Over the weekend I met with each player to conduct exit interviews as our abbreviated season concluded. It was the first time we held exit interviews virtually, but it will not be the last. Finding mutually beneficial times created more focused conversation.
If off-season in sports is like water to a plant, consider exit interviews the irrigation system. Coaches need to carefully consider not just how players are going to get better, but more hear directly from the players why they want to get better.
Exit Interviews Question One: Give Open-Ended Questions Early
The book Coaching Athletes to Be Their Best offers several helpful suggestions in carrying out conversations with players. One essential theme that came from the book is, “People are better persuaded by the reasons which they themselves discovered than by those that come into the mind of others.” In other words, do not start out the interview by telling a player he or she needs to develop a left hand or increase their three-point percentage. Begin with a question.
The question that I ask each player is to rank the overall experience of the season from a scale of 1 to 10. One being the worst season imaginable and ten being the most enjoyable experience possible. Inevitably almost every player is going to say numbers that register between the two extremes. That answer lends itself to two follow up questions. Why wasn’t the season a 1? Why wasn’t the season a 10?
Players open up and get specific after these follow-up questions. What I am trying to uncover for them is what about the game they find motivating and what puts them off. Without learning why the player feels motivated by their sporting experience, discussing how they can improve is irrelevant. It is essential that coaches refrain from giving their opinions or refuting what the athlete says initially. Affirm the athlete and make their thoughts feel validated.
Exit Interviews Question Two: Let the Athlete Seek Solutions
Athletes are going to come up with flaws in their experience. It could be directed towards you, their teammates, or even external circumstances such as COVID. Whatever the flaw may be, invite players to consider solutions to improve the situation moving forward. The authors from Coaching Athletes to Be Their Best offer several that I find to be revealing.
- What changes are you considering?
- How would you like things to be different?
- What would be the best outcome, as you see it?
- How do you see the best way forward?
- What do you need the most in this situation?
The hope is that athletes will generate their own solution to a potential problem. And since the athletes discovered their answer, they are more likely to own and embrace their solution as well.
Exit Interviews Question Three: Focus on Player Development
Chances are players may already mention what they see are their individual strengths and weaknesses. If they have not mentioned them, this is the time to extract that information. Simply asking players what areas they would like to work on over the next nine months is effective. They received meaningful feedback through film and coaching all season, so they are typically self-aware.
The conversation surrounding improvement is the one that coaches typically want to investigate immediately. If that is the course you wish to go, consider also getting the athlete to reflect on their strengths. Seeing their strengths will increase a player’s desire to improve. There is an extremely strong correlation between what people find enjoyable and what people are good at. Helping the athlete understand what he or she does well will help them stay motivated toward improving. Another reason to reflect on strengths is that we want players to continue to repeat their good habits. In fact, many coaches choose to only focus on strengths to reinforce that player’s identity. Only one player is going to lead the team in dribbles, so why waste time explaining to a shooter that she needs to reallocate her time to become a better dribbler?
Exit Interviews Question Four: Ask About Player Development
Invite players to share ideas they have about how to develop their weaknesses, strengths, or both. If they have good solutions in mind, follow up by asking what their routine might look like on a day to day or weekly basis. I have found player’s perception of what is possible to be at extreme odds with the reality of the obstacles that they face. I took a course for math instruction a few years ago with a professor named Andrew Chen. He used the analogy below to describe this perception gap.
At this point, you as the coach can stop fighting the urge to speak. Here is the line that the authors of Coaching Athletes to Be Their Best used, “Can I add in some advice here?”
I wrote up a couple areas of growth for each player before the interview. Many of them were the same since our team principles require the same core fundamentals. Within the language of each though I tried to craft the areas for growth around the player’s strengths. Here is one example I wrote for a player:
Shot fake and attack in 2 dribbles. Getting initial separation is a strength for you. This is the most common way that you get to the free throw line and score. Since that is the case, you need to practice this regularly. It is not good enough to do it on your own, although that is a start. The reason that you did not finish on many of these drives is a result of trying to navigate the defense. Playing 2 v 2 and 3 v 3 is a great way to improve at this.
Collective Drills for Improvement
I begged players to do one on one, two on two, and even offered to find phone numbers of rival teams to organize pick-up five on five play. COVID is still a factor in all of this. I encouraged players to wear masks and hand sanitizer when they play regardless of the stakes of the situation. In the past, players have really struggled to coordinate spontaneous pick-up games. I gave players vignettes of potential text messages they can send to teammates or receive from teammates and how to respond. This might seem like a very simple notion, but a variety of obstacles do get in the way. Teaching players about how to respond and just responding in general to a group text message is worth the time.
Individual Drills for Improvement
Depending on the player’s answers and also my own opinion, I offered four general suggestions for how to work at basketball if there is no way to play with. The first is the make 70 three’s drill. It does involve block shooting, which I am not a fan of but it is also competitive and good exercise. My players generally take between 25 and 30 minutes to complete it. The numbers can easily be lowered so that players only make 35 or 21 three’s instead and do it in a fraction of the time.
The second is the Steve Nash workout. Nash used to take 20 minutes to run through it. Here is a video of the workout which encompasses a variety of shots and here is a shortcut to the types of shots he takes.
The third individual workout is boring, but I gave it with very specific players in mind. These are players that are conscientious and also young. I call it Merrimack pivots because I stole it from Merrimack College. It takes about 5 minutes to go through the entire routine.
Some players told me they wanted to work on dribbling. I did not rank this as a high priority, but I was not going to argue with a player’s desires to improve. When I asked them how they would work on dribbling, their answer averaged out to “dribble for 15 minutes three times per week.” There was no consideration given to whether they should change speeds, stand in place, focus on a certain dribble move, etc. Perhaps their coach is to blame.
Once I heard their plans, I asked permission to give my opinion. I told them to dribble for 3 minutes per day six times per week. The other tips included to make sure they are moving, have their favorite song locked in on their ear buds, and change speeds.
The Method for Accountability
All of this sounds great on paper, but action is the only thing that matters in the off-season. For the last couple off-seasons, our team has tried spreadsheets to track effort. The idea has failed largely because I have forced it on them and I generally do not follow up with them. We are trying it again this year. The only difference is that players seem convinced of the “why” behind it and I have more flexibility in how I follow up with them because COVID rules are different than normal times with coaching out of season.
I asked players why we used a spreadsheet to track information in the past. And their answers confirmed what I wanted to hear. They suggested that the spreadsheet promotes accountability on an individual level and competitiveness on a team level. Before introducing the spreadsheet, one of the players even expressed frustration that she has no idea what her teammates are doing to improve. Later in the interview, I suggested sharing a Google Spreadsheet and her body language instantly approved of the idea. Giving aspirin is much better when you confirm there is a headache.
Less Is More
When I initially started coaching, my expectations in the off-season were sky high. I encouraged players to take 500 shots per day, enroll in camps, and play pick-up. The reality is that almost every player I coach plays multiple sports and is involved in so many activities outside of basketball.
Players are accustomed to hearing speeches about putting in work. When I inquired about the how in their plans, players gave unrealistically ideal responses. “I’ll put in an hour on days where I have spring sports and then two hours during the summer.” They did not think to consider how tired they would be after their spring sport or that it could be 95 degrees over the summer. Nor did they consider how much this deviated from their prior habits.
I advised players to simply keep a ball in their hands. That might mean with ten minutes of free time, take 35 three-pointers. A one on one game only needs to take six minutes with a sibling, parent, or neighbor. The bottom line is that if players are consistent in their efforts to do something, then we will be in a better spot as a program by Thanksgiving.
Exit Interview Conclusions
I closed the interview with a quote from James Clear and two brief questions. Here is the quote from Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly. The breaking of a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.
Simply doing something – ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really – is huge. Don’t put up a zero. It’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up when you don’t feel like it – even if you do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.”
The second to last question asked players to rank their off-season the previous season from a scale of 1 to 10. Most players were tough on themselves. Finally I asked how good their upcoming off-season will be on a 1 to 10 scale. Players offered optimistic numbers based on the idea that they can give anywhere from a couple minutes to thirty minutes each day. Time will tell.
If you have any ideas, questions, or stories to share about your own exit interviews please send me a DM or reach out in the comments.