I spoke with Dracut boys basketball coach Brian Myers recently. Coach Myers made the jump from Lowell High School where he coached the girls team previously. He has been coaching at Dracut for two seasons and they have qualified for the state tournament each year. In his first season, the team went from being 1-19 before he arrived to winning Division II North and playing at the Boston Garden. I asked Coach Myers about that turnaround and the buildup to it.
First Step Build the Staff
Coach Myers said the first thing he did when he got to Dracut was bring people that were also brand new to the program. The adults leading the players had a completely fresh perspective. This decision helped players hit the mental reset button. Any bad habits that players had in the past were still going to be addressed eventually by the coaching staff, but initially players needed to develop a competitive mentality. The main idea he wanted everyone in the program to embrace was that all that matters is today.
Second Step Build Culture
Coach Myers acknowledged that they had some really good players when he started. While the team was 1-19 the previous season, there were some players with high potential returning from the previous season and even transferring back from private schools. Combining the personnel with the change in leadership, players had reason to believe things could be different.
The three words that Coach Myers emphasized most were accountability, preparation, and most notably competition. Their practices were extremely structured, but if a drill went long Coach Myers was fine with it providing they were going hard. They tried to design every drill to have winners and losers. At the beginning of the season, he wanted the players to be physical in practice. And they followed through with his request. At times, guys would get heated, but as almost any coach would agree this is exactly what is needed for optimal practices.
In terms of accountability, Coach Myers told me that communication was something they stressed all of the time. The point they drove home to players was that if you can talk on a bus or talk after practice, why can’t you talk on the court? They would do shell every day. Dracut liked to do disadvantage because it forced rotations and forced communication.
Third Step Leaders Emerge
When Coach Myers took over, he did not inherit players that were captains form the previous coaching staff. Rather than name a captain when he was relatively unfamiliar with the players, he pressed on with no formal captains. Coach Myers said they had kids step up despite formally picking a captain.
Brooks High School Coach John McVeigh also endorses the idea of not having captains. Over the course of time, I find myself increasingly open to the idea of not having a captain. Our team has always named captains since I have been with the school, so it is tough to distance myself from the process. I also believe there are benefits to showing younger players what is expected from a captain so they can strive to have those values. At the same time, if you just have leaders without any formal title, then younger players will instinctively follow those examples too.
Step Four Compete Against Great Teams
Competing against great teams will look different in different situations. For some teams that have had recent struggles in small school conferences, it means competing against other small schools. Coach Myers happened to be coaching one of the better conferences in the state. Seven of the schools compete at the Division I level, three compete at Division II, and Dracut is the lone school in Division III. These are not just any Division I or Division II teams either, these are teams that usually fare quite well against other Division I and Division II teams.
During the regular season and before their tournament run, Dracut lost to some of these upper tier teams. Some coaches abhor the idea of moral victories and losing games. There are other coaches that celebrate the process more than the results. And that is what Coach Myers did. His teams would lose to upper tier competition, but they stayed positive through the lumps. They sensed that these schools which were used to beating them with ease were sweating just to get through. They would be down 15 points and then demonstrate resilience to cut leads back to 8.
The regular season experience got the team used to playing on the road in tough environments. Unfortunately, the consequence for sharpening skills against top tier competition meant that their record would not allow them to play a home tournament game. When their regular season concluded, they knew that the higher ranked teams would be good, but they were not intimidated given the schedule they had faced.
Step Five Going from Physical to Mental Prep
In addition to the high emphasis he placed on competition, Coach Myers also wanted the players to feel prepared. In the month of February and heading into March, the team did less physical competition than they had in December. The primary objective behind this of course was to ensure that players remained fresh and healthy. What I found interesting (and affirming in my own coaching practice) was that the team actually watched their tournament opponents more than they watched their own film.
The coaches were constantly aware of who they might play next and were ready to flip the page if the team got to that point. That said, they never gave any of this information to the players. The staff knew that even though each game along the path was winnable, it was also a game they could lose. As it turned out, they played three consecutive games that went down to the final possession.
Coach Myers was quick to point out that they did not drastically make changes in the postseason. In watching the film of upcoming opponents, the players and staff recognized what minor tweaks could be necessary defensively. They prepared the players and kept the idea of a box and one ready in case they needed it. In a couple games they switched to this defense and changed the momentum. On the offensive end, they ran simple plays and sets. It could just simply be a high ball screen to put a player in position to make a play.
I got the impression Coach Myers’ humility was a huge factor in the turnaround process. He rarely used the word “I” throughout our discussion and consistently credited the players. During timeouts, he would calmly remind them, “We’re here. Just do what we do. We’re going to be fine.” He let the players play instead of over-coaching or making them robotic. They kept the game simple, and in the end that is what all coaches are striving for.