Winning builds confidence. But confidence is essential to winning. Which one comes first? It’s hard to have a lot of confidence if you aren’t winning. But it’s hard to win a lot if you don’t have confidence. The mentality needed to win – especially when you aren’t used to it – is hard to find.
At Rhode Island College I took over the best team in the league, and we finished third my first year. I was figuring things out, and I didn’t really know it at the time, but we should have won the league that year. It was a talented group that had started to win, but wasn’t really used to winning big games. They had lost in the league semi-finals the year before I got there. We lost in the league semi-finals my first year, and then lost in the ECAC finals to end the year. The rap on the team was that we were good enough to win, but didn’t know how to win the big games.
I’ve never really believed in that – that teams either knew or didn’t know how to win. We practiced winning every day. We do the same at Maine. Compete at a high level, put our guys in tough situations, execute in time and score each day with the plays we need to win. “Knowing how to win” to me was always more about confidence and ability, and confidence comes from repeated actions. You have to do it – to win – to gain the confidence needed to do it continuously.
My second year at RIC we started the season with an exhibition win over Iona. Not only did we beat them, but we killed them. We were up 22 at halftime. I always look back on that night as the night that gave us the confidence we needed to win big. Not just the players, but myself and the coaches as well. From that point on we believed in all of the hard stuff we were doing. And it’s interesting that it came in that game. How were we able to win that game if we didn’t yet truly have the confidence to win? Well, that’s a game we played with nothing to lose. We were playing a division I team. There was nothing at risk. So there was no pressure. We played loose and free, and we won the game. We started to develop our team confidence as that game went on, but it was easier in that game because a loss wasn’t really damaging to us.
We’ve lost two games this year we definitely should have won. We lost to Sacred Heart in overtime in a game where we got fouled in the final 30 seconds with a two point lead – twice. We missed the front end of a one-and-one and two free throws and gave up a basket with 8 seconds left that tied the game. We also lost at Fordham this weekend in overtime, in a game where we were up 5 with under 4 minutes to go. We got 4 great looks at the basket on 4 possessions, all with a 5 point lead, the last coming with under 2:30 to play. And we lost by 1 in OT. Two games you literally have to win. We were in control of both games and had the ball in our hands. We couldn’t finish them off.
A win at Fordham could have done similar things for our confidence to win that the Iona game did for us at RIC. Developing the confidence to win for us has to come from what we do every day in practice. We practice winning every day, and the way we compete prepares us to win. But you can never completely replicate the pressure your team feels in a game. Our guys still aren’t used to winning in those situations, and that is a big part of a winning mentality. At RIC, after that Iona game my 2nd year, we expected to win every time we took the floor. In late and close situations, we knew we were going to win.
At Maine, we are still used to losing those games. When you lose a lot of close games, it’s easy to look like you don’t know how to win. But that’s not the case. We know how to win, but we have to develop the confidence to do it in the pressure of a close game. We have to fight our way over that hurdle and then we can start getting used to it. Finding someone that can step up and make the plays that get us a win is crucial. The mentality follows someone who can make those winning plays.
I write the word “CONFIDENCE” at the top of my practice plan every day. No matter what we do, we have to make sure our guys feel the confidence in what we are doing every day. It’s a great challenge, because we aren’t winning a lot – so the confidence isn’t going to come from that. Once we started to win consistently at RIC, that is where our confidence came from.
Teaching winning and teaching confidence go hand in hand. Finding one without the other is hard to do. Winning is hard, because you need confidence to do it. And confidence is solidified through winning.