At the conclusion of every season, outgoing seniors and incoming freshmen ensure that a program will be challenged. For the top one or two percent of programs the idea of rebuilding is completely foreign. These are the programs that have a culture and a youth program that are elite. For the rest of us, the turnover on the roster results in occasional growing pains. And that means the players that are holdovers have to either adjust their attitudes or be miserable with the results. I spoke with veteran high school girls basketball coach Matt Willis about rebuilding seasons recently.
Focus on Day to Day
Focusing on day to day It is a boring cliché. There is a reason that clichés become clichés though. They are so popular that they get repeated. Coach Willis is one of the repeaters.
Winning is on the back of every player’s mind and every coach’s mind. If it is the sole purpose for what is driving a team, somewhere along the lines 99% of them will fail. Coach Willis intentionally refrains from setting goals with his team outside of the day to day. Let’s say your team sets out to win the division at the beginning of a season. If you are mathematically eliminated from accomplishing that goal 75% of the way through the season, the players will check out mentally. There is still room for growth and the opportunity to close the season well, but if that does not matter to you it will not matter to them.
External circumstances cannot be the exclusive focus of a coach. When they are, and you are at a low point, the players will sink to the low point too. As Coach Willis told me, the moment you take your foot off the gas, so do they.
Continue to Scout Opponents
John Wooden famously never scouted his opponents. Confidently he would tell his players, “Let them adjust to us.” Obviously that worked well for Coach Wooden, but Coach Willis did not have Bill Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his roster this past season. I was reminded of something my old high school coach Mike McVeigh told me. One of his coaching mentors would scout games on snowy nights when his team was 3-15.
Coach Willis regularly scouts his opponents. He had seen my team before we played them and made observations afterward to me that helped us get better. The part of the scouting equation he was reflective in is how he communicates scouting reports to the players. In focusing on individual and team skill development at practice, he tried to disseminate scouting reports on the fly on game day. Coach Willis now sees that blending the scouting report with skill building in practice is necessary for players to retain game-plan specific concepts.
As he noted, they lost two very close games where more informed communication to the players about the opponent could have shifted the result. All coaches need to reflect after the season and learn. What Coach Willis noted was that playing teams a second time in the season often requires an entirely new perspective. When winning is so hard to come by, if you have a chance as a coach to communicate information that can make a two point or four point difference that is essential. There is a balance to strike between teaching players to be the best they can be and shifting the focus to making the opponent uncomfortable. Ultimately, Coach Willis believes rebuilding teams can be game-plan specific and develop skills.
Life Lesson: Process over Results in Rebuilding Seasons
Coaching at the high school level is more about teaching than anything else. Coach Willis’ final point about rebuilding seasons from the perspective of veteran players is that it is a learning experience. In life, you cannot expect to always be on top. The humility that comes out of losing games is a powerful teacher. Low points are a common denominator for all people, but the perspective of these circumstances is where Coach Willis hopes his players will be different. Rebuilding seasons are a necessary part of the basketball curriculum. Train athletes to focus on day to day improvements. If they resist the temptation to be affirmed by results, they are more likely to embrace a lifetime commitment to making the best of any circumstance.