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The Lost Art of Timeouts: A Guide for Basketball Coaches

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Throughout the season there is no doubt that you and your team are going to be in some BIG games! These are the games that you circle in red on your calendar. These are the games that motivate you through the entire off season. These games are the reason why we all love playing and coaching the game of basketball.

In many of these big games, the outcome will often come down to a single moment or possession. It only takes one moment for the other team to gain confidence or your team to panic. It often only takes one possession for momentum to change in either direction. It only takes one moment for your athletes to be unclear of their responsibilities. All of these moments could cost you the BIG game.

Last week we received an email from a middle school coach in West Virginia named John. John explained to us that he felt that last season his team was in every game but could not close them out. In order to take that next step and reach his teams full potential he admitted that he needed to learn how to manage the game a little better. More specifically he wanted to know when to call a timeout, what should be covered in the huddle and also (but usually never talked about) what length of a timeout should he use.

Here are 4 situations where a coach can use his or her timeouts to control the game:

Stopping Momentum

Perhaps the most common reason coaches use their timeouts is to stop the opposing team's momentum. When talking about momentum, I am specifically focusing on "scoring runs". This occurs when the other team out scores your team in spurts of 6-0, 8-0 or even 10-2 in a few short minutes.

However, when calling timeout to stop momentum, many times you will see coaches waste the entire timeout on either criticism or instruction! Instead of overloading your athletes with multiple thoughts and strategic concepts, use this time to build their confidence and raise your team's moral! Nothing you give them is going to work if their confidence has been destroyed. Here is an example of the coaches' dialogue in this type of timeout:

1. Lead the huddle by saying one thing to a certain individual that he or she is doing well. This will get your team's full attention and guarantee that everyone listens for the remainder of the time.

2. After the positive statement, say ONE short statement on a thing that the whole team needs to improve on. Example: "We have to have a better effort from everyone on the defensive boards. They're getting to many second shot opportunities".

3. Finish the timeout on a positive note that concerns the whole team. Example: "Great job of pushing the ball, the other team is tired!"

When calling these types of timeouts, it is advised to use your 30 second timeouts first and foremost. Don't waste your full timeouts if the sole purpose is to stop the other team's momentum. A full timeout is too long for the three things above. Of course if there is a glaring tactical flaw that is contributing to your opponent's scoring run then you may need to use one of your longer timeouts.

Subbing Players

This is one of the more unconventional thoughts regarding timeouts.

When you are giving your best player a much needed breather on the bench, the opposing team is going to try and make some type of run! This is going to happen! Instead of using a timeout to yell at your substitutes, simply send your player or key players back to the scorer's tables and signal a timeout. When the ref asks you what length of timeout you want to use, simply motion with your hands like you are calling "travelling". This allows you to sub and prevents either coach from talking to his team on the sideline. This will not only get your best players back in the game, but will also keep the opposing coach from making any strategic adjustments to counteract the substitution.

To Give Players a Breather

When the game is late in the fourth quarter the LAST thing any coach wants to do is to sub out their best player for a few possessions! Instead of giving their "go-to" player and leader a break, coaches often keep them in the game and often tell them to "dig deep and suck it up". What many coaches never think of is to utilize one of their extra timeouts. Often, players don't need a 5 minute break to recharge their batteries. Many only need 30 seconds and a cup of water to catch their breath. Instead of subbing them out, or even worse leaving them in, call a 30 second timeout and give them a drink. It is best to do this after a free throw to maximize the rest time because not only will the athlete get to rest during the free throw but also during the timeout.

Make BIG Adjustments

Save your full timeouts when you want to make a BIG adjustment. Some coaches confuse BIG adjustments with simple adjustments. Do not use a full timeout to make simple adjustment or single out an individual player. Use a full timeout for instruction purposes. A good time for this is often in the last few minutes of a quarter or half. You can give your team a goal of getting a certain number of stops, offensive rebounds or fast break opportunities - anything that will help them stay focused and finish strong. If you have possession of the ball at the end of the first half you might want to use a timeout and set up a sure fire quick hitter that will not only allow you to score but will let you go into halftime with an extra surge of confidence. Just make sure you very clear in your instructions. Players should leave the timeout knowing exactly what you are expecting from them.

The proper (and sometimes creative) use of timeouts is never going to show up in a box score or in the scorebook but can still have an enormous impact on the game. Of course, the improper use of timeouts can also have an enormous impact on the game. You're the coach - it's your call!

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