Views from the Bench with CJ Baird: Phil Martelli’s Coaching Style

Coach Phil Martelli took on the role of interim head coach for the remainder of the regular season. Coach Martelli has been praised for his success as St. Joseph’s head coach for 34 years. People know he is an experienced coach, providing support at assistant and head coaching levels for a total of 45 years. I wanted to share with you all some of the things Coach Martelli does well with his players; in particular, some things that maybe don’t get talked about as much in the media.

Preparation for special situations

One of the hardest things to do as a coach is to prepare for pressure situations in games. Often, coaches mimic the noise of the crowd by having fans cheering over gymnasium speakers. Of course, practice cannot perfectly recreate the intensity of a match; however, Coach Martelli provides several special scenarios within a practice to prepare players for things they might see. Late-game free throws when we were leading, special plays made by other teams to score, and potential blocks to opposing defenses were all covered before our games. In many scouting situations, coaches watch the opponent’s close games and see what type of plays they are making. For example, coaches will watch a film of Rutgers’ closest games to see special plays Coach Pikeill could potentially run against the team.

Coach Martelli will prepare Michigan for the close games they must win to enter the NCAA Tournament. Players will be prepared for the toughest situations and will be ready to act on instinct instead of rushing to stop a tough game. The scouting style of the staff even goes all the way to the tendencies of the opponents. Guys like Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. will perform certain moves when games fail or in a late clock situation. Coach Martelli asks the guys on the scout team to do these moves in practice to get the players in the rotation even more ready for the game.

“Just Play Basketball”

Coach Martelli often performs simplistic drills that will help players hone their basic skills in the game. These drills often involve layups, combination moves, and simple jump shot actions. Many young players do not fully understand the importance of these exercises at the end of the season. Throughout the Big Ten’s 20-game schedule, each team brings a unique challenge to the table. Practicing the basics of basketball will allow players to adapt to situations where there are no X’s and O’s, or a strict script to follow on the court. Coach Martelli does a great job of emphasizing this in practice often saying the phrase “just play basketball.” It’s a reminder that while following plays and a game plan is important, players can’t let it stop them from reacting to different situations that occur in the game.

This can be one of the hardest things to teach young players in a program. A lot of guys are looking for ways to get into the rotation or please the coaching staff. Sometimes this type of thinking prevents players from realizing their full potential. Coach Martelli adapts his coaching style to each player’s state of mind to help them use their skills to the best of their abilities.

A willingness to adapt

Many old-school coaches take a tougher stance when coaching players. Strict play calling, shouting all the time, or using constant conditioning as forms of punishment is still present, but not frequent. Many coaches today use positive reinforcement as a way to stay in touch with their players and get their message across. Coach Martelli’s experience as a head coach gave him the opportunity to coach in several eras of basketball. He knows how to adapt his communication with his teams from year to year, and from player to player to always be a hard-hitting pedagogue.

Players often go to coach Martelli for advice throughout the season due to his experience. I remember asking him so many questions about what he had done before and how it brought him here to Michigan. Over time, I was asking him questions not just because of his background, but because of the way he spoke to me. He understood my position in the team and gave me honest feedback on what I could do better. These candid conversations helped me learn more about my mindset and how I can influence the team from my position.

This adaptation to his style of communication always fascinates me. Someone as successful as Coach Martelli could easily stick to their old habits and stick to what has worked in the past. His adaptation over the years inspires me to find the leadership qualities I like as well as the ones I don’t.

A personal anecdote

Recently I reached out to Coach Martelli to ask him about his coaching experience and to understand why he became a coach in the first place. He told me about his experience as a young coach trying to become the most capable coach in the game. Although knowledge of the game helps, Coach Martelli told me why he kept coaching for so long . He told me “the game does not discriminate”. Basketball touches many communities, from cities to suburbs and from empty parks to crowded gymnasiums. Coach Martelli has gone on to continue to bring these communities together through basketball. The relationships you can build in this sport last a lifetime, and Coach Martelli told me his investment in basketball has given him the relationships that make coaching worthwhile.

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