Balancing Relationships while Changing Teams

I spoke with former Monique LeBlanc recently over Zoom. Coach LeBlanc is taking over the head coach position at Brown University after spending nine years at Merrimack College. For any coach that leaves one program and joins another this transition can be hard. You leave behind traditions and relationships of players that you cared for. At the same time, the new program means starting traditions and new relationships from scratch. I asked Coach LeBlanc about leaving Merrimack and starting up again at Brown.

Message to Former Players

For almost a decade, Coach LeBlanc dedicated herself to the Merrimack program. She guided the program to twenty wins in their first season in Division I and is the school’s all-time leader in wins. Given the situation with coronavirus, she informed players over Zoom of her decision to move on to Brown University. After recruiting these players and mentoring them on and off the court, Coach LeBlanc did not have the luxury of saying goodbye in person. It did not make the situation easier, but the players and coach took everything in stride.

Coach LeBlanc’s biggest point of emphasis in leaving is to keep the promise she made in the recruiting process. “I’m here for you.” The message to players in the initial announcement and in private Zoom calls was clear. Off the court, many former players transition into becoming friends with their coaches once they are done playing. Coach LeBlanc encourages this shift in these relationships.

At the same time, she made it clear to players that on the court they need to advocate for themselves. She does not want to be a sounding board if players are unhappy. If they are struggling with their play or disagree with the direction of the new coaching staff, players need to direct their focus on what they can control. On an individual level, spend extra time in the weight room, film room, and gym to improve their outcomes. If players suggest that the coach is the issue, they need to communicate with the coach. The current coach.

The idea to balance “I’m here for you” versus “fight your battles” is defining boundaries. Occasionally reaching out to a player because of a memory or wishing them well is appropriate. If the shoe were on the other foot, as a coach you would not want outside influences talking negatively about you. Do not put a different coach in that same position.

Message to Current Players

I was especially curious to hear what Coach LeBlanc is doing with the new players at Brown. Depending on what state you live in, high school coaches are often prohibited from working with players out of season. As a Division I college sport, Coach LeBlanc is usually able to work with the team on a limited basis during the summer, but not this year. As a result of the timing of her hiring, COVID has forced Coach LeBlanc cannot physically work with the players just like many high school coaches never can.

She told me that she has met with players over Zoom and has done next to nothing with regards to basketball. All the players that were originally recruited to come to Brown are staying. And they also have maintained the players that were underclassmen last season. Coach LeBlanc is enjoying the process of getting to know these players and establishing new relationships. She also recognizes the importance of talking about Black Lives Matter and social justice with the team given the current climate of the country.

Keep an Open-Mind Regarding Old Regime

Basketball conversations are eventually going to happen. Coach LeBlanc wants to try to implement similar systems on the court that she used at Merrimack including a 2-3 zone. She also hopes that the team is open to some of the traditions that the players at Merrimack grew to love. Most noteworthy is the team retreat. Getting the freshmen acclimated with the pre-established team culture and creating a slightly new culture is essential. At the same time, Coach LeBlanc does not want to extinguish any traditions that the former coaching staff put in with the current players.

An assistant coach I know told me a story about a regime change that took place at his school. He said that a new coach came in and immediately bashed the old regime and pronounced that he was going to completely rebuild everything. On the surface, the enthusiasm of the coach was reciprocated with enthusiasm from the players and their families. Privately though the assistant got a couple text messages from key returners asking if certain things in the program remain. Even the assistant expressed a little fear about losing certain parts of the program that were built.

Coaches obviously need to believe in what they are getting the players to execute. Regardless of the success or lack of success of the old regime, the new coach needs freedom to run the program they want to run. There is a slight amount of balance that goes into this transition though. Be mindful of the players. They are going to keep playing for you – a stranger. Why? They still enjoy the game and hope to enjoy it with you. The old regime probably did something well to help them enjoy the game, and you should strive to keep some elements of that as you establish a new direction for the program.

Past Conversations with Coach LeBlanc

Every year I attend a practice and do an hour chat session with Coach LeBlanc. Coach LeBlanc’s humility and willingness to help me has made her a bit of a mentor to me. Our past conversations have ranged on subjects ranging from rebounding rates to recruiting to shot selection. I am optimistic that her ability to make the complex parts of the game seem simple to the players at Brown and she will enjoy tremendous success. Heck, in the Ivy League she can even stay a little more on the complex side if she likes. More importantly, I also think that she will maintain relationships with players at Brown and continue to do so off the court at Merrimack.

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