will be more prepared mentally to counter it and recover when it matters.

One Late Game Timeout Tale

John McVeigh described one timeout that resonated with me. Brooks was trailing and the momentum of the game was with the opponent with about four minutes to play. His team had been undefeated during the season and had a winning streak that stretched back in time for multiple seasons.

In that moment, he had his team together and the first thing that John told them to do was take a deep breath. He put X’s and O’s to the side and calmly told his team that he knew they were mentally tough. The remaining four-plus minutes of the game was an opportunity to display that mental toughness.

Why so Calm?

A younger version of himself would have probably been fiery, but he remained calm. Fiery huddles might get players to play harder in short spurts, and it has its place. Calm is contagious though.  With the season on the line, are players less likely to play to their potential because of effort or smarts? In that moment, McVeigh knew his team would have to play smart. A calm coach with collected thoughts would bring this out better than a stern lecture. The team fought back, won that game, and eventually became New England champions.

The Essential Question in Timeouts: How can I help my team?

McVeigh told me he keeps a small index card to remind him of very simple keys for a game. On one side is the on-court keys, and the other side has a message for the mental part of the game. And that is what he constantly revisits throughout the game. He recounted one game in which the opponent had a player that has gone on to a major Division I program. The player went off in the first half scoring all but four of his team’s points. The defense was certainly adequate, but the talent of the one player was a little better.

At halftime as the players waited anxiously for him he immediately told them that he thought their defense on this player was terrific. Brooks was leading the game. He reminded his players that even if his hot shooting continued, this would be the night that they remembered a future star went off on them and they won the game. The team was shocked by the positivity of their coach. He was focused on the kinds of shots they were giving up, and he thought they were making him take really tough shots.

In the second half, Brooks sustained the effort of the first half, and the opposing star player only scored two more points.  They stayed with the plan and didn’t get too results-focused.  They just kept making him take tough shots.  In the first half, the tough shots went in. In the second half, they didn’t.

Now is this to say that the players win because of the halftime speech or the timing of a timeout? Who knows if there is any impact at all as a result of these things. The point is that a coach is always responsible to ask, “How can I help my team right now?”

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