I spoke with Wilmington High School girls coach Jessica Robinson recently. My team competes in the same division for the state tournament as Coach Robinson’s team, so I scouted a game they played last year. Her team trailed by 18 points at halftime. Naturally I counted them out of the game, but decided to stick around for the start of the second half to see what adjustments they made. They ended up coming back to win. I asked Coach Robinson about the origins of this comeback and she told me sometimes simple old school motivation works.
More Culture Than X’s and O’s
Coach Robinson typically gives the players a couple minutes to themselves during halftime. Players have the freedom to speak more candidly without the coaching staff present. In the game they trailed by 18, Coach Robinson allowed even more time than usual for the players to work things out.
The game I watched also happened to be the last of the regular season. Coach Robinson had exhausted the X’s and O’s for ten weeks at that point. Adjustments are still important, but at this juncture in the season mindset matters more. When the second half began, Coach Robinson did not see the change she hoped for. She called timeout and sternly challenged the group.
She knew that one of the players was preoccupied with matters off the court. To stir this player and the rest of the team, she felt like she needed to be emotional. That is when she applied old school motivation of trying to light a fire for her players. Collectively, the team did not move the ball well and she told them that in the huddle. The final point she implored them was to just make one play that showed their coach [her] what they were truly capable of. The team responded by making the one play, and from there momentum took over.
Trying to Meet High Expectations
At this point in the season, Wilmington’s record was 14-5. It did not look promising at the beginning though. They began the season 0-3. The team entered the year with high aspirations and so did the coach. Coach Robinson told me in reflection afterwards the kids are going to be kids when it comes to expectations. They know when they are good the year before and have many players returning. When they started off 0-3, Coach Robinson challenged them as well.
She vividly remembers the conversation in the visiting locker room after the third straight loss to begin the season. She did not mind the results, but their effort was far too low. In that moment, she decided to make herself the enemy for the players. Many times today when people hear that coaches are not using positive reinforcement it is an alarming call. Coach Robinson still had her best players interest at heart. Being tough one hundred percent of the time on the team means losing them. Picking your spots though can give them a jolt from time to time.
Enjoy the High School Experience
John McNamara told me a couple off-seasons ago that he wants players to enjoy the high school experience more. Too often the players are overly concerned about playing in college they forget to enjoy the moment in front of them. Coach Robinson endorses this philosophy as well. Her willingness to get tough on the team stems from the fact that she advocates for the game to be fun daily.
After the team dropped to 0-3, they had a brief break in action for Christmas. Part of their team’s tradition is that alumni return to school for a day and play with the current players. Coach Robinson listened to advice from former players on the unexpected start. Getting perspective from people that knew the culture and system without the emotional baggage of that moment helped. The current players also benefitted. Their talent started to rise to the surface and the team started celebrating each other. As Coach Robinson told me having fun became a point of emphasis in every game. It became one of three messages each time out.
Relationships Make Feedback Work
I listened to Kevin Eastman on a podcast with Chris Oliver recently. Eastman wrote the book Why the Best Are the Best and one of his anecdotes in this podcast was on Greg Popovich. Coach Pop can be ruthless at times with his players, but he is also famous for the way in which he gets to know his players off the floor. Coach Robinson’s ability to challenge players during hard moments is only successful because of the relationships she establishes prior to these moments.
In scouting their team I quickly realized that three players took nearly 80 percent of their shots. I wanted to know what conversation she had with the rest of the team to get them to buy in. She told me last year she never had a conversation like this. They preach that everyone is integral to the team’s success by how they work at practice and how well they play defense. For the players that almost never get in, Coach Robinson told me their eleventh or twelfth players are often shocked when they make the team. From a talent standpoint, they lack may lack skills, but from a character standpoint they excel.
At the end of the day, she’d rather coach a team that upholds values that than a selfish team that wins a few more games. And it shows in the way she treats her players.