On November 3rd, 2006 we took our Rhode Island College team down to New York to take on Iona College in an exhibition game. It was my second year at RIC, and we had most of our team back from a team that went 19-10 in my first year – a year that was inconsistent for the first half, but then finished with an 11-3 run down the stretch, losing in the ECAC championship finals.
I knew we were talented and had a chance to be pretty good, but I wasn’t sure how good we believed we could be. RIC had been a talented team for the past few years, but one that had never gotten over the hump – a dangerous team that never found a way to win the big games. One thing I learned from my first year as a head coach was that we didn’t really believe we were going to win big games, especially on the road. We went on the road with a mentality like we weren’t supposed to win – like winning on the road was really tough. We didn’t have a lot of good reasons to believe we could win those games, because we never really did.
So from the beginning that fall we talked about the Iona game, and how we were going down there to win the game. We wanted to establish a belief that when we got on the bus we expected to win. We went down to Iona that night and took a 22 point lead into halftime. We led the entire second half, hanging on after Iona had cut the lead to 4 and won by 9. That night was a big one for our program, and for myself as a coach. That was the night everyone in our program really started to believe.
How do you get a group of people who don’t have a great history of success to believe in themselves? It’s a very tough challenge, because it’s hard to really believe in something until you’ve accomplished it. As much as we talked about going down to Iona and winning that entire pre-season, I’m still not entirely sure our guys believed we could until we went down there and started having some success. And we took control of the game early in the first half. Would we have believed as much if we got off to a slow start and Iona took a lead? I’m not sure. But we talked about winning so much, and we prepared every day with that Iona game in mind, and I constantly reminded the players that what we were doing had to be good enough to beat a Division I team. In some ways by verbalizing it so often and talking about how we were going to do it, I think our guys had to at least start thinking about what it would feel like to win the game.
But ultimately we really started to believe after that game. After we won that game we had no doubts as a coaching staff about how we were coaching our team and how to best get them to respond. We always had that win over Iona to use as evidence if any of our players weren’t invested. The way we were doing things worked, and it wasn’t going to change. From that point forward the guys that weren’t on board usually weeded themselves out of our program.
I do think that constantly talking about success and preparing for success is really important to establishing belief. Is it hard to do when you don’t have a history of success? Of course. But a big part of belief is trust. You have to get your kids to take a leap of faith, and get them to trust in something that is hard when they haven’t yet seen the right result.
Trust starts with finding a connection with your players on an individual level. It’s learning their personalities and understanding what is important to them. It’s making sure they know you have their best interests in mind. As that connection gets stronger, belief starts to grow.
Confidence is an important part of belief, and that’s another tough challenge. How do your get players to have confidence to do something they have never done before? It’s not easy, but you can start to build it by celebrating small victories. Find little things that your players and your teams can feel good about, and make sure you celebrate them. Showing your team evidence of the good things they are doing – no matter how small they may be – can help build some confidence.
But ultimately getting your team to believe before they have accomplished something is very difficult. You have to convince your guys to embrace the opportunity to show up and compete every day, to disregard the results that might not be favorable. You have to be honest with them or they will see right through you. You want to keep them in a positive environment no matter how difficult that seems at times, and show them a way of coaching where they can see individual improvement – even if your team isn’t good enough yet to get the results you want.
Belief is not a simple, linear process. I look at belief as an obstacle in your way, a wall that your team needs to jump over. It’s not just a slow, steady climb. There is certainly progress to be made, but there are steps backwards as well. And at times you might feel like you’ve run into a wall. It’s something you can chip away at by doing things the right way and relentlessly communicating your approach to your players. Hopefully that gets you to a point where you can have that big moment that gets you over the hump.
Your kids will not believe in themselves unless you believe in them. No matter how hard you want to coach them, they need to know you really believe. It’s not a steady climb, it’s more like a daily pounding against a concrete wall, just chipping away. And that what makes it so hard. You don’t see a ton of progress every day, but then one day the wall weakens and starts to crumble, and you run right through it.
You go to Iona and win and belief is no longer an issue, it’s an asset. Belief takes a long time, it’s a difficult process, but once you get there it’s really powerful.