In many cases a basketball team will take on the personality of their head coach. Over time your players will start to exhibit the characteristics that you define as important and continually emphasize. You’ll also recruit and attract those kinds of players as well. If your team is tough, it’s probably because you are tough. If you’re team is lazy or uncommitted, guess what? Good time to take a look in the mirror.
It’s important that the way you coach fits the personality of your team in a big picture sense. You need to get to know the personalities of your plays individually and assess how that translates to the personality of your team. Who are the alpha males who have the most influence? The characteristics of those players will likely take over in the locker room. That’s why so many coaches talk about the importance of the approach of their best players. Elite coaches always talk about how if their best players are their hardest workers, that gives them a chance to be a great team.
Imposing your personality on your team is one thing, and it can be very powerful. But understanding the personality of your team is crucial as well. When looking at the big picture, you have to determine who your team is and how much your personality can will them to change. By understanding their personality you’ll have a much better feel for the tone you need to set to get the most out of them.
When I took over at Maine I probably didn’t understand this well enough. I naturally thought we’d have a group that was excited for something new, tired of losing and hungry to go about things a different way. I came in and established a new approach and a vision for a new culture. I felt comfortable that our guys were all going to buy-in to the work ethic and commitment needed to get there. What I didn’t realize is how much negativity there had been around the program for so long, and how much it was affecting who they were. The personality of the team was very guarded, very reserved, and somewhat spent. They didn’t really have a lot of emotional capital yet to spend, and I learned I needed to build that up before I could really demand a lot out of them. Given the injuries and the personnel loss that we faced each year, it took a good 3-plus years to really get the culture to a championship level, despite our lack of wins. When you hear coaches talking about patience and saying “this is going to take some time,” this is what they are talking about. Understanding the personality of your team and figuring out what buttons to push really does take time.
When I was at RIC I knew pretty early that we had tough kids with no sense of entitlement. They were kids who were used to scratching and clawing for whatever success they got. It was a team that I could challenge constantly, because they’d never back down. They felt like they were going to find a way to succeed no matter what the odds. There was a confidence amongst the players that they were going to win the battle regardless of what they were up against. While my team at Maine was very cautious because they were so used to the results being negative, the kids at RIC wanted to take on the toughest challenges. There’s no doubt this changed the way I could effectively coach the two teams.
I spoke to a coach recently whose team had an excellent year and finished in the top 3 in their league, with most of their players coming back. We were talking about how he should approach next season, where they’d be one of the favorites in the league for the first time. When we were at RIC, and we were picked to win the league, we owned it. We talked about it and we loved it, having the target on our back. But that fit our personality perfectly. At Maine, I probably would have to handle that situation differently. Having success for one year might not put us in a frame of mind to have a target on our back, with all the losing we were used to.
My suggestion when thinking about the best approach to your team is to ask two questions – 1) What fits my personality as a head coach? 2) What fits the personality of my team? Hopefully, the answer to those questions is the same. But if it’s not, the answer to #2 is more important – what fits the personality of your team? Imposing your own will on a team that isn’t built to handle it won’t yield the best results. If you have a team that can thrive on expectations and will enjoy being the hunted, then put it out there to them and talk about what’s expected. But if you have a team that’s more comfortable flying under the radar, you don’t have to embrace the expectations. You can talk about your own program’s standards and living up to them every day, not concerning yourself with what other people think. Some teams might thrive with less internal pressure in the gym every day.
As your program continues to grow, gauging the personality of your team is crucial. It’s not as simple as thinking about what fits you as a coach and imposing that will on your team. It’s understanding who they are and what they are most comfortable with, then creating an environment that gives them the best chance for elite success.