Dave Titmuss - Director of Coaching at Hemel Storm - Q&A - Hoopsfix.com

Dave Titmuss – Director of Coaching at Hemel Storm – Q&A

Dave Titmuss

One of the most successful and well-respected coaches in British basketball, Dave Titmuss, currently the Coaching Director of his hometown NBL Division 1 club Hemel Storm and former Senior and Junior National Team coach, sits down to talk to us about a variety of subjects, including how he first got into coaching, some of his standout memories, the current state of the game and much more.

Hoopsfix (H): For those that don’t know you, can you give us a brief rundown of your playing/coaching career to date?

Dave Titmuss: I’m probably something of a rarity, a professional British career coach for more than forty years. I’m now 71 and for about a 20 year span from the late ‘eighties I Head Coached England men and youth teams, assisted with GB men and women, Head Coached the GB World Student Games team and was Head Coach/Performance Director of the GB Paralympic men’s World Class Performance Programme.

Domestically I’ve coached in pro-Leagues and National Leagues, my teams have won 19 national titles and I’ve won six ‘Coach of the Year’ awards. Two seasons’ ago I stepped down from Head Coaching at my hometown Hemel Storm Club (NBL Division One) where I currently oversee the basketball Programme.

I’m associated with basketball at Hemel because I was one of the founder members of what became a leading professional club in the UK sponsored by Ovaltine. In those heady days the Channel 4 cameras came to Hemel on a number of occasions to show live games from the same sports centre where today’s incarnation is based.

I played at regional level before a serious knee injury side-lined me and I quickly became fascinated by coaching.

Over the years I’ve avidly studied the technicalities of the game and the whole coaching process, been active in Coach education speaking at clinics and tutoring more than 2,000 students on coaching courses. I wrote the 50,000-word Advanced Coach Award manual for GBWBA and I’ve worked in Africa for FIBA with that country’s regional and national team Coaches.

I was also honoured to deliver a keynote presentation at the launch of UK Sport’s ‘Elite Coach’ Programme for people working in various Olympic and Paralympic sports and just this year my county basketball association in Hertfordshire where I got my start in coaching inducted me into their inaugural ‘Hall of Fame’ which I appreciated very much.

My greatest satisfaction at this stage of my career – and life – is the contact that I have with players and coaches especially those I’ve worked with in the past some of whom have gone on to make terrific contributions to basketball at all levels.

H: Winding it right back to the beginning, how were you first introduced to the game?

Dave Titmuss: I was a football crazy 15 year-old when my family moved to Boreham Wood in Hertfordshire and the Head of PE at my school was Tony Smith the 1964 GB Olympic Basketball Coach (no we didn’t qualify for the Games!). I’d never really seen basketball before but I watched my first game there at the school and, it’s difficult to explain, but I just connected with it somehow.

I was a county-level goalkeeper but within a couple of months of starting to play basketball I gave up soccer and within 18 months I was in the England – in those days – schoolboy team. Tony was a massive influence.

H: What was it that made you want to transition into coaching?

Dave Titmuss: The event that triggered it was that I badly injured my knee and my kid brother’s PE teacher asked me if I’d go in and coach the school team. I found coaching/teaching unbelievably fulfilling, it just became a passion.

I was ambitious and driven and wanted to coach at the highest level possible so I set off to build my technical knowledge and study the many, many different approaches that exist to coaching the game. The more I discovered and the more I coached the more enthralled and engaged I became.

On one level, basketball is such a simple game but on another it has complexities and nuances that still fascinate me today and which the best coaches study to the nth degree.

Coaching requires a whole set of skills different from playing. Just because you’ve played the game doesn’t mean you automatically know how to teach it even though of course a playing background is a good start to becoming a coach. Being effective as a coach relies not only on technical knowledge but on understanding how to organise and communicate with groups, how to put principles of efficient learning into practice and how to lead.

I think the best coaching is demonstrated by those coaches with less talent on paper at their disposal but who still beat ‘superior’ opposition because of the way they set their team up to play.

What I find amazing about coaching is that exactly the same fundamentals and strategies are available to every coach but it’s the way they’re employed that determines how successful a coach and his team will be.

I do chuckle to myself when I hear coaches supposedly working at a ‘higher’ level being dismissive about coaches working with youth teams or in ‘lower’ Leagues. To me, a coach is a coach…is a coach.

In principle, the challenge of developing and maximising talent is faced by all Coaches no matter what situation they’re working in. The physicality and talent of players might be different and man-management issues, but the coaching skills needed are identical.

Nowadays I’m delighted to see the emergence of a generation of young, accomplished British Coaches and the organisation of pathways to manage their development. I think the FIBA Europe Coaching Certificate has been influential too. We have a long way to go but I’m optimistic.

H: And then how did you go about becoming a coach? What steps did you take and what has allowed you to get the point you are at today, recognised as one of the greatest coaches in British basketball history?

Dave Titmuss: I got on planes and spent a great deal of time – several years in total – in the States attending clinics, working on camps, and making study trips to some top NCAA colleges, high schools and the NBA.

Back in those days, it was amazing to me how accommodating and generous Head Coaches, many of whom are now considered legends of the game, were to me, a bloke from England who wanted to spend time attached to their Programmes.

In more recent years and like many British Coaches I’ve become interested in what you might call the ‘European approach.’ I never want to be out of date as a coach, I always want to be in tune with the modern game and contemporary thought.

Once I knew that coaching was what I wanted to do and that the how of coaching was as important as what to coach, I relentlessly pursued my passion.

As an example of the lengths I went to, I decided to explore the NBA so I contacted the legendary coach and basketball guru Hubie Brown who at the time was coaching the Atlanta Hawks. I had seen him deliver a clinic and, somewhat surprisingly, he agreed to meet me when he was in New York (who’s this guy from England – right?).

I flew over, spent the afternoon and early evening with him at his Palisades apartment getting my own personal clinic (plus some practice tapes) on a whole range of coaching approaches that were prevalent in the NBA at the time, and then flew back the next day. Fortunately my wife, Lin, was and still is very supportive!

On my travels I learned there were many different approaches and basketball environments so I tried to keep a critical mind rather than slavishly follow everything I saw and heard.

It’s important, I think, that coaches research ideas, systems and practice methods used by others but make up their own minds. Each situation is unique and the outstanding coaches know how to adapt to the talent they have.

I do think it’s important to settle on some basic tenents and beliefs and then know the techniques involved to the nth degree. As my career progressed I began to form what’s rather grandly called a ‘philosophy’ of how I wanted to see the game played.

The approach to team offence is a classic example of arriving at a philosophy: I think that coaches are more insecure about what to coach offensively maybe than any other aspect.

I’ve come to understand that players win games, not plays! It sounds simple – even obvious – but believe me it’s not. Quite early on I studied rules-based offensive systems that are predicated on players constantly reading with and without the ball. I find it impossible, intellectually, to argue with the basic concept that players should ‘look’ and ‘see’ in order to exploit defensive rotational mistakes (but while a lot of players may look, not so many really see)!

One of the greatest insights I’ve ever heard among many by him was from American Coaching genius Bob Knight at a clinic in Spain: “You don’t play against opponents,” he said “you play against the game of basketball itself.”

Coach Knight was and still is a masterful teacher and his innovative thinking is legendary. He was the first coach to make me realise that what teams do in transition (both ways) has a greater impact on the outcome of a game than what happens in the half-court. It was a lightbulb moment for me.

H: When you look back on your career, what are the most memorable moments, both domestically and internationally?

Dave Titmuss: Oh, so, so many – it’s been forty-plus years! In general I think the player/coach relationship is special and often tested in the white heat of battle but I’ve always enjoyed that aspect.

The mutual respect and the many ‘moments’ I’ve been lucky enough to share over the years with my players are without question the most satisfying, motivating and memorable to me. And that applies also to the experiences I’ve had tutoring coaches and watching them progress. Whenever I meet former players today and especially those that have won Championships with me, there’s an immediate connection.

Here are a few memories from many that stay with me:

– Being escorted from the court by riot police with the England players and staff in Istanbul after we defeated Turkey 84 – 83 in a Euro Champs tournament to qualify for the semi-final round for the first time. We had stones, sticks and coins thrown at us and a brick through our dressing room window!

– Coaching England against the European Champions (Greece) at Crystal Palace – we were up 42 – 38 at half-time but lost by eight in a frantic end-game.

– Coaching GB to the Paralympic World Cup Gold Medal against Australia. We won in overtime.

– The first live televised game on Channel 4 that I coached at Hemel.

– Coaching Worthing Thunder to the BBL Play-Offs in 2010 with an under-resourced team and beating every Club at least once (Newcastle Eagles twice) except for Mersey Tigers. We beat Plymouth Raiders away in overtime to qualify after a late run of victories.

– Coaching Harvey Knuckles (second round draft pick), Joe Pace (NBA and Italy), Bobby Kinzer and the late, wonderful Larry Dassie with the original Hemel pro-team. I was naïve as a Coach and learned something from them all; they would be outstanding players in today’s BBL.

– Coaching Hemel in what was then the European Korak Cup.

– Coaching against the legendary Coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High School when I took a young team out to Washington DC, it was a fantastic experience for everyone.

– My first unbeaten season as a Coach; Lloyd Gardner the new GB men’s Assistant Coach was on that youth team and we went 27 – 0. Our last game, the National Championship Play-Off Final, was against London Towers coached by dear Joe White – such a sad loss – and also Coach Garbelotto now GB men’s Head Coach.

– Watching my favourite Club player Walid Mumuni and our American Tyrell Smith dancing on court after our Reading Rockets senior team (NBL Division One) had completed a perfect season going 36 – 0 and winning all four available titles. (I’m claiming an unequalled record because although Coach Paul Middleton’s Manchester Magic side had a clean sweep in 2016 they lost four games on the way)!

– It still seems surreal but literally just chatting with the Queen at a very informal reception at Buckingham Palace after coaching GB in front of nearly 20,000 at the Paralympics.

– Enjoying a coffee recently with the point guard on my first ever Club side, his name’s Steve Doublett and he lives in the ‘States now. I hadn’t seen him for nearly fifty years.

And there are many more!

H: Do you have any regrets, if so what?
Dave Titmuss: I wouldn’t say regrets because you can’t do anything about the past, but definitely some disappointments.

Firstly, I don’t wear rose-tinted glasses and I know there will be many who agree with me when I say: “What the hell happened?” I was active as Head Coach at Hemel during a very exciting period for basketball in the UK in the early ‘eighties when some of the best basketball was played and terrifically talented players graced our courts in the UK.

The game looked set to take-off with regular Monday night coverage on Channel 4 and the increasing professionalism of clubs. So, regrets? Just that here in 2017 basketball still seems to be one of the best kept secrets in sport. My hope now is that visionary owners in the BBL will make the right moves – some already have – to take us back to the future!

I’m annoyed that I can’t watch a game just as a fan any more. I have to analyse possession by possession what’s happening on court so some of the intrinsic joy of basketball passes me by these days. I’m more likely to be excited by an intelligent effort play than a lob and flush on the break!

At one point British officials like Richard Stokes, Alan Richardson, Roger Harrison, Colin Gerrard and others were active and respected not only here but in Europe; I’d even go so far as to say that the development of officiating was at one time ahead overall of coaching and playing standards. But not today.

It’s a difficult job no question but some of my experiences talking to refs outside of the game have reinforced my opinion that although I know we are developing some excellent individual officials I honestly believe that overall competency has fallen and this contrasts with the improvements made in playing and coaching.

H: You have seen the BBL from its inception; how would you describe where the league is at now in comparison to previous years, what has its progression been like and what issues do you think it is facing, if any?

Dave Titmuss: The BBL is a well marketed competition but the product’s infrastructure as a professional league doesn’t stack up yet across the board. I do see exciting progress being made in terms of venues which hopefully down the line will increase revenues and salaries.

I don’t know the numbers in detail but I do know that the average earnings for players and coaches are not yet where they need to be to sustain completely full time squads and support personnel, or to attract top British talent and next-level imports.

Obviously, there are many talented players and coaches in the BBL and a lot of dedicated people working very hard behind the scenes so, hopefully, as resources increase the on-court standards will continue to improve and we’ll be able to seriously look at competing at club level in Europe.

In terms of signposting a model for success I think that Paul Blake at Newcastle and Kevin Routledge at Leicester for instance have done an outstanding job in terms of a vision for facilities and understanding what it will take in business terms to be competitive in European competition.

The game needs a truly professional shop window in this country with outstanding, viable franchises spread around the UK. We’ve got a long way to go yet, but the direction of travel is encouraging.

H: You have also seen the NBL over the years; how would you describe where the league is at now in comparison to previous years, what has its progression been like and what issues do you think it is facing, if any?

Dave Titmuss: Ever since devolution when some clubs ‘broke away’ to form the BBL I don’t think there has been a clear vision for the governing body’s top senior divisions although the trend in playing standard is generally upwards.

It seems that while overall participation in basketball has increased, which is great, quality control of its leading clubs in their adherence to National League membership criteria just isn’t a priority which is disappointing.

Division One is classified as a ‘professional’ league and yet there are still games being played in poor, empty venues (not at Hemel where we enjoy packed crowds, thanks to the hard work of a fantastic band of volunteers).

And some NBL clubs, while having the playing strength to compete, don’t take seriously their role as catalysts for promotion of the sport and development in their local communities and just seem to ignore some of the criteria for League membership.

There are some outstanding clubs too and I think we’re at a point now where entry to the top divisions should only be granted to clubs that meet all of the required standards –
either that or change the rules.

H: Who do you think is the greatest British Coach of all time and why?

Dave Titmuss: That’s impossible to answer! But if I did have a vote it wouldn’t go to an individual but to all the British Coaches right now and over the years working in basketball at every level who spend hours preparing practice, thinking about their players and teams and how they can help them get better, scouting opponents, preparing game plans, improving their own coaching skills and spending hours on the road travelling around the country.

H: Who is the greatest British player you have coached or coached against and why?

Dave Titmuss: There are two guys that I admire neither of whom qualifies through naturalisation or dual-nationality (nothing wrong with that!) and who had impressive professional careers. I worked briefly with both of them and unfortunately had to coach against them. I had zero impact as a coach on either of their careers and truly respect what they’ve achieved so far.

Firstly, Steve Bucknall: Steve’s greatest qualities in my opinion were that throughout his career he played fearlessly, he had an incredible work ethic and, if you believe as I do that hustle is a talent, then he had it in bucket loads. And what an incredible achievement that through his own hard work a kid from London ends up competing in the NBA, the best League in the world in a sport that isn’t soccer.

As England Coach I was involved for a short period as an Assistant on the GB team that Steve played on and I also coached against him in the pro-League when he played for what was then a franchise based in Sunderland and I was at Thames Valley Tigers.

A little while back I invited Steve to come in and speak at an Academy I set-up as part of Hemel Storm. The young men were spellbound by him; he was inspirational talking about his basketball life and what it took to be successful. He continues today working for basketball and its development in the UK.

Andrew Sullivan is the other guy. I saw him develop as a kid under the guidance of coach Joe White and blossom into a terrific talent, a pro in Europe and the UK and a classy role model for the next generation.

I also coached against him at the senior club level and had the pleasure of working briefly with him on an England Junior team. He had great instincts as a player and could guard just about any position on the floor. Andrew’s commitment to GB as a player and former Captain has been outstanding and continues today in his new role as an Assistant Coach with the men’s team.

H: Recently, Tony Garbelotto has been appointed as Head Coach of GB, the first British Head Coach in the ‘new era’ – what do you think of his appointment, and how important do you think it is to have British coaching staff with the National Team?

Dave Titmuss: Well I’m answering this at a time when Coach G has had a tough baptism and the funding battles continue.

I’m personally delighted to see Tony at the helm. I think that the greatest assets he brings to the role are his pragmatism and resilience; both qualities that he’ll need in abundance. Having coached him briefly as a junior and then later worked with him on a number of coaching projects and also coached against him in the BBL, I got to know him pretty well over the years.

I’m not at all surprised at his thoughts regarding encouraging young players (and Coaches) or his fundamental belief and preference for the running game coupled with trying to control opponents with defensive pressure.

I don’t think his basic philosophy has changed since his early days although of course his experiences and successes in coaching and study of the game will allow him to make great decisions when preparing GB for competition.

Hopefully he will be able to select players to his favoured approach but, as I said, I’m confident that his pragmatism and experience will help him find a way. He’s terrific at relating to players and this will stand him in good stead when the national team Programme hits bumps in the road – as it will! Good luck to Coach G and hopefully let’s look forward to the rise of our National Team.

Coaching at national team level should be a meritocracy. If the coaching talent we have is mostly British then that’s great too and sends the right message to aspiring Coaches starting out on the pathway.

I really like the look of the current GB staff (as well as England’s staff). Our challenge is that with some notable exceptions the indigenous players in the leading nations abroad tend to be more fundamentally sound and experienced in high level competition than our own.

And on a personal note, I’m delighted to see that Mark Lloyd – without doubt the best ever Team Manager of national teams – will be working with England’s Commonwealth Games’ squad.

He has managed for me in a number of national team settings and is absolutely brilliant. As a Coach himself he understands the importance of preparation and especially how to manage things at a competition site.

H: What do you think is lacking in terms of professional development for people who want to coach in the UK? What issues or barriers did you personally face?

Dave Titmuss: There are probably not enough opportunities at the chalk face: it can be a steep learning curve but there’s no substitute for practical experience combined with study. And I think it’s essential that rookie coaches get as broad an ‘education’ as possible and don’t rely on learning from just one source.

There’s no magic formula, no ‘right’ way to coach and it’s too easy for inexperienced coaches to get hung up on believing that such and such an approach is the only way because that’s what so-and-so says.

And the so-and-so in question is probably just regurgitating details of the system that they played under as if it were the golden truth and be enshrined in tablets of stone!

There are just about as many ways to coach this game as there are coaches. Obviously, there are some tried and tested principles that exist and which should be respected but, beyond these, coaches should keep open and critical minds and learn from their own experience and study.

In my early days, I attended all the various levels of coaching courses put on by the governing body that were mostly written and tutored by folk with teaching backgrounds. I learned some good stuff about practice methodologies, how to teach effectively and how to break the game down into its basic parts. But not a lot about being a professional Head Coach! So that’s why as I mentioned earlier I took matters into my own hands, conducted my own research and became largely self-taught.

H: Do you see recurring problems/issues with young up and coming British coaches? Anything in particular standout?

Dave Titmuss: From what I see, and occasionally hear, I think that younger coaches are improving as the various educational initiatives kick in and many of them actively seek knowledge, mentoring and practical experience.

The biggest weakness I see and which I’ve mentioned elsewhere is the teaching of ‘reading’ and perhaps also there’s an over-reliance on system on both sides of the ball without reference to the abilities of the players they’re working with.

H: What are the biggest issues you find that young British kids have in terms of playing/understanding the game? Are their recurring issues? What advice would you give to them?

Dave Titmuss: Whenever I see youngsters playing in our elite leagues I’m usually struck by their general athleticism but also how decision-making and perceptual skills seem to be lacking. I think the reason for this is that a lot of kids don’t develop technically to the point where their confidence level allows their field of vision to widen which is the key to potentially making better decisions.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this interview, the ability to ‘look’ and ‘see’ is vital to developing a high basketball IQ combined with actual experience of playing. Kids would become far more valuable players if they focused on practising and perfecting techniques – with and without the ball – that then allowed them to ‘read’ what was happening on the floor.

And if coaches were less prescriptive with younger players and instead of doing the reading for them taught them how to do it themselves, the results might be surprising.

H: Similarly, what one piece of advice would you give to other young up and coming coaches who want to progress in this sport?

Dave Titmuss: Ideally if you want a professional career in coaching find ways to visit countries where basketball has a higher profile and soak up knowledge about every aspect of the coaching process. Make yourself employable, build your CV and then hopefully there will be increasing opportunities here in professional basketball or in educational settings in the years ahead.

H: What do you believe it will take for British basketball to reach its magical ‘potential’ that so many people speak about?

Dave Titmuss: Firstly, basketball will have ‘arrived’ in this country when stories and features appear regularly in the sports pages of the tabloids and British hoops are consistently covered on mainstream terrestrial television.

When this happens it means we’ll have seeped into the British consciousness and be attracting the resources and leadership we need.

Over the years I don’t think there has been clarity around how to grow the game. It seems to me that every time new leadership arrives there’s another bloody ‘audit’ done with opinions sought from ‘stakeholders’ and then another set of plans are drawn up to address exactly the same issues which anyone involved in the sport who thinks about its future is already fully aware of.

All any leader needs to do is open a filing cabinet at ‘basketball HQ’ and pull a copy of one of the many studies that have been done over the years; the challenges are all there in black and white – perhaps needing an update – and even some creative solutions.

We KNOW a successful national team is a key, we KNOW infrastructure, accessibility and facilities are hurdles, we KNOW the game must become more attractive to commercial funding and not rely on it’s tortuous and slavish relationship with grant funding, we KNOW terrestrial television coverage is a must, and we KNOW career pathways for Coaches, players and officials are essential.

As a coach I think that the word ‘potential’ is a dangerous one – how many promising young players have we all seen fall by the wayside – because we know that potential can never be realised without concerted effort, motivation and intelligent action. Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved easily and that’s certainly the case in basketball’s story.

It’s just a matter of little victories and big defeats as the game drip drips into the UK sporting landscape. Basketball has everything going for it as a spectator and participation sport. We just need to let the secret out – it will happen.

Actually, one phone call to John Amaechi will put anyone straight about basketball in the UK and I’m serious about that. I’ve heard and read his views and think they should be listened too.

H: After your ‘retirement’ last year as a Head Coach, you’re now working as mentor with Hemel and in senior player development – what is next for you, what else, if anything, do you want to achieve?

Dave Titmuss: Firstly, I want to see Hemel back in a hopefully enhanced professional league. That would be fantastic and after seven years of establishing ourselves I think we have all the pieces in place to begin the climb.

In terms of coaching, I’d like to coach a team to one more national title before I really hang ‘em up, right now there’s no coaching vacancy at Hemel and I hope there won’t be for the foreseeable future because we’ve got an excellent Head Coach in Robert Youngblood.

But we do have expansion plans at the club so that might provide me with an opportunity… I love running practice, I love preparing for and coaching games, I love the responsibility of leadership and I love the relationships that develop with players. I’m also a great believer in the coaching fraternity and enjoy talking with other Coaches on the circuit about the challenges we all face.

Lastly, I’m planning on writing a technical coaching book.

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