Team building is a lot of fun. It’s challenging, exciting and rewarding, and it’s different every day. Essentially that’s who we are as coaches – team builders. No matter how long you’ve been at a school, you are building a new team every year. Granted, it may get easier over time, as you’ll return players who know what you are about and what to expect, but it’s still a new team each year.
Personalities play a big role in building a team. We started to really get to know each other at the University of Maine on Labor Day weekend, as that was the first time we were ever together as a team. We were able to start with team activities right away, with conditioning, lifts and individual workouts. Eventually that led to full team workouts after September 15th, and our official practices which started on October 5th.
Throughout all of it, understanding the personalities of the players was crucial to me as a first year head coach. I needed to learn who I was going to be coaching. Leadership isn’t really about the message you are sending, it’s about the message they are receiving. So I needed to understand the personalities as best I could, to understand how they would process and receive the message. We put our guys through some very tough situations in the pre-season, with a conditioning boot camp, high-intensity early morning workouts and a team conditioning scavenger hunt. We mixed in some touch football as a group as well, all as great ways to learn about our players and our team.
We started to see some personalities emerge, but once October 5th came and practice started it was a different story. Practice was very new to our guys – as it is anytime a new coach takes over a program – and we didn’t know what to expect. Our team kind of went into a shell, a bit afraid to express themselves as they made it through the first week. We talked daily about having fun, about enjoying the opportunity to compete. We even encouraged guys to talk a little trash to get the competitive spirit going. It wasn’t that we wanted to see bad behavior, but we wanted to see something – go out and be yourself and lay everything on the line.
We talked as a staff daily about the best way to get the most out of our guys. I was asked a few times what it was like my first year at RIC. The truth is, it’s really hard to remember. Not because it was 10 years ago, but because it was at the very beginning of that program. My approach to practice, our identity, the toughness that we played with – all of that developed over time. It wasn’t there right from the beginning. But what I was used to was our last few years at RIC, when our culture was as tight and as tough as any program in the country. In fact, I did very little coaching in my last few years at RIC as opposed to just managing the program, because the players took care of everything else. Before I could get the whistle out of my mouth to say something, I would hear “C’mon, not good enough, let’s go, do it again.”
I realized I needed to adjust. Our practice structure was based on a culture that had developed over 9 years and was really tight. I knew I could count on my teams to show up and compete for 2 hours each day, and practice was set up that way. But that first week at Maine our guys were still feeling their way, trying to figure out what was being asked of them and how to do it. They were trying their best, but it was hard for them and I had to recognize that. I had to make changes.
Slowly we started to see personalities emerge. We started to have fun competing with each other, the value of giving everything you have for your teammates. We asked our guys questions before and after practice to get them more comfortable communicating and expressing themselves. It could be as simple as “Tell us something about you that we don’t know,” or “Tell me one thing you liked about practice.” I asked one of my veterans to ask me a question, something the guys might be wondering about me. “Do you ever do anything for fun?” he asked. Everyone laughed. So I guess I come across pretty serious.
It’s really interesting to see the personalities emerge and grow. It’s not always positive by any stretch, but the negatives stuff you see is just as important. We put our guys in a lot of tough situations and want to see how they react. See who can handle themselves, who fights through it and who gives in. Once we start learning about the personalities, every day is a new challenge to get the most out of them. It’s really interesting and fun to get together as a staff and figure out the best way to connect with our team.
And then we went to Southern Maine. One of the things we felt was important in practice throughout October was to find small victories. We wanted to celebrate the positives as much as possible so we could feel good about ourselves. I knew when I scheduled the game at Southern Maine the game would be a challenge – our first time in uniforms together, not knowing what to expect, a group that is not used to having success, facing a team that is always prepared to beat you, and traveling to their place. Even when we had success in the Little East against Southern Maine they were always prepared to beat us, every night. So I knew it would be a challenge.
When I was at RIC we won two Division I exhibitions – beating Iona and Holy Cross in back to back years. I always laughed at other D1 coaches who said they’d never play us because they didn’t want to risk losing. To me, that is what the exhibition games are for – to learn as much as possible about your team in a tough spot. Granted you aren’t hoping or expecting to lose, but if we get beat in a game that doesn’t matter and we learn a great deal about how to coach our kids? We can get a lot out of that.
I wasn’t expecting to lose and I was surprised that we did, but to be honest I wasn’t really bothered by the result. I was bothered by the mentality we took into the game and the way we competed. Our culture is based on process, not results, and as hard as that may be to stick to when fans are wondering what the hell happened, we believe in it. I know that results are really important, that’s not what I’m saying. But it’s not how we judge ourselves. We judge ourselves based on what we do every day. And the approach we took into that game wasn’t right. I told the team I believed a lot more in the team we had been for 3 weeks of practice then the one that struggled one night at Southern Maine.
So we were faced very early with a difficult mental challenge, and I was fine with that. We had a new staff, a new culture, a new approach, and in our first live game appearance we played awful. So how were we going to handle it? We had two clear options – we could let ourselves be defined by that result, or by how we handled it. It was up to us.
We bounced back and beat Husson by 40 five days later, and our guys started to feel better about themselves. But to be honest we weren’t as good as we could have been in practice after the Southern Maine game. We seemed to be back in our shell, doubting ourselves after that first loss. I told our guys winning by 40 wouldn’t define us anymore than losing by 5 did. We’d be defined by what we did in practice every day, and that needed to be better. We seem to be getting that idea as a program.
So now we have 28 days of practice under our belt and a couple of more before we head to Butler. People ask me how excited we are to open at Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of the coolest most historic places in college basketball. And it is really cool, but it’s funny. Everything we do is so day-to-day, that it really hasn’t hit me yet. When we get on that plane on Friday and head to Indianapolis, I’m sure it will hit me.
One of the toughest challenges for a coach is changing a mentality. One of the mistakes I made when I first took over at RIC was not recognizing the mentality that our guys had – that it was hard to go on the road and win, that we weren’t really supposed to. We didn’t really expect to win as a team. We just played. It took me until January to realize I needed to address it, that we were preparing to win those games every day and we needed to trust what we did and go in with the confidence necessary to perform. We were good enough to expect to win, but we had to get over that hump mentally.
So we spoke this week about preparing to win. We have to earn the right to expect to win when we put the Black Bear uniform on. It’s going to be a great challenge, one that our guys are really looking forward to. We may lose some games this year simply because the other team was better than us, and if that’s the case we have to deal with it and get better. But we are not going to lose games because we didn’t prepare to win them, because we didn’t do the work in our own gym. That is unacceptable in our program. That’s a mentality our guys are starting to believe in.
It’s been just over 2 months together as a group and its exciting to see the development of the team every day. The time we’ve invested in each other has started to pay off, but we still have a long way to go. I’m thrilled to be able to lead this group into games. The challenge now is to be mentally tough enough not to let the results effect the process. It’s going to be a lot of fun.