Every head coach has their own personal philosophy. The way you want to play, the type of player you like, the day to day approach. It has to fit your personality. Over time it evolves, and you have to make sure it fits your current personnel, but we all have core principles that we believe in. How fast we want to play, what type of offense we like, what type of defense we want to play, how the rotations should work – we like to stick closely to our core beliefs.
Phil O’Brien is the managing partner of the York Consulting Group and he has spoken at my Dynamic Leadership Academy a number of times. He has tremendous experience in leadership, change management and customer relationships. He has strong core beliefs about what works and what doesn’t work in high-performing teams. But one of his favorite sayings is “I’d rather win than be right.” A simple thought, but with great meaning to it.
In the business world, his job was to make sure they got the deal done. As a coach, our job once the games start is to find a way to win. We have very strong core beliefs about how to win, and those beliefs are very important. But it also doesn’t mean you are inflexible or unwilling to adapt. Ultimately you have to do what is best for your team, not stay loyal to your core beliefs.
“I’d rather win than be right.” Think about that statement and how it applies to coaching. Coaches can be very stubborn. You believe in a certain approach, you work on it every day, and that’s how you are going to go about winning. We’ve all seen coaches who play only man-to-man defense, or who slow the game down and run set plays each possession because it’s what they believe in. But I’ve seen plenty of teams who had the athletes to run up and down but were stuck trying to run set plays and slow the game down because that’s how the coach liked to play. And in a lot of ways it makes sense. You practice a certain way, as a coach you study the X’s and O’s and figure out what works best with that approach, so of course you go with it. But it may not be what best fits your team.
In 2011 at RIC we were sent to Oswego State in the NCAA Tournament. After beating Penn St.-Behrend in our first game, we matched up with Oswego State in their gym in the second round. They had two really good inside players that were the focus of our scouting reports. They shot the ball just okay from the perimeter and had good guard play, but they weren’t a great shooting team.
We were a man-to-man team and great defensively, and we had played man-to-man all year. We had literally only played one possession of our match-up zone the entire second semester – for 2 1/2 months. One possession. There was no doubt we were going to guard them man-to-man.
It was a close game throughout, and we took a small lead at halftime. Their big kids were hurting us. To start the second half they were pounding the ball inside and getting great looks, and scoring on us. We were scoring as well, so we were able to keep a small lead, but the game wasn’t going the way we wanted to. We needed to guard to win, not outscore people, and they were gaining confidence with every possession.
I hated the idea of going to our match-up zone. We had been to the NCAA Tournament 5 years in a row and our defense was our calling card. The idea of switching to our zone was like an admission of defeat, and I was worried what it would do to our kids mentally. Were they going to lose belief if we switched defenses? After they continued to pound it inside and score, we finally decided to switch and play our match-up zone.
So we hadn’t played match-up zone more than one possession in almost 3 months, and now we were playing it with the Sweet 16 on the line. The plan was to just change their flow a little bit and then go back to our man to win the game. It worked, and Oswego lost their momentum on offense. We were able to extend the lead to about 10 points, and they really struggled to score. I kept thinking about when I was going to go back to our man, and they kept staring at our match-up and struggling to get the ball inside. So we just stayed with it. We won the game relatively comfortably down the stretch, playing the last 16 minutes of the game in a defense we hadn’t really played since Christmas. I’d rather win than be right.
After the game I was chatting with Oswego’s assistant coaches and they were telling me how they had been bad against zones all year. They didn’t think they would see any zone from us, but once we went to it they knew they were going to struggle. They told me they had really struggled with it all year, but very few teams had actually played them zone. Once we went to it, it changed the game, even though it went against everything I really believed in as a coach. I’m not a zone guy, and our man-to-man was the foundation of our success. But at that point what our team needed was not a stubborn coach. They needed something to change.
It can be very hard to change. You don’t want your team to lose belief in what you are doing, and you don’t want to be scattered and changing things all the time when something goes wrong. But I’m not sure being stubborn is the best characteristic for a coach. You absolutely want to have a core foundation and principles that set a foundation for your team. But you also have to examine things when you get to a certain point and decide, “Am I trying to win, or am I trying to be right?”
I’d rather win than be right.