With lengthy experience as a coach in eight countries, he can confidently speak about navigating and adapting to cultures that differ greatly from each other. Today, close to his 60th birthday, he says he feels exactly as he did 20 years ago – the learning continues and the fire for the game keeps burning.
The current coach of the Iranian National Basketball Team talks about acting as a leader and role model while his teams keep changing along with the physical surroundings.
You’ve stayed in the game for almost 30 years. What’s your secret?
Resilience is extremely important for coaches. Some develop a thick skin while others can’t handle the pressure anymore at some point.
I still have fun at the competition and I see myself as a learning system. Willingness to develop new qualities is essential.
How do you prepare yourself for new cultural challenges again and again?
I try to get closer to the mindset of the new culture I’m moving to beforehand. Books and conversations help, but they can’t replace on-site experience. Especially in Iran the discrepancy was huge.
As soon as you arrive in a new country, it’s important to stay humble. The mentality of having an answer for everything with western knowledge and values just doesn’t work. Additionally, you need a lot of sensitivity and patience.
Otherwise you are only harming yourself. For example, in Iran, planning for the future isn’t considered that important. You need time and strong nerves to change deep-rooted practices.
Has coaching the Iranian National Team been your biggest challenge so far?
My biggest challenge was Russia. In Volgograd I really needed to be able to take some blows and setbacks. It’s not easy when the President also plays basketball and wants to join in the game!
On the team, there were six Americans and six Russians. Cliques developed, and team identity was practically non-existent. To cope with the situation, I first talked to the leaders of both groups and pointed out how their behavior negatively affected their game and performance. Once they realized that cliques were the reason for their weak performance as a team, the situation improved.
How do you get players from different social and cultural backgrounds to work together?
Respect for the coach stems strongly from his/her competence. You also need to find common ground to communicate with each player – authentically and honestly, also in unpleasant situations.
When the coach takes an interest in the person behind the player, doors open up.
Appreciation, respectful interaction, trust, and identification with people and the basketball program are a strong and sustainable motivation.
When you feel your leadership in a group is questioned, how do you react?
You need to have your finger on the pulse of the group at all times, sense mood swings early on in order to get them under control before they turn into serious problems.
An honest willingness to change yourself is just as important as direct one-to-one conversation. Sometimes, however, a decision or a punishment for unacceptable behavior is part of the game as well. Appropriateness, stringency, and clarity are always important.
What important lessons have you learnt from the players you’ve coached?
During my time in Leverkusen I learnt how to relax in times of extreme pressure, by watching the point guard Clinton Wheeler. Another big influence was Dirk Nowitzki. His work attitude and strong will to always improve impressed me and got me working harder.
You’ve won nine German Championships. How do you handle success and what about setbacks?
Success is first and foremost a relief for me because it’s proof that I’ve mastered a difficult challenge.
I’ve never viewed success as a personal triumph. There are no pictures of me cheering with a trophy on my wall.
Next, I need to figure out what the team needs to do to march ahead. Is the famous kick in the butt needed, or do I need to be gentler, or make tactical and strategical changes.
What are your next career goals?
I strongly believe that if you do your job as well as possible, opportunities will pop up. That’s why I don’t have a detailed plan for the future.