Coach Kevin is a high school basketball coach who has been at the same school for five years. His team has a reputation for being the worst in the league, the laughing stock around town. Coach K is a former college player and it’s been incredibly difficult for him to stomach this losing reputation. Coach K was jacked up for this season, because, along with a few talented seniors, he has two incoming freshman that are all-state caliber. Expectations around the school are high, and Coach K realizes that the team’s reputation as a bottom feeder is about to change.
Coach K came to me after the first month of the season because his team is not living up to expectations. They have lost to teams that he felt they should beat, and on top of that, he hasn’t been able to develop a good team chemistry or “coach up” the talented freshmen. His mood at practice has deteriorated and he finds himself yelling more than ever and he is making his team run sprints almost as much as learn to play together. Coach K wants to know how to fix the problem.
When I heard Coach K rattle off all the issues he is having, and his current record, the first thing I wanted to know is if he had clarified the purpose for his team this season. He told me that their goal was to win league and settle some old scores with their rivals. Seeing as these are both “results based” and not necessarily in his control, I could see why he may be feeling frustrated. After observing some of his practices and talking with players, it was clear that everyone was feeling the pressure to perform. Now, I know it can be tricky to coach a coach, so I wanted to make sure Coach K didn’t feel like I was telling him what to do. Instead, I asked him to define a few words for me and then rate how connected he felt to those on a daily basis. The first word was purpose - what is the purpose of coaching the team and what was the purpose of the team in general? The next two were attitude and behavior. What type of attitude and behavior does he value for his players and himself? Admittedly, these are tough concepts to measure, but Coach K definitely knew what he was looking for. Finally, we talked about focus and attention. In this case, we weren’t talking about his players focus, but instead, what he was focusing on during practice and games. This was not easy for Coach K to reconcile, because he is a skilled coach with a strong philosophy on how to teach the game and he believes that coaching, in large part, is correcting mistakes. I asked Coach K to spend the next week solely focused on purpose, attitude and behavior, and when he saw something positive, to call it out. In addition, when he saw mistakes, instead of reacting to the mistake, I asked him to take a breath. This was a difficult task, but he agreed to try. The first few days were brutal for Coach. He hated letting mistakes go unaddressed and taking a breath felt like self-help mumbo jumbo. He felt like he was slacking by not stopping play and/or adding sprints as punishment. However, he did like using the positive reinforcement for attitude and behavior. After the week, he decided to stick with this approach, even though he worried his team would end up being soft. He and I checked in weekly for a download and we discussed the highs and lows.
After another month, Coach K and his team were a much more energetic group, more focused on the controllables of their performance, and that shift helped them to start playing with more purpose, presence and freedom. Coach K was now an avid “breather” and he noticed that it helped him create some space so that he didn’t fly off the handle. I wish I could report that they had a fairy tale season, but, they did develop a reputation as a clutch team who was solid in late game situations. The team also reported that they improved their play on the court and felt more love for basketball than before the season began.