The best teams I’ve ever coached have played with elite confidence. I’ve always tried to coach that way. I want our players to walk into the gym extremely confident and expecting to win. But great teams also have a chip on their shoulder. They play with something to prove every night, like their backs are against the wall. But when you think about it, how do those two things coexist? I want our teams to feel like they are the best team in the league, and carry themselves that way. But if you really believe you are the best team, how do you find that edge that comes from playing with a chip on your shoulder? Once you have success, do you still feel like there is something to prove? It’s not an easy balance to find.
Confidence is crucial to any team, yet it can be elusive. Confidence comes from repeating success, and success isn’t always easy to come by. When looking at my best teams, our confidence came from the way we practiced. We are always 100% process-based in our approach, and our core basketball standard is the way we compete. Our practices are highly competitive and we keep score in drills to emphasize the compete level, but at the end of practice there isn’t a winner and loser. It’s highly competitive, yet at the end of the day the score isn’t the focus. It’s not one team winning over the other, it’s how well we competed. So our confidence comes from our compete level, regardless of who wins or loses the drills. Getting our players to understand that how we compete is who we are, as opposed to the scoreboard, is probably the most challenging and most important thing I do as a head coach.
Once our guys see how our compete level translates to games, their confidence only grows. Most teams and players see confidence as something that happens when the ball goes in and you win games. Shooters make shots, and when the see the ball go through the hoop their confidence grows. But we emphasize getting great looks and shooting them confidently, evaluating the shot before the ball gets to the rim. Our players come to understand that. When we see the way our opponent reacts to the way we compete, our confidence continues to grow. We understand the value of competing first, and the results follow.
It’s a pretty special place for a team, when your confidence comes from the way you compete with (and for) one another every day. Setting up an environment where your team can earn their own confidence, and continually giving them confidence reinforcements everyday, are great challenges for any coach. As my best teams at RIC started to grow, I realized the personality of our team fit with the confident approach. We wanted to wear it. Our kids walked into an opponents gym with their chests pumped out, carrying themselves with the confidence of a championship team. That didn’t come from winning games, it was fortified and strengthened by winning games. It really came from practice, from what we did every day. We wore t-shirts that said “The Hype Is Real” and “The Champ Is Here.” We wanted to be picked to finish first in league every year. We owned it, and we loved it. It fit our players personality very well, which is important.
So that became the standard we had to live up to every day. Our mission was “Championship level, everything we do.” If we were going to own it, we had to perform. So that was the first place the chip on our shoulder came from: high standards. Our “something to prove” was that we were the best team in the league. That edge you are trying to find doesn’t have to come from proving you are good enough or proving you belong, it can come from proving you can live up to your own standards. If those standard are set in practice, and your kids are fully invested, it will become their challenge.
There’s no question that the chip on your shoulder is also something you need to recruit. Our championship teams at RIC had some of the toughest kids I will ever coach. Many of them showed up with that as part of their DNA – hungry and driven. That toughness became part of the ethos of our program, but it started with the kids who were there when I showed up, and the type of kids RIC attracted. Kids who have that chip on their shoulder will be attracted to a program that values it.
After I saw the value in that competitive edge, and that toughness, I knew we had to appreciate it and cultivate it. So the way we mentally prepared for practice became a point of emphasis. You could no longer just show up at 4:00 and expect to be good. Our compete level was going to be so high, you had to mentally get yourself ready for it, just like you would for a game. We made sure we defined toughness in behavioral terms, so it was very clear to our players. First on the floor for a loose ball, crashing the glass to keep a rebound alive, sprinting back in transition to stop a break, taking charges – we highlighted the behaviors that defined that chip on our shoulder, and we rewarded them. We always started 1 or 2 kids who showed elite toughness. We found playing time for our best competitors, even if they weren’t the most skilled or productive. That chip on your shoulder that we were looking for became a core value of our program. We ended up as a program with elite confidence that played every day with something to prove.
You can coach a confident team that really believes in itself while still maintaining that chip on your shoulder. While they may seem to be diametrically opposed, you can connect that confidence and your standard of being the best team in the league with that edge you need to have every day. Letting go of the results is a big key, so find a different place to measure your confidence. When you do, your standards should be very high, and the edge you need to live up to those standards will emerge.