You are going to run into situations as a coach where your players just don’t get it. No matter how much you do, how hard you try different ways of teaching it, they just aren’t going to pick it up. You get to the point in practice where you are trying to get blood from a stone, and a lot of coaches stand their ground and say “We are going to stay here until we get it right.” You pound them and pound them over and over, but things don’t get any better – they usually just get worse. There is a point where diminishing returns sets in, and as a coach you are being counterproductive. You may have to flip the script, and do something completely different.
Sometimes doing something totally different can change their mindset and shake them free from whatever they are struggling with. End the drill and go to something totally different. Play a shooting game, go from defense to offense, do a competitive fast break drill. At some point them hearing your voice say the same thing over and over just becomes noise. They are just trying to get through it. Recognizing when you’ve reached this point as a coach is very difficult and equally as important.
One of the biggest disappointments from my four years at Maine is the way we defended. The reason we were the best team in our league at RIC for 9 years – and the reason I got the Maine job – was because of the way we guarded. I believe 100% in our defensive system, the way we teach it, and the success it can bring. But at Maine we just couldn’t get over the hump – we were never very good defensively. You can point to a lot of different reasons as to why, but ultimately we were too easy to score on. Trust me when I tell you, it’s not because we didn’t work at it.
There were absolutely times where we worked so long on our team defensive stuff that it became counterproductive. I probably should have found a way to shake it up some more, but as a coach it’s not easy to do. You don’t ever want to feel like you are giving in to your team. We tried all kinds of different approaches, trying to get our guys to change their mindset and create complete buy-in.
One year we played at Stony Brook early in the conference season, and we were really bad defensively. It was early January, and we just weren’t getting it. After that game we had one day to prepare for playing at Hartford the following night. So we went right from Stony Brook to Hartford.
We knew our defense was the problem, but we were out of ways to try and fix it. I remember saying to my staff “We can’t just show up tomorrow and do all of our defensive stuff and expect our guys to get it. We have to do something differently.” I knew we were at the point where what we were doing simply wasn’t working. We only had one day to prepare for Hartford, so I was looking for a short-term change. So we decided to completely flip it on them.
In our huddle before practice that day I told the team “I want to score 100 points tomorrow.” I told them we were going to play fast and loose, spread them out, share the ball and knock down open shots. The guys were expecting us to come in and hammer them about our defense. We didn’t talk about the defensive end at all. Everything in that practice was focused on the offense. We still coached our guys on the defensive end, but we didn’t grind out our defensive drills they way we usually did. The entire approach was different.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the approach, because it goes against what coaching really is at it’s core. You need to improve in some area, you get in the gym and you work at it until you figure it out. But we had already been down that road so many times. In one day getting ready for Hartford, I actually thought the same approach would hurt us. There was no way we could just do the same thing. I wanted the difference to be drastic, so we did the exact opposite. We talked about scoring as man points as we could.
The next night we beat Hartford 105-99 in overtime. Although I busted our players chops, because we needed the overtime to score 100 so we didn’t actually achieve our goal. But there’s no question we changed the mentality. In the short term it loosened our guys up, and we played a lot better as a team. Although we still had clear defensive issues.
The point being there are times when you are killing your guys about a certain aspect of the game or a certain drill, and it just becomes to much. In the short-term, the best thing to do might just be to change the message. Do something else, talk about something else. Sometimes a mental reset is just what your team needs.