Before I became a banker I was a basketball coach. I was 19 years old and I coached an 8th grade team at Southfield School in Shreveport, Louisiana. We went 12-0 in league play and 18-3 overall. For the next five years that was my profession. Now a banker I have still coached off and on over the years. I have coached boys and girls, small children in recreational leagues, junior high and high school kids, even young adults in older rec leagues. In that time I have discovered some principles that I believe you have to maintain to be a successful program. Not a winning program necessarily, but a successful one.
Athletics is another component in a young person’s development. It allows them to experience victory and defeat, while learning how to handle both in a mature manner. It promotes cooperative behaviors and unselfishness, and if it is a really good program, compassion. Compassion for your teammates and your opponents alike. It also teaches you the value of hard work and what that can achieve.
I have seen that coaching and athletics has changed dramatically since I first sat on a bench in 1983. Some things I like, but many of the changes are ones that I can’t support or understand. Call me old school but there are some immutable truths that all great programs subscribe to and I want this blog post to lay those out clearly for anyone that will play for me in the future.
BOUNDARIES: All players hate them and yet want them. Their developing minds and raging hormones make them challenge you but they want and need limits. As such clear boundaries have to be set early and enforced. One is that I am their coach, not their friend. I want them to be successful and have a positive experience but being their pal is not a priority. They also will find out that the team is an autocracy. I have no issue listening to concerns, suggestions, or ideas, but at the end of the day the final decision is mine, as I am the person ultimately responsible for the team. I will respect the players but they in turn will have to respect me. I will be compassionate but I won’t coddle them. Rest assured their college professors and future employers won’t either.
RESPONSIBILITY: They will be responsible for their actions. If they are late for practice they will be disciplined. You can’t be late for school or work so practice is no different. If they have issues with transportation they need to work that out. They also need to maintain their grades without missing practices for tutoring. Sports is an extracurricular and a privilege. Academics is the first and foremost priority. If academic work is suffering then that player needs to focus as much time as needed to get their grades in order without the distractions of a sport. They also need to be responsible for their actions while being coached. I find that players fall into three categories. The first take instruction and diligently try and implement what they have been told to do without complaint. The second group take instruction, say they will try, and then go back to what they were doing before. The third group take instruction and tell you why they did it their way. I tend to get to know those in the second and third groups fairly well because they are sitting next to me on the bench.
COMPORTMENT: As an individual you have the right to dress and behave exactly as you wish. You can wear your cap sideways with the tag hanging off, adorn your ears, nose, lips, etc. with metal, and if your parent’s consent, cover your body with ink. But when you become part of a team you lose that right. Your employer will have a dress code and so will I. You will wear the team practice and game uniform and any accessories will have to be approved by me. If you have tattoos you will cover them with shirt sleeves or bandages. You will represent the team and school by being respectful to adults and others. My teams don’t trash talk or taunt. Nor do we respond to others that do it. We let our actions speak for us. My players don’t talk to referees. Their behavior is out of our control and we need to be focused on what we can do and should be doing. If I think a referee needs to be spoken to I will have that conversation. The bottom line is that if we are properly focusing intently on what we are trying to do we will be oblivious to what is being said to us or done to us. Having a short memory keeps your focus. And keeping your emotions under control allows you to make better decisions.
EFFORT: We will try to win. Winning is important. You keep score because it is important. If you are a doctor who doesn’t cure patients, a lawyer who doesn’t win cases, and a salesman that doesn’t make sales, well you get the picture. We compete to win and players who can give us the best chance to win will play the most in games. Will I try to play everybody as much as I can? Of course I will! There will be times where we are way ahead, or way behind, when that will not be an issue. But if the game is in doubt I owe it to the team to make personnel moves that give us the best chance to be victorious. If I have done my job right that player on the bench will be cheering for his teammates on the floor and will understand that by pushing the starters in practice he made the team better. The fact is talent will often ultimately decide which teams win but a team that gives maximum effort in practice and a game will be hard to beat. Losing with maximum effort is easier to accept than losing because you quit trying. If you play for me you will have to buy into one thing. We never give up…ever!
UNITY: There is an acronym for the word team. It is Together Everyone Achieves More. Selfish behavior won’t be tolerated no matter how talented the player might be. Selfishness kills a team more than any other cause. The best players have to be the most unselfish. You look at North Carolina when they had Michael Jordan and you will see that he never led the NCAA in scoring. He did what was needed to make his team successful. Very few people know he was an All NBA First Team Defensive selection numerous times over the course of his career. Do great players exert control when a game is on the line? They do but not always with scoring. Larry Bird made many game winning shots in his career but one of his best remembered plays was stealing the inbounds against the Detroit Pistons and then feeding Dennis Johnson with the game winning basket. A coach who lets a player put himself above the team is doing both the team and that player a disservice.
PERSPECTIVE: It is easy to measure everything in its most basic form. Counting wins and losses, checking the stat sheet. And it is easy to get emotional before, during, and after games. Exulting during wins and feeling great sorrow after defeat is not unusual. However a balanced team handles both without going to the extreme. They enjoy wins and fret over losses but if they are understanding the big picture the real satisfaction will come from competing and being able to reflect on what they did well and what they need to work on so they can continue to improve.
If I see a former player and he or she tells me that the best time of his or her life was when he or she was playing sports in school then I failed that player miserably. But if that player tells me about milestones they have achieved since their school days, and how the lessons they learned playing sports contributed to those successes then I did my job the way it was supposed to be done.
I view working with young people as an enormous privilege and equally huge responsibility. We are giving time to each other and that is the most precious thing we have because once you give it you never get it back and none of us know how much of it we have left.
In about a month basketball practice will start and the squeaking of rubber shoes on wood will be heard. Game on!