Xavi Pascual took the reins at Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens last season after two games of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague had already been played. Having inherited a squad that was not necessarily designed for his style of basketball, Pascual was faced with a decision to either impose his preferred system or adapt it to fit the players he had. That is always one of the biggest questions that coaches face. Pascual navigated the situation successfully to lead the Greens to a fourth-place finish in the regular season and a playoff berth. That experience put Pascual in a good position to speak, in this edition of Coaches Corner, about what considerations a coach must make to give a team his own imprint while also adapting to the roster's attributes.
I think that coaches in general, myself included, need to step back, take a look at the rosters we have and think about how we can help turn that team into the most efficient one possible. Often it's not how you want to play, but how you should play to put your team in the best position to win. There are many paths to victory, but you have to do so with the players you have available. On the other hand, I am a coach who likes to work both sides of the game, offense and defense, at 50 percent each. I don't like to focus more on either of them. I like to be serious on both accounts, and I work to accomplish that. Fifty percent of my practices are dedicated to one and the other 50 percent to the other.
My philosophy is that to be successful, players must also cross a mental barrier. Every day they have to learn one more thing through hard work. I think that is part of our identity, to try to be a team where the players are at a high mental level both in terms of execution and concentration. Imagine someone gave you a list of 30 telephone numbers and asked you to learn them all. When you first look at the list, you think it's just not possible. But our parents used to know 30 telephone numbers by heart. And why did they know them then and we don't? Because you have to learn correctly by adding five at a time to the list. If you try to learn them all at once, it just won't happen. That's why my philosophy is based on methodology and trying to break the mental limit so we can be better every day.
When a new player is signed, the coach must try to learn as much about him as he can. His personality, his family environment, how easy it is for him to adapt, his age... There are many variables that you have to consider. But many times you sign the player you can sign, not the one you wanted to sign in the first place, so from there you have to also adapt to the mental characteristics of your roster. Sometimes you can go faster, other times you must go slower. You have to adapt to your reality.
Of course, the physical and technical aspects also influence the pace you can work at with your team, but when it comes to philosophy, the mental level takes center stage. If you have marathon runners, you cannot expect to win sprints. So your strength will be endurance, not speed. No matter how much and how hard you work, you won't ever win the 100-meter dash, but you could win the marathon. So it doesn't matter how much you wish for things that you cannot obtain. The coach's job is to get the most out of his players. I always try to see my players in a positive way, with what they have, not what they don't have.
It's always a two-way flow of communication between the coach and the team, and also to the players individually. Everyone has a relationship with everyone else. The coach has that at a team level, but sometimes you also have to have it with an individual player. I am not one who likes to talk to players much in order to obtain what I need from them. I want them to understand the way to do things by themselves. Because when you do something because you believe it's the right way, it's always better than if you are forced to do it. Of course, I have to lead the team, but I want to drive them to understand what the right way to do things is.
When you build a team, respect, sacrifice, cooperation and communication are among the basic educational pillars. They are among the main tools to build harmony within the team. When a player strays from those values, you can have a problem and you have to intervene. But, every day, with your dedication, your example and your leadership, you have to get the team to digest that and make it theirs in a positive way.
When I came to Panathinaikos last season, the team was already in place, so the situation was different. The priority in those cases is to win. You have to get the most from a team designed for the previous coach and try to contribute your ideas little by little. If you overwhelm them with new information, you can drive the group to overload. You have to act smart and make the most of the good things the team already has.
Starting the preseason with your own squad is extremely important. Nowadays, the preseason is more important than ever. Even if we have the usual problems with players with their national teams, with short preseasons, the way the competition is right now, when you can play as many as 80 games in a season, there's not that much time to practice certain things once the season starts. That's why the preseason can make your life easier down the road.
We can never forget that basketball is about the players. They are the ones on the court. But we have to help them be ready to execute. Decisions are made in a fraction of a second and they need to have a free mind in order to make the right decision. They also need the desire to do that, but that's different. The main thing is to put everyone on the same page, focused. I always strive for mental readiness.
Basketball keeps evolving and changing and some things I try to do now I never tried in Barcelona. It will always be that way. I never try to apply what I did in Barcelona now. I adapt to my players, look for the tools to help them score one more point than the opponent. Sometimes the rules change, the bodies of the players change... After we won the 2010 Final Four in Paris, the three-point line moved backward and that changed basketball forever. There are several reasons that cause basketball to change: abilities, mentalities... The young kids have a different mentality now. The cities are different and in each city things are done differently. Every decision a coach makes must have a "why" behind it.
The bottom line is that coaching basketball is a group of things that cannot be separated. You cannot ignore defense or offense or tactics. But making the players grow at a mental level, as if they went to school to learn more things, is something you have to have in mind always. You always have to strive to get better and this idea must be engraved on the minds of the coach, players and the club. I think that's an important factor in my philosophy. And from there, you can do everything else: you can play more defensive strategies that demand a strong mentality, and so on. If you are ready with a basic mentality, you can do whatever is needed at any given moment faster and better.