Shawn Dennis: Zen and the art of Japanese basketball coaching

Professional coaching can often be a fish-out-of-water experience for those that take the lifestyle on, and none more so than the international coaching circuit.

For veteran coach Shawn Dennis, his journey from abrupt unemployment in Australia's NBL, to head coach of the Shiga Lakestars in Japan forced him to radically reconstruct how he approached the art of coaching. And while the challenges have often required radical approaches, it has been a highly rewarding experience.

Basketball, like any other business, has a cold ruthlessness that can reveal itself at the drop of a hat. It was that sudden harshness that would catapult Dennis on his journey.

As the head coach of the Townsville Crocodiles from 2013 until 2016, Dennis was at the helm of a club he was certain was building towards something special. With rising stars like Mitch Norton and Nick Kay on the roster, as well as 2015 MVP Brian Conklin, the Crocodiles were a young team still learning to win, and bursting with potential. A month after Dennis re-signed with Townsville to continue on as the head coach, the doors finally closed on the Crocs on April 14, 2016. The 2016 NBL Coach of the Year was without a job, and the project he and his staff had been building over the last three seasons was to be left incomplete and unfulfilled.

“We were all pretty devastated because we felt like we were putting together a really great young and talented team, and we’d been working really hard to build that,” said Dennis.

“So after that I had nothing. There were no jobs available.”

So Dennis did what any hungry and entrepreneurial coach would do. He began making some calls. Through connections via fellow coach Rob Beveridge, paired with some fortuitous timing, Dennis got a job running a coaching clinic in Japan later that year.

While conducting the clinics he caught the eye of Tochigi Brex assistant coach Ryuzo Anzai and the head coach of the team at the time, Tom Wisman. In a twist of fate, Wisman also happened to be Dennis’s former coach when he played for the Newcastle Falconers in the NBL.

The stars seemed to be aligning, and after returning home Dennis received an offer from Tochigi Brex to be an assistant coach. After a championship year with Tochigi as an assistant, Dennis was appointed head coach of the Otsu based Shiga Lakestars in 2017. Quite an odyssey, and all in the space of a few months.

“I went from not knowing what the hell I was going to do, to ending up in Japan,” said Dennis wryly.

However, while he was back in a head coaching job, it was to be nothing like his previous experiences. Being a head coach is difficult at the best of times, but factor in an occasionally impregnable language barrier and you have yourself a puzzle for the ages.

Ostu is situated on the southern shores of Lake Biwa, and has a population of roughly 350,000. Although close to the city of Kyoto, it is off the beaten track when it comes to English speakers. In fact, they are rare to non-existent.

“I can go a month without seeing another foreigner,” said Dennis. “So the language barrier can be a real problem at times. And it’s difficult during games because you’ve got to say things on the run.

“Going from English to Japanese can be really difficult to interpret and when you have to get a message across quickly sometimes important details get missed. And that’s a situation where you have to come up with simple phrases. I’ve had to really dumb down some things. And they take a lot longer to implement as a foreign coach.”

With language, Dennis had to learn to navigate the issue of coding and decoding meaning for both himself and his players, a complex challenge that took time and patience to get to grips with. However, the language was only the tip of the iceberg. Whilst simultaneously trying to systemise a way of communicating in his alien surroundings, Dennis also had to negotiate the often jarring cultural difference between his home of Australia and his new Japanese workplace.

The differences were numerous, and arose in some unexpected ways, from the apprehensive temperament of the Japanese players in his charge to the uncompromising perfectionism of the team’s management.

Yet one cultural difference, in particular, required Dennis to completely rethink his image as a coach, cultivated from years of being around western basketball cultures. It was immediately apparent that his aggressive temperament, incredibly common in western basketball leagues, was ineffectual in Japan, and often produced negative results.

In Australia, Dennis was a coach recognised for his spirited persona on the sidelines. In Japan, Dennis had to completely rewire the way he engaged with his players.

“My wife jokingly said that a lot of people in Australia wouldn’t recognise me on the sidelines,” chuckled Dennis. “I’ve become a lot calmer. Also, I think I’ve become a better teacher because of that language barrier and trying to find different ways to teach aspects of the game.

“I was quite animated and passionate on the sidelines [in Australia] and would get into it. [But] in Japan you can’t be like that. They confuse that passion for anger, so they think you are getting angry, and they don’t realise that you are actually in full control.”

Plucked out of the ashes of the Townsville Crocodiles and placed on the front line of an expanding frontier of Asian basketball, Dennis, through sheer necessity, had to radically remodel his coaching approach. However, the parameters imposed on him by his unfamiliar environment has shaped him for the better, and has equipped him for future endeavours in a way the security and safety of Australia never could.

“I think I’m a far better coach now than when I arrived [in Japan] four years ago. I’ve been forced to educate myself more to try and find ways to better teach the guys what we are trying to do,” reflected Dennis.

“The international stage teaches you more and you’re forced to learn more.”

After losing his chance in Townsville, Dennis has an opportunity to bring a developing team into the light. With his newly acquired skills and knowledge, the former Crocodile head coach is striving to make Shiga Lakestars into a contender, as well as a club players yearn to play for.

“That’s the long term goal. To build a program that players want to be a part of.”