I’ve got to admit it. I'm missing coaching a team more than I thought I would this year. After 14 years as a head coach in Texas and Oklahoma, this is my first season away from the sidelines and I've been having "end of the year" withdrawls!
This was always my favorite part of the season - the end-of-season run. It was time to really dial in and make the necessary adjustments to be at our absolute best for the home stretch of the year. It’s also the time of the year that feels like it’s always on fast forward. Before you know it, the season will be over. And for some teams, if they’re not careful, it’ll end too soon with the abrupt end disappointingly catching you off guard.
As I’m not coaching a team of my own this year, I’ve found that I have a lot of extra free time on my hands as well. 😂 Recently I spent some time intentionally thinking back on these end-of-season runs, both the good and the bad. As I relived so many great memories, I began to focus in on the things I did as a coach that allowed us to finish the season strong and create a season to remember. It's a list that I know will help you and your team this season as well.
One quick thought before I dive into my list … Regardless of where your team’s scoreboard success is right now (i.e. your wins and losses/team record), great coaches continue to find ways to improve their team's current circumstances and finish the season strong.
Now, on to my learnings. Here are three ways you can help your team finish strong this season!
1. Define Success
Most often, basketball success is defined in one clear way: the scoreboard. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that winning a bunch of games makes your season successful, and if you aren’t winning, you’re not a success.
My opinion? Maybe.
There are so many factors that determine a game’s outcome, talent being by far the most important, and using the scoreboard as the lone determinant of success is simply shortsighted. Some teams should definitely evaluate success by using their overall record or how far they went in the playoffs. Yet for others, their success won’t be that cut and dry in a given year.
Here’s my personal definition for success: “Doing the best you can with what you have and where you are.”
One of the most successful seasons I ever had was the 2010-11 season. It was my first year at Lake Country Christian in Fort Worth, Texas. I inherited a program that had won the state championship in convincing fashion the year before, but all that remained were one or two players that had been on JV nearly the entire year before. On top of that, our best player tore his ACL during football season and missed the entire year.
Needless to say, that was a looooong year for us as a team. No one likes losing, and we lost A LOT. We started the year 1-20 with 13 of those losses being by 30+ points, including a 63-point shellacking that I’ll never forget!
At that point, we had two options. 1) Stay focused on the losses and continue to take L after L until the season was over, or 2) Decide to turn our focus to what was still ahead and find a way to make the end of our season better than its beginning.
We chose option #2 and did the best we could with what we had and where we were. We knew a repeat appearance in the state championship wasn’t an option, but we were going to control the controllables that were in front of us. Over the last 4+ weeks of that season, we went 4-8 and didn’t even finish last in our district. That was a massive success!
2. Lion Tamer or Lion Chaser?
Normal people run away from lions. Actual lions, as well as the lion-like situations or risks in life that make us feel nervous, uncomfortable, or downright scared. The same way as coming face to face with an actual lion would. Over time, we put off or avoid these things, doing our best to keep them at bay. We learn how to “tame” them by keeping them just far enough away that we don’t ever actually have to deal with them.
Eventually, we get comfortable in our life as a lion tamer. We become risk-adverse, choosing to go after what’s easily attained instead of pursuing great things if there’s a chance of failing. We continue to do the same thing over and over again yet hoping for a different outcome. We find the lowest common denominator of other people’s expectations and live in that comfort zone.
Think about it this way. In life, not taking risks is actually the greatest risk of all. We have an inner desire to do great things, but great things only happen when we’re willing to put ourselves out there and take risks. The greater the risk, the greater the opportunity.
Too many coaches come to the end of a season or their career with the regret of inaction. Here’s what I mean by that. They spend seasons staying in the lane of status quo and continue to use the same old accepted systems and strategies, even though they know it gives their team little chance to be successful. Instead, be a coach who chooses action for their team, even if it seems radical. Strategize, plot, think outside the box for ways to reach new levels of success. Be a lion chaser. Go after it! Then, even if you fail, you’ll have no regrets.
Evaluate yourself and your team right now. Where are you too comfortable? What areas have you wanted to try something new or different to make your team more successful, but haven’t because of what others might think or say if it doesn’t work? Stop coaching like a lion tamer. Instead, finish the season strong as the lion chaser that you know you truly are.
3. Unlearn Fears & Embrace Uncertainty
I still have nightmares about the end of the 2013-14 season. I was coaching in Victoria, Texas, and we were a very average team that year, barely squeaking into the playoffs. After earning a first-round upset win, we were set to face one of the most disciplined and well-coached teams in the state.
Even though they were better than us on paper, I was convinced we could win if we employed a new full-court pressure defense from start to finish. While our opponent had no issues handling pressure that season, I saw something in the film that made me confident it would give us our best chance to earn another playoff road win. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow through with that game plan. I got into my own head and decided to “play it safe”, going with our traditional defense that had been successful as of late.
That night we were dominated through the first three quarters, trailing at one point by nearly 20 points. I finally made the call in the 4th quarter to switch to that full-court pressure D, and it worked just as well in person as I had seen it work in my head. We made a run, but it was too little, too late. We lost by seven, and our season was over. After the game, the other head coach came over to me, shaking his head, and said, “Man, I’m so glad you didn’t use that new press the entire game. We wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
That night I wish I would have been confident enough to unlearn my fears. As coaches, too often we get paralyzed by fear at the end of seasons in our decision making and end up with a “fingers crossed” mentality, hoping things will work out.
Nothing in life is certain. Once we accept that truth, we can finally begin to unlearn our fears and barrel headfirst into embracing uncertainty. That’s the only way great and unexpected things will happen during the rest of your season.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have said it best when he put it this way: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
While I can’t guarantee these three things will fix all of your team's struggles during the rest of your season, I know they will help you devise a plan on how your team can finish strong this season. Define what success will look like and share it with your team. Wake up every morning with a lion chaser mentality, searching for new ways to overcome adversity. Draw a line in the sand and unlearn your coaching fears, ready to embrace uncertainty and the greatness that comes with it. I can’t wait to hear how you make this a season to remember!