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Interpersonal chemistry and women's basketball: Are there gender differences?

In the process of writing yesterday's piece about what Brian Agler does for the Seattle Storm -- and quite honestly, my argument for why he is a strong candidate for coach of the year -- I stumbled across quotes about "managing" a team vs. "establishing relationships" with players.

NBA coach Phil Jackson is often lauded for his ability to manage the egos of NBA superstars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the Chicago Bulls or Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal on the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was in fact a focal point of his book Sacred Hoops in which he documents the experience of coaching the Chicago Bulls to their 1990s championships and describes the fundamental task of teaching the triangle as one of teaching "selflessness-in-action", which is essentially a way to describe what it means for players to subordinate their ego to the collective goals of the team. It's something described in Jackson's book Sacred Hoops.

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Perhaps the concepts of harmony, "mindfulness", "self-awareness", selflessness (is that even possible?) or five-man tai chi that Jackson described in Sacred Hoops are simply too abstract or foreign to Western sensibilities for the average person who watches basketball to put effort into understanding. However, for anyone that has actually been on a court and played competitive basketball successfully, the more spiritual concepts should resonate with what I would consider basic court sense.

I would argue -- and Jackson’s 10 NBA championships as a coach might back me up -- that a lot of Jackson's thinking is based on sound basketball principles that ultimately every good basketball coach is interested in: getting a group of players to commit to playing as a team.

When you're trying to coach superstar players as competitive as the stars Jackson has worked with, finding a way to minimize their ego while maximizing the talent of the complementary players on the team -- did anyone ever get more out of Judd Buechler*? -- is a required skill.

So when I asked Seattle Storm players about what Brian Agler's coaching means to their success, I used the word "manage" when asking forward Swin Cash about the team after multiple people mentioned how it's a veteran team that doesn't needs little prodding to stay focused.

Cash suggested a different way to think about it and it made me think about the importance of relationships in women's basketball coaching, a topic that has come up in a number of conversations with players and coaches this season.

"I think it's the ability to have relationships because it's not so much managing," said Cash. "I think once you're an adult and a professional that you have to be able to manage yourself because of what you do -- whether it's your body, staying healthy, getting shots up, all those things. But I think having a relationship is he doesn't have just Sue as his extension of him on the floor -- we understand his systems and philosophy. So he can have different relationships with players that buy into what he's trying to do and then other players follow."

Of course, Cash's comment could be dismissed as nothing but mere semantics -- she's right that coaching of any type is fundamentally about balancing different relationships. It's something that Cash's UConn teammate Sue Bird also noted about UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

"The thing about coach Auriemma in my four years is that all four years were kinda like this -- you had this amazing record, you had this hype," said Bird when asked to compare how Agler and Auriemma managed extreme success. "Maybe those two should talk because the best thing coach Auriemma [did] -- I could tell from my freshman and sophomore year -- he tried different ways to kind of reach us and get to us. Each year was different and he knew because of the personalities in the room how to handle it and because of the hype how to get to us...I think as a coach it's really hard to keep a team motivated, to keep a team going, and you have to figure it out. But coach Auriemma is the best at doing that and he's had a lot of experience, like I said, we kept on winning."

Where coaching might deviate from the teaching profession is that rather than constantly striving for perfection, a teacher should build relationships with an eye on putting a child on a trajectory for future success in addition to how "competitive" they are in the present. And of course, Auriemma wrote the book on The Pursuit of Perfection, which can be harmful when applied to the teaching profession**. Nevertheless, motivating players certainly requires establishing strong relationships in order to maximize the talent of each personality, male or female.

Although neither Bird nor Cash said directly that relationships are somehow more important to focus on in women's basketball, they did allude to relationships as a factor in coaching. Yet as I've talked to other coaches and players about coaching in the WNBA, the matter of fostering interpersonal chemistry has come up repeatedly as possibly more present for female athletes than male athletes.

When the Indiana Fever were in town earlier this season, I asked coach Lin Dunn about an article on the Indiana Fever's website about the importance of team chemistry. While answering a question about her thoughts on how that chemistry translates into performance on the court, Dunn said the following.

"I think team chemistry is important," said Dunn when asked for her thoughts on the article. "You can interview ten different coaches and they all have different ideas. But I do think it helps when players not only interact well with each other not only on the court, but off the court too. I just think in particular with women that's a real plus. And these players enjoy playing with each other, they enjoy playing together, and they seem to have a pretty good time off the court too. So I think that's a positive."

Shortly thereafter, I asked Fever forward Tamika Catchings and added to what Dunn said about interpersonal chemistry being a particular plus for women.

"I don't know if that's necessarily true," said Catchings when asked about Dunn's statement about interpersonal chemistry being a plus for women. "But I do think that as females, of course, we're a lot more emotional. So being able to have that emotional connection with one another on and off the court definitely helps us as a team. For us, we are able to talk to one another about different issues that are going on. Not only in basketball, but in our lives. All of us feel comfortable enough doing that. So I think that builds the bond stronger and knowing that we're not just teammates, but we really care about each other.

"And I think as females too, when we fight, it's not something that you forget the next day. Like guys, they'll fight and then the next day they're like, 'Aw man, what's up?' But with us it's like, 'Ok, I'm still looking at you. That hurt my feelings.' So that's just something that we try to avoid more -- like when issues come, go at it now so that when tomorrow we come back and we don't have to deal with it."

While Catchings was speaking particularly about interpersonal interactions between players, her comments taken with Dunn's might suggest implications for coaching. Those implications are something that Tulsa Shock coach Nolan Richardson is learning this season.

"I think in the female game it's probably a little bit more emotion than the guys," said Richardson, who is most well known for coaching the University of Arkansas men's basketball teams to consecutive Final Fours. "They seem to be much more friendly with one another, from a game standpoint, than guys are. With guys, you know, it's war -- they don't go out with each other when it's over. You don't have those kind of situations. There's a lot of things that you notice from an emotional standpoint. I find out that most of them, not all of them but most, you [have to be] kinda careful with what you say because you might offend them in some way.

"So there's a lot of things that I have to try to not do, which takes away from who I am as a basketball coach. Because you know, I'll yell at a guy in a minute and that doesn't bother me one second because I know he's better than what he's giving me. And I see that in the women's game too. And there's some I think you can do that to, but for the most part I don't think you can do that to all of them because then it becomes personal. Those are the things that you learn as you go through the league. So not only are my girls learning who I am, I'm also learning who they are. And you got all these processes going on and you got a basketball team to run."

Independent of Richardson's novice status in women's basketball, parts of what he said seem to fit with things Catchings and Dunn said -- at the very least, interpersonal chemistry is seen as an explicit plus in women's basketball. That's not to say interpersonal chemistry is somehow absent among male athletes -- breakdowns in interpersonal dynamics lead to plenty of problems. In some ways, it's exactly what informs USA Basketball's increased emphasis on building "a culture, playing together, knowing what to expect from one another...creating an environment that's conducive to success". Furthermore, there are NBA teams that are either building that type of culture or have already established it, spearheaded by elite players.

Yet at the very least -- if we believe what Catchings, Dunn, and Richardson said in this limited survey, even taking into account that Catchings didn't enthusiastically back Dunn's statement -- it would seem that we can make the limited claim that female athletes embrace the idea that relationships are a natural part of human interactions and that they're worth cultivating and maintaining in order to be successful in a different way. Saying that is not a slight on female athletes -- quite the contrary, it's probably an example of bringing elements of prosocial behavior into the pro sports arena.

If anything, the ego-driven and hyper-masculine attitudes that are often present in male professional sports could be deemed as the more troubling dynamic and in fact it's exactly the type of dynamic Phil Jackson sought to minimize. As Jackson wrote, "This isn't always an easy task in a society where the celebration of ego is the number one pasttime." As an example of that, he extends Richardson's war metaphor later in his book:

"They'd been conditioned since early adolescence to think that every confrontation was a personal test of manhood," he described on pages 136-137. "Teaching players to embrace a non-belligerent way of thinking about competition required continuous reinforcement."

In other words, this isn't just a matter of making assertions about inherent female and male traits but, if we believe Jackson and decades of gender research, a matter of socialization. So taking Jackson's statements with Richardson's comments, there would also seem to be implications of female players' enhanced awareness of interpersonal relationships for coaching women's basketball.

Of course, Richardson's assessment comparing the men's and women's game is a bit more complicated and has to be taken with a few caveats. First, Richardson is comparing experiences primarily with male college athletes to female professional athletes (at least in the U.S. context -- he did coach the Mexican and Panamanian National Teams as well). Second, something has to be said for the fact that: "not only are my girls learning who I am, I'm also learning who they are" -- he's clearly in the early stages of trying to figure out the game. Third, he's said numerous times previously, he has been given talent that essentially amounts to coaching an expansion team in its first year so that certainly factors into the "processes going on".

With those caveats in mind, it might be safe to say this much: if indeed women's basketball players are more attuned to the interpersonal elements of basketball and socialized to regard that "emotional connection" with one another as important, it would seem to have implications for working with female players on multiple levels as Richardson suggests. Perhaps that's a matter of taking things more personally, as Richardson said, or perhaps it's just a matter of respecting the bonds that exist on the team, as Dunn does.

Either way, there does come a point at which we have to acknowledge that many of these gender divides -- while they exist -- are at least partially socially constructed and that there are elements of both "female" and "male" interaction styles that would be positive for everyone to embrace in a team setting.

Related Links:

On Brian Agler: What Exactly Does A Coach Contribute To A Dominant & Talented Basketball Team?


*Yes - one coach did apparently get more out of Buechler, based upon PER: Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson.

** The harms of competition and rewards in education -- both at the school, administration, and classroom level -- have been written about extensively and I won't elaborate here, but will direct you to Alfie Kohn's book Punished By Rewards as the extreme, if perhaps impractical, version of that argument.