The other day I took part in a chat with five other high school basketball coaches. One of the things we discussed was a lack of mental toughness in many of today’s players. We related it back to upbringing, instant gratification, and a results-driven culture. One way to show kids how to be mentally tough is to look at higher levels of basketball that are accessible to them. In Massachusetts, the Celtics are as high as it gets. What is interesting about the mental toughness that the team brings is that much of it seems to come from their coach. The character of Brad Stevens helps reinforce a message of mental toughness on the court.
Brad Stevens Humility
When I spoke with Erik Johnson last week, Coach Johnson told me he had an opportunity to watch a few Celtics practices. Coach Johnson learned by watching how the Celtics defended different screening actions. What impressed Coach Johnson was not just their execution, but how Stevens openly admitted that he struggled with teaching these actions.
The depth and detail to which the Celtics go surpassed even what Coach Johnson had seen in the ACC with Boston College. Some of it was perplexing. Stevens acknowledged that is how he felt initially coming from the college game too. He credits the D-League coaches and veteran staff members for teaching him new techniques. He also gave credit to them on how to defend point guards involved in ball screens. And he does this sort of thing with high regularity.
If a coach credits the staff around him or her, that will empower those coaches to the players and parents in a program. Players being around a coach that struggles also will help the players embrace their own struggle. As author Daniel Coyle relates in The Culture Code, vulnerability is contagious and demonstrates belonging. If a coach wants to build mental toughness, model it by demonstrating humility as Brad Stevens does.
How Brad Stevens Utilizes Analytics
Going back to his time at Butler, Stevens’ reputation as a coach centered on analytics (see 2:25 into this video from PTI). Stevens and his staff have a much deeper knowledge than the players about the numbers they study. In that regard, they are no different from 99% of high school, college, or professional coaches. Where Stevens is most effective though is how he disseminates that information.
Breaking down every number is information overload. Instead of speaking in numbers he relies on keys. Stevens does not use fifteen words when thirteen will do. One thing Coach Johnson told me was that when the Celtics scheduled a 45-minute shoot around, it was not going to last 50 minutes.
In game number 71 against Oklahoma City, the team recognized the fact that Corey Brewer likes to shoot corner three’s. Given what they had to defend with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the Celtics were willing to live with it. And in the fourth quarter (see 8:46 on the link) they got burnt. It is the type of play that Stevens will applaud even after the result burns the team. Stevens sticks to his principles especially at the most adverse times.
Brewer wound up 1 of 6 for the game on corner three’s. If he was 4 of 6, maybe the Celtics would have adjusted. Stevens is humble enough to recognize that adjustments are necessary to the game plans that he and the staff come up with.
An example included never doubling Joel Embiid last year in the playoffs. Embiid thought he was unstoppable one on one. For the most part, the Celtics lived with this concept. In the fourth quarter late in the series Al Horford was in foul trouble. The Celtics finally had to come and help. The players knew a priority was to make sure J.J. Redick and other shooters did not get open looks.
Stevens and the staff had numbers, but the message did not require the numbers. The keys explained the players job and the trust the players developed for the coaching staff enabled the execution.
Brad Stevens’ Demeanor
What Coach Johnson gained most from watching the Celtics is the demeanor of Brad Stevens. Coach Johnson typically avoids getting too high or too low. He also tries to remain objective in his analysis, but uses positivity more often than negativity.
At one point during the Eastern Conference finals, Doris Burke did an interview with Stevens. Somehow the ESPN production staff did not get the audio of it and so she had to start over. Nobody watching would have thought to question Stevens. That is because he gave whatever answer he had with patience and poise. When Doris Burke apologized the next day Stevens dismissed it by telling her the timeouts were too long anyway. That is mental toughness. That is a coach demonstrating to his team what mental toughness is.
The Aron Baynes Case Study
On the court, you can see how Stevens’ demeanor develops the mental toughness of the players. Aron Baynes did not attempt one three-pointer during the 2016-2017 NBA season. He attempted a grand total of seven in his first five NBA seasons. Toward the end of last season, Stevens thought that needed to change. Nobody was guarding Baynes on the perimeter and he had all day to load up.
According to Coach Johnson, Baynes worked on the three-pointer in practice. And it started to show up in games. In just 19 playoff games, Baynes attempted 21 threes. Three times what he had attempted in five prior seasons. Even more improbably, he made 48% of them.
The story is a great example of building skill during the season. It is the opposite of instant gratification for Baynes who might have never entertained the possibility of shooting threes. A player does not have such a radical shift without a coach somewhere in the background saying, “I want you to shoot these.” At the highest level, players can still become better and add elements to their games. It makes me believe that coaches really need to think carefully about putting limits on any skill – including mental toughness.