As head coach of Palmer Trinity School’s Girls Varsity Basketball team, I’m commonly asked, “How did you turn around a struggling program and make it successful?”
I always answer that it’s not me, that all the credit goes to the players.
Philosophies, coaching strategies, and schemes make no difference if you don’t have players that love the game, enjoy playing, and embrace the challenges that come with competing at the highest level of high school sports. Such players are the essential ingredient to a great team. As a coach, my job is to establish the environment that allows my players to succeed.
Over the years, as players have come and gone, I’m proud that our program philosophy has never changed. This has allowed not only coaches, but upperclassmen as well, to teach our younger players what is expected of them if they want to excel in the program. That leads to the obvious question, what exactly are the expectations of the program, the foundation of everything we do?
It comes down to three core principles: responsibility, work ethic, and caring about one another.
The primary job of a coach is to teach life lessons that players will take with them into the real world, even long after they have finished the program. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is helping younger players embrace the personal responsibility requirement of our program. The concept is simple: as an adult you will be held responsible for being punctual and for communicating with your professor/employer.
Consequently, we will hold you responsible for meeting real-life expectations, including communication and punctuality. Are you going to be late or miss practice? You must notify the coach—not have your parents or friends do it on your behalf. Otherwise, I pay no mind.
If a player is not meeting academic standards, it is her responsibility to seek out her teachers. If a player wants to work on her basketball skills, it is her responsibility to ask. My players understand coaches are always available and accessible to help them, but it is their responsibility to take action.
Coaches must make clear to student-athletes that we are here to support, advise, and teach—and that they are ultimately responsible for their individual level of success. Before long, players take it upon themselves to go the extra mile, and they appreciate having control over their own destinies.
My players have all heard a well-known quote: “A goal without a path is just a wish.”
Players must develop a clear idea of their goals, as well as a way to achieve them. Regardless of their paths, all have one constant: work. Being great at anything is not easy. Basketball is no different.
LeBron James is the greatest basketball player on the planet. But do most people know the hours he dedicated and the counsel he sought the past two years to become an effective low-post player? Not many.
How about the hours of film study he does to understand the tendencies of each individual opponent he faces? He demands to know if his opponent is more effective going over the left or right shoulder, or if he has a better shooting percentage from a particular spot on the floor. Can he still be the greatest player without the work? Most likely.
But to be consistently great, James values the edge he gets from the extra work he puts in that others don’t. That is the type of work ethic today’s student-athletes must observe, value and emulate. Life doesn’t treat those who take short cuts very well.
Our players are told that everything is a choice. The hours they sacrifice to get better, the time they dedicate to academics, how hard they work, are all choices. In keeping with the line, “Hard work guarantees nothing, but without it you have no chance,” we always provide playing opportunities to those who work the hardest. Does that guarantee on-court success and continued playing time? No, they must consistently produce on the court.
But players understand if they work, they are promised a chance. When players understand they have complete control and ownership over their roles, the end result, a majority of the time, is an intrinsic motivation to do more—to lift a little more, to get up a few more shots, to run a little harder.
As a coach, imagine how good your team will be if you have a roster filled with motivated, improved players year-after-year. We have players that buy into this philosophy, and we are usually successful on the court. Are these two concepts invincible? Of course not.
A coach should be ready for players that aren’t used to always being held responsible to struggle. Parents may not always support or understand your efforts. Sometimes, you may be accused of “playing favorites.” These things happen.
The best advice I can give coaches is not to hide from criticism. Always be comfortable in your philosophy. I know many coaches who refuse to communicate with parents. This produces a defensive air and leads some to think you’re insincere. Parents appreciate and respect communication, whether or not they accept your explanation.
CARING FOR ONE ANOTHER
I’ve left this principle for last, and I believe it’s the most important. Every coach who wants the respect and best efforts of his players must make it clear that he values them more as individuals than as players.
This cannot be faked, and players can sense disingenuous behavior. Do you know how your players are doing academically? Where are your upperclassmen considering going to college? Do any play musical instruments or belong to school clubs?
At the very least, get to know a little about your student-athletes off the court and field. Players will always work harder for coaches that they know care about them as people. The drill sergeant mindset that many coaches use to lead by fear is outdated and grows more ineffective with each passing day.
Your players should also understand that if they truly want to be great they must care about one another as teammates. While coaches obviously cannot control this, they can lay the groundwork. One of my fondest memories as a coach was in 2009, at the team’s “End-of-the-Year” party. That year, the team’s gift to one another was a bracelet that read, “2009 District Champions: FAMILY.” Our entire coaching staff knew at that moment that we had truly connected in all our talks about the value and significance in a team that supports and cherishes one another.
Think about the number of hours a team spends together lifting, sprinting, practicing, training, playing, traveling to games, staying out of town for team camps and functions, and all the activities they choose to do together off the courts and fields. Now imagine the level of contentment and enjoyment that surrounds a team that truly appreciates one another and always knows that every teammate has the support of her peers.
A coach that allows cliques to form, bad attitudes to permeate the team, and stands by and does nothing is just letting poison filter through the team, and eventually all the trust that every championship team needs is impossible to obtain. “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” You, the coach, certainly can choose your team, but your players cannot. Once you put your team together, if you can make them a “second family,” you will have a championship-caliber team.
Our aim is to develop and maintain a program where coaches lead by example, motivate through exemplary vision, and at no time use fear as a tool. Treating our players as young adults whose level of success is determined by their choices and actions has provided our team with on-court success. More importantly, our players graduate from Palmer Trinity that much more prepared to succeed in the next chapters of their lives.
There is nothing more rewarding and valuable than knowing you made a lasting impact on a student-athlete. When that happens, you have done your job.