When I took over at Maine, it was the first time I coached a really bad team or a losing program. I realized I had been very fortunate throughout my coaching career, never coaching a team that had been consistently bad. At Maine the program was so used to losing, so comfortable losing – something I didn’t really have experience with.
I knew I needed to change the culture, and it wasn’t going to happen right away. I had to think long-term. I also knew the players needed to see and feel change. Things had to be different. So I set about the process the best way I knew how. I was honest with the players about who I was as a coach, and who we were going to be as a program. I was very direct and up front about the standards of our program and what would be expected of them. Our foundation was going to be the way we competed for one another, and we were always going to focus on the process. We’d create a positive atmosphere were we would work hard together, hold each other accountable at a high level and have fun doing it.
I thought by being honest and up front with the players, laying out the standards and expectations, and getting on the floor and showing them how hard we were going to work, I’d get the guys to buy-in. I assumed that they were hungry form something new and would be excited about a new culture. Having come from a lot of success at Rhode Island College I knew the culture we were going to establish would work, and I thought they would see that and jump on board. I was wrong about that.
Over time I realized that getting my new players bought in and getting them to play hard didn’t have nearly as much to do with what we were doing on the court, and what I was saying to them in the gym, as it did with the relationship I had with them off the court. Understanding who they were as people, what was important to them and earning their trust was so much more important than the the structure we were putting in place. They weren’t going to play hard for me just because I was a new coach and I had a different approach. There had to be a genuine connection off the court, or there was a limit to what they would give me on it.
It’s not something we think about enough as a coach. I know most coaches understand that trust and caring about the players off the court is important. But I think most of us look at buy-in based on what happens in the gym more than what happens outside of it. You think if practice is fun, the kids are getting better and you are fair and honest with them, they’ll start to believe in you. The truth is their level of buy-in and how hard they will compete for you is so much more about who you are than it is about what you do.
It took some time for me to really figure it out. We had a system and a culture that worked, that was simple and the standards were clear. But that didn’t mean the kids were going to buy-in. They had to know who I was first, and my conversations and relationships away from basketball had more of an impact on their believe in me than anything that took place in the gym.