One Play at a Time : Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part III)

A difficult concept for players to grasp is that it is ok to be disappointed in the result of a game and still feel as if you did your very best and could be proud of your effort. To many times players feel that if they lost they have to be despondent or they’re not real competitors. Often times that is reinforced by how others (coaches and parents) react to a loss, or how they expect players to react.

I’ve never been a great loser, but I’m a good enough of an actor to hide that emotion a bit, so could never be characterized as a poor sport. The coach is the spark that ignites how everyone else is going to react, and as we said in Part II it is important to give players what they need. Sometimes that’s a bit of a pick-me-up after a tough loss. Or tempering the over-exuberance after a big win. You quickly learn that it’s never as bad as it seems, and never as good as it seems.

Keeping players on that even keel helps them over the long-haul. In a year as an Assistant Basketball Coach in which we broke a teams 55 game league winning streak and swept them twice in league  (really exciting) only to lose to them in the championship (devastating). I took that final loss particularly hard, and only with some emotional support from some great friends, survived the evening without being too despondent. The loss haunted me during the off-season as I moved from the high school to the college level.

I had an opportunity to become a college assistant when an Assistant Coach was promoted to Head Coach because the Head Coach moved on. In the interview I thought it would be good to ask why he left and was told he got another job. When I asked where I was told, “The San Antonio Spurs!” I guess that was a pretty good reason to leave. So I figured I was going to have a chance to learn from a guy who learned from a guy that was coaching in the NBA. I was ecstatic.

A few games into the season we were playing a nationally ranked team as big underdogs and found ourselves playing great, with a double digit lead late in the game. Down the stretch, bigger, stronger, and faster took over and they assumed the lead in the final minute. You can imagine the wind go out of the sails of our team and our boisterous home crowd.

However, the emotions turned when we scored on a layup with 7 seconds to go as the crowd went wild. Our players sprinted back on defense. In what seemed like an eternity, they threw the ball into their pre-season All-American who took one dribble and scored on a 70 foot heave off the backboard as time expired for us to lose by 2. Devastated again!

As the head coach talked to the press, I took the long, slow walk back to the locker room. I arrived with players slumped in their chairs and quietly tossing their uniforms in a pile. I stood silently in the corner, just as dejected as they were. Minutes later the door flies open, the head coach bursts through the door and I ducked thinking a flying clipboard was next.

Instead this Gregg Popovich protoge,  Charlie Katsiaficas (we called him “Coach Kat” – you can see why!), had a huge smile on his face and was excited about what a great game we had just played. We played as hard as we had all season, had executed our game plan to a tee, represented our school well, and a one-in-a-hundred shot happened to bounce in at the buzzer. If that shot had missed – we’d be celebrating.

“Don’t allow what happened in the final 7 seconds erase the great game you played in the first 39 minutes and 53 seconds!. Be disappointed – sure, but be proud of how well you played against one of the better teams around!”

Disappointed… but proud!  You can be both! In a situation where they could have felt like their best just was not ever going to be good enough, this instilled great confidence in the team, who went on to have an outstanding season. When players know they aren’t going to endure the “shame” of losing, and instead will be judged by their effort and execution, they are much more apt to give their best in trying to do that.

It was at Pomona-Pitzer that we started talking about playing “Solid: Possession by Possession”. It was a phrase Coach Kat used often, and Gregg Popovich before him. We wanted to approach absolutely every every play with the idea we were going to focus on giving our best effort and execute the skills and strategies we practiced to the best of our ability. We didn’t need to be great every play – just solid. As good as we could be.

We didn’t need to be great every play – just solid. Just as good as we could be. That’s comforting for a player. We wanted to approach the game one possession at a time, regardless of what happened the previous play. “Flush” bad plays and move on from the good ones. Leads, or deficits never really affected their performance because they didn’t really matter. They could approach the next play with confidence because the last one didn’t matter anymore. Nor did the next one.
I took that philosophy with me when I left and become a high school Head Coach. Right down to the t-shirts. I made it a point to the staff we should never talk about winning, and asked them to commit to upholding that philosophy. For a year in practice, pre-game, halftime, or time-outs we never used the word “win” one time.

We didn’t avoid the word because we didn’t want to win or weren’t competitive. Without telling the players why, we practiced every Saturday morning at 10 AM because THAT was what time our division’s championship game tipped off. I wanted our players to be used to playing at that hour of the morning. We were preparing to win, expecting to win – but not dwelling on it.

At a Positive Coaching Alliance’s National Youth Sports Awards I heard legendary football coach, Jim Sochor say, “even your opponent is relatively insignificant.”  We spent a year trying to take the focus off of the scoreboard because it doesn’t really matter in regards to your effort. As my friend Clarence Gaines II  points out, it certainly does as it pertains to the execution of strategy based on time & score. The only thing that matters is NOW. The task at hand.

A basketball game isn’t just one game – it is maybe a hundred mini-games. Fifty or so on offense, and another fifty on defense. Within each of those battles might be a dozen different decisions, skills, techniques, strategies, and tactics that a player has to execute; and each and every second is an adjustment so that you are in the right stance and spot to get it done. The weight of thinking every single one of those plays can be a heavy burden on a player. Playing them One Play at a Time is much easier. What do they say? “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard it’s really hard”. Sports is the same way. Simplify it.

We then broke those games down even further. Rather than our goals being all result oriented or based on typical statistics, instead we set Effort Goals that were designed to improve our execution and  increase the odds we’d get the desired result. For example, rather than worrying about the opponents shooting percentage,  we kept track of contested shots. Shooting percentages drastically decrease when the defense has a hand up on the shooter.

Remember when we said confidence comes from repeated success? Now our players didn’t have to concern themselves with the result and if the opponent was off, or was having a great shooting night to decide whether they did well or not. All they needed to do was make sure they got a hand up on a shooter. Simple thing anyone can do, just by making the decision to do so. One of the “Little Things” we wanted to be “Big” on. If they did that, they were successful – regardless of whether the shot went in or not. And there was a pretty good chance our defense would be better and opponents shooting percentages would be worse because of it. Success in your Effort Goals lead to desired results.

Focusing on effort  and execution in order to get results is important; yet, how the coach and player reacts to an unsuccessful effort may be even more important. While somewhat related to the Mistake Ritual we discussed in Part II, an unsuccessful effort should not really be categorized as a mistake. Recognizing the Unsuccessful Effort lets the player know the coach is noticing and appreciated the player attempting to do the right thing. When they know that – they’ll keep trying until they get it right.

This is a mentality that has to be fostered in practice. You can’t all of a sudden emphasize the importance of the ball when you haven’t respected the basketball all week during practice. It has to be a habit – a mentality. You have to start with the first whistle on the first day of practice. This allows players to approach an important possession with the same level of stress as a random possession in the second quarter.

Early in the year, during a pre-practice “soliloquy” (my players might call it a rant!), I remember saying we should approach every possession, in practice or games,  like it was a “4th quarter in March.” Of course, in high school only the final games are played in March. I wanted to practice the way we wanted to play – and the way we wanted to play in the most important games against the very best teams.

During Positive Coaching Alliance Triple-Impact Competitor Workshops I often ask student-athletes. “How do you play in “Crunch Time” when a close game is on the line?” They invariably reply they will play with more focus and more effort. If so, shouldn’t they have been trying that hard to start with? Concentration? Focus? They should start at tip-off. Had they, maybe the game wouldn’t be on the line. The score, winning or losing, and even your opponent, don’t really matter.

One of the reasons players have trouble during clutch situations is they feel that need to focus more and try harder. My son’s high school baseball coach used to tell him to “try easy”.  Players shouldn’t feel the need to be better at the end of a game. That is what increases the anxiety and lowers confidence. “If I’ve already been giving 100% – how can I be expected to give even more?” The players who are best in the clutch are probably those who have the least drop-off because of this tension and who, instead, continue to perform their best. If every play is played with the same effort and concentration, then every game becomes the same, regardless of the setting. Every possession in practice, preseason, playoffs – or even the championship game should be approached in the same manner.

After a year full of never using the word “WIN” once during a practice, pre-game, half-time talk, or time-out we confidently tipped off at 10:30 AM and had an opportunity to play in the championship game in a 17,000 seat arena that wasn’t anywhere near full – but felt like it. Especially when we got a big blocked shot that led to a deep 3 pointer at the buzzer ending the 3rd quarter, giving us the momentum, and giving the crowd a reason to get loud and crazy. Over the noise I asked the players if they knew what time it was. They looked at each other trying to figure out what answer I was looking for. “Game Time”? Winning Time”? Certainly not I reminded them, “NOW it’s a 4th quarter in March!”  We proceeded to play one of our best fourth quarters and won going away.

At the college level, to culminate March Madness at the Final Four, the Kansas Jayhawks were getting ready to play the Memphis Tigers in the semi-finals. When head coach, Bill Self, addressed his team in the locker room before their most important game to date, he focused on a few things. It wasn’t “winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing,” or “win one for the Gipper” like the legendary fire and brimstone pre-game speeches of Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne.

Instead, Self challenged them to have as much fun playing as he was going to have coaching, and to relax “the best they can.” He reminded them that there would be some “anxious moments” (mistakes), so to just enjoy every second. Before the final against North Carolina he suggested that they continue to play exactly the way they had all year, and to “be ourselves and go have fun!” He created a great environment full of confidence and his team went out in those two games playing as well as they had all year, coming home with a National Championship.

It was fitting that that game was against North Carolina, because the Hall of Fame coach, Dean Smith once said, “Pay attention to  execution, not the score.” He was talking about focusing on effort, not the scoreboard; yet, he retired as the winningest coach in NCAA history.

Dean Smith won by not focusing on winning. Bill Self suggested his players have fun. The scoreboard, and all the distractions that come with it, create anxiety and make players question whether they can catch up – or worry about whether they can hold the lead. And there is nothing fun about worrying. That takes our mind off of the things that are most important, Effort, Learning, and Mistake Management.

Come back and read the conclusion for some “golden” and “magical” ways for Creating Confident and Coachable Players

Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part I)

Rinse, and Repeat : 5 R’s of Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part II)

One Play at a Time : Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part III)

“Magical” Steps to Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part IV)




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