One of the challenges we constantly face as coaches – how do you handle the player who is talented, but doesn’t really work hard.  Especially coming out of high school, so many kids are used to just relying on their talent to be good enough. That’s not an indictment of high school coaches at all, just a natural result when you have a very small percentage of players who are good enough to play in college.  Their natural ability is enough for them to produce every day and be the best player, so they get comfortable relying on that ability.  It’s hard to get someone to compete hard consistently when they don’t need to compete hard consistently to be good.

Your culture matters.  You want to focus on the process, and how committed the kids are and how hard they work every day.  But you are always going to have to deal with talented players who just aren’t that bought-in or don’t play that hard, because they are talented enough to get away with it.  And those kids, while they have the potential to help you with their production, can also undermine your culture every day.

So how do you handle it?

Talent Matters

Tell you team from the beginning, talent matters.  Sometimes we get so caught up in culture, commitment and how hard we want our kids to play, that we forget the basic truth: You have to have a certain amount of talent to be able to play.  Don’t say stuff like “The 5 hardest workers are going to start.” It’s not true. On most teams, the talented players are going to play. It’s okay to say that.

When my players asked me what determined playing time, I always had the same answer: Everything. At Maine, once practice started we made clear our guys knew their job – it was to compete and produce.  Being a great competitor who can’t produce doesn’t help the team. And being a talented player who can produce but doesn’t compete also let’s his team down.

Talent matters. Make that understood and a part of your overall approach from the beginning.

Talk To Your Players About It

Ask your players, in individual meetings or in small groups, what they think about the kid who’s really talented but doesn’t play that hard. Most of them see it, and will say “He can really help us, he just has to learn how to compete better.” Tell them your plan to try and get him to compete harder, and enlist their help. There’s nothing like a little peer pressure. If they see lazy behavior in practice, empower them to speak up. They can likely have a bigger impact on that kid than you can.

Players see talent first, and they want talent on the floor. If you ask them if that kid should play, they are almost certainly going to say something like “Yes, we need him.” They don’t see culture as important as you do. By having these conversations with them, you’ll get their buy-in to trying to get the most out of the player. And when he’s playing, you won’t see the resentment that can derail your culture.

Bring Him Off The Bench

Find something simple and significant to make the point. Brining him off the bench, especially if he considers himself a starter, can be very effective. Make it very clear – “We both know you are a starter for this team, but until you learn to compete consistently for your teammates, I’m bringing you off the bench.”

Maybe it’s just symbolic, but most players care who starts. Eventually, if he does care about his teammates, this is going to get to him. And it helps you keep the credibility of your culture.

Reward The Culture Guys

Find ways to reward the kids who aren’t as talented as he is, but give you everything they’ve got. Put one of them in the starting line-up. Mix up the rotation and reward the tough kid who’s been playing his ass of in practice. Slight tweaks to your rotation and playing time can have a big effect on your culture. If your program is based on merit, the kids know who the better players are and who should play, even though they all want to play more. 5-10 minutes of game action will make your culture guys feel really good about themselves and reinforce your message about the culture.

Ask Him Two Questions

  1. Do you trust me?
  2. Do you want to be great?

If the answer to either question is no, you’ve got bigger problems. You’ll never win with him, get him out of there. But if he says yes, you can refer back to what he told you every time you are having a conversation with him.

Show Him The Behavior On Film

If you have the ability with video, have one on one sessions with him as the head coach. Don’t have an assistant do it. You don’t have to yell at him. Just show him the specific behaviors when he does compete really hard, and show him when he doesn’t. Point out clearly how it hurts the team.  Make it clear to him – “You told me you want to be great, correct? This is what is keeping you from being a great player.”

Make Practice Hard On Him

I’m not saying pick on him or be unfair to him. But put him in situations where he’s going to have to compete hard to be successful. Put him on a team one day with most of the younger guys. Force him to guard a bigger, more physical kid, maybe out of position, so that he has to battle. Put him with mostly smaller guys in a competitive rebounding drill. Force him to stay on the floor for consecutive reps in shell drill.

If you can find situations where he’s going to have to compete to succeed in practice, his competitive edge will start to grow.

Don’t Fight Him

It won’t be productive to turn this situation into a daily personal battle. If he’s not a great competitor he’s probably a little bit mentally soft, and if you hammer him in front of his teammates he’s probably going to turtle and go deeper into his own world, and he could start some negative bitching in the locker room. Yelling at him with stuff like “You see, that’s because you are soft, you aren’t willing to compete for this team!” likely isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Don’t fight him. He’s been playing like this all of his life, and he’s been good enough (or enabled) to get away with it. The solution is a long-term one. It’s not something you are going to drag out of him with shock therapy. Fighting with him on a daily basis about it is going to make his situation worse and potentially bring the team down.

You can challenge him to change in ways that don’t become a daily battle. Coach it out of him, don’t fight him on it.

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