I just read the book The Captain Class by Sam Walker. Walker’s research indicates the one constant among the greatest teams in history is a captain. All of the captains are incredibly competitive. Competitive often to the point of showing no mercy and no satisfaction. It got me wondering at what point we teach athletes and their coaches the unwritten rule of calling off the dogs versus continuing to run up the score.
One of the captains that Walker analyzes is the New Zealand All Blacks Wayne Shelford. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“After his team beat Wales by fifty points, Shelford told a reporter, ‘I think we could pick it up a little bit.’ When the reporter reminded him that the team had scored ten tries, Shelford shrugged. ‘Yeah, that’s a good tally,’ he said. ‘But you never know, it could’ve been thirteen or fourteen.’”
Encouraging the Competitor
On the one hand, playing a perfect game is impossible. There are too many plays in a game that take place. Coaches want to push the athletes to improve all the time and in many situations. Often blowouts provide easier teachable moments since athletes are not as sensitive to critical feedback. The athletes and the coach are generally more emotionally stable after a win. I recently saw Jalen Hurts speak after Oklahoma’s offense lit up Houston and thought he spoke about process over results as I would want my players to.
Oklahoma is judged somewhat on the margin of victory. At the end of the season the victories are tallied up and human polls judge teams not just on their wins but by the path of those wins. The Sooners also faced a competitive program in this game. Houston is a team that has been to bowl games the last couple of seasons. The game featured scholarship athletes and coaches that have seven figure salaries. It is not quite professional, but at that level if a team gets embarrassed the norm is to give credit to the victors and criticism to the losers.
Showing Compassion to the Opposition
On the other hand, there are many judges in a sporting arena. Parents, school officials, kids, and the opposing coaches are often among them. When a team wins a basketball game 161-2, those judges will likely wonder how the last 100 points made a team better. The consequences of such a lop-sided outcome could mean losing the job.
A 159-point blowout is a radical example of running up the score. The margin of victory has little to no bearing on future games or the team’s standing during the season at the high school level. If the team that scored 2 points in the above instance knew the outcome ahead of time, they would never schedule the game in the first place. It could be a more moderate 50-point blowout as well. If the winning team does not alter strategy during a blowout, it is poor etiquette. Competitors should look to improve, not humiliate. Improving could mean putting the bench in, trying new defenses, or letting forwards handle the ball and guards defend forwards. All of these are experiences that are less familiar, but relevant to player development.
How to Improve When You Are Dominating
When your team has a big lead, it is an ideal time for experimenting. The uniforms are on and the opponent is much less familiar than the one the players see at practice. Trying a zone when your team typically plans man is a good idea or vice versa. Giving forwards the opportunity to run the offense as a point guard will help teach them to see the offense from a different perspective. It will give the player a deeper appreciation for the role of a teammate and also for the potential skills they will need to develop.
Being ahead also allows for tinkering with unique lineups. I have tried to play five guards at once. I want to see what guard decides to take on the toughest matchups defensively on the interior. Typically, players that come off the bench end up playing with other players that come off the bench. I like to mix up players that are regulars in the rotation and those that are not. It creates opportunities that more closely simulate what these players could see. It also comes across as a more genuine opportunity to give them a chance to show what they are capable of.
Communicating Big Leads
Big leads can often evaporate when coaches let the players in on the secret. I try to tell my players that we have had success with one aspect of the game (transition for instance) so let’s work on a different aspect (scoring in half-court). Players easily misinterpret experimentation as a time to relax and get into bad habits. I like to always start off the second half with the mentality that the game is not won. At the same time, remember the opponent is frustrated. Try to avoid calling timeouts to diagram a play. Also stay away from full court pressure.
How to Improve When You Are Dominated
Unfortunately, I have learned a great deal in games that we were not in position to win in the fourth quarter. There are two potential outlooks on getting blown out by the other team. The first is that you had some expectation it was possible. Perhaps you saw the other team play ahead of time or their reputation made you believe that they were capable of dominating. The expectation of facing an elite team does not mean that you necessarily waved the white flag during warm ups, but you were aware of the potential disaster. As a result of the realistic possibility of looking at a crooked scoreboard, your emotion is less likely to get in the way.
The second outlook is that you think the game will be competitive or your team is better. If the opposition puts up a crooked number, coaches tend to lose their cool. Unless the team is apathetic about the drubbing, an overly negative and emotional reaction is precisely what needs to be avoided. As bad as the loss is, it is still just one loss. A negative and overly emotional reaction can cause more damage in the long term than the outcome of the game.
Attitude During Blowouts
Regardless of the type of blowout, try to implore the team to win mini games. At the youth level, a coach that works in our program always gives the players a goal of taking a certain number of shots. He recognizes the low odds of a shot going in, but changes the way that kids perceive the game by measuring something not on the scoreboard. At the high school level, we try to take pride in getting a score and a stop. Winning the game for periods of a minute and forgetting what happened prior to that can be the difference between a player choosing to give maximum effort at the next practice.
I remain calm if the opponent presses, calls timeout, or breaks another unwritten rule of being well ahead. If I start complaining, the team does too. We become less accountable for playing good basketball and take on a victim mentality. If we are not having fun and not improving, we lose more than just the game.
Many coaches believe advocating for the players in moments where another coach is ignorant or distasteful is a part of the role. They step way over the line of advocating though and insight the wrath of the other team’s coach. The public display on both accounts can escalate. And when it does, players have a new reason to be justified in displaying their own poor sportsmanship. If the other team presses, I will encourage my team to break it. If they call timeout, we will use strategy and teach that situation as if the game were tied.
Setting your Schedule
Handling blowouts the right way is imperative as a coach. Nobody is going to play a whole season of close games. Ideally though, we should all shoot for balance in the schedule.
I have coached in seasons where the team has gone 1-21 and other seasons where the team has won the division. I did not know the seasons would turnout that poorly or great. I did have a general idea of each team’s potential though. In years where I know the talent is underdeveloped, I reach out to teams and accept offers from teams that also are rebuilding. The opposite is also true. In the years where my team is expected to be better, I have lined up opponents that my team is slightly worse than on paper. The Internet is a magical place and finding information about potential opponents is not nearly as hard as it was decades ago.
In either scenario, I always ask myself if my team is going to be winning or losing by more than twenty points. If the answer is yes, I never schedule that team. That is not to say that we do not end up winning or losing by thirty, but my intent is never to be in that position.