When our high school season ended in early March, I made our team pick out three measurable goals that they would work toward in the off-season and beyond if necessary. One of mine was to read 37 books (one for each week of the off-season). One of the books that was recommended to me by a few people was Jay Wright’s Attitude. The Villanova head coach has won two of the last three National Champions in part because of this cultural theme. I wrote about my twenty lessons learned from the book back in May.
The book provided concrete insights, but also left me longing for a first hand look of Villanova’s culture. To borrow a quote from Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, I wanted to “know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.” I reached out to Coach Wright shortly thereafter, and long story short, I spent the day on Villanova’s campus last month watching the team practice. And while it was only one practice, it gave me an appreciation not for Villanova as a “natural,” but for the grind that they take to become great. Nothing was more prophetic than the points Coach Wright made on culture.
Picking Up a Teammate on the Floor
I remember watching the scene shown at the 1:33 mark of this clip live. Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson hits the deck in transition as a foul is called and his four teammates sprint to get him up. It happened in the Final Four in April and immediately my thought was my team must watch this play. Unfortunately our season had ended a month before and many months later it still has not begun. My desire to show the play persists.
As I watched the team prepare for practice and looked over their roster and coaches, I noticed the background of an assistant coach. George Halcovage had played his collegiate basketball at Babson College. This is the same Babson College that North Andover High School coach Paul Tanglis stole the idea of sprint to pick up a teammate. As Villanova practiced a month before their first game action, sprinting to pick up a teammate was already a rote procedure at practice. And unsurprisingly, it was necessary throughout.
Playing for one of the best programs in the country, one might think would come with a sense of entitlement. The opposite held true on this October afternoon. At one point, a player missed an assignment in a drill and went to the end of the line. Coach Wright, who kept his voice at one tone the entire practice, tried to give the player feedback. The player initially did not hear him. When Coach Wright directed the player a second time, the player sprinted to the front of the line to give his coach eye contact.
“I’m talking to you [player’s name],” Coach Wright told him. “Whatever is going on in your mind that’s why we can’t execute.”
The player nodded respectfully and went to the end of the line. Nobody on the team gave an evil eye at any of the feedback. It is one thing to tell players you want eye contact, but this vivid example carries much greater weight. When talking to players early in the season, this story is much stickier to share than asking them not to roll their eyes.
Assistant Coaches Refocus Players
When Coach Wright or another coach got on a player for their decision making, another staff member followed up. The player aside would listen in a more private conversation at a lull in the action. In that conversation, the coach would often give a fist bump or a high five as they walked away. I never heard Coach Wright swear. He was objective throughout. He just gave his players very direct feedback. It was the player’s job to use it to improve.
That being said, players are human and they are sensitive. My read on the situation was that the assistant coaches were coming in to follow up on the mistake the players made, but more importantly to shift their mindset. The players were in a controlled scrimmage for much of the practice with the blue team (led by four-year captain Phil Booth) was having a tough day. Coach Mike Nardi repeatedly would implore them with “next play” as their frustration grew.
Players Refocus Players
There is a chain of command at Villanova, but it is also clear that anyone can lead.
At one point, the blue team huddled with one of the coaches and the slogan that became the title of Coach Wright’s book, attitude, was shouted collectively to refocus them on the task ahead. At another point, the blue team was starting to force the issue and tried a deep pass against full-court pressure and turned it over. One of the players ran back on defense and enthusiastically ran to the teammate that had thrown it and said “attitude.” Just as importantly, the teammate who had thrown the pass looked at his supportive teammates in the eyes and accepted the support.
At another point in which the white team had won the drill, Booth and his teammates were going over to the water station where no coaches could hear them and said, “It’s my fault bro.” Accountability in its purest form from arguably the team’s best player. A small factor in why he is a two-time captain of a team that has won two titles in three years.