I love being around great teams, teams that perform at a high level and expect to perform at a high level. I’ve been lucky enough to coach teams like this, and for 9 years at Rhode Island College we had a team that was expected to win. Every night. I love that feeling. You know you are really good and everyone else in the gym knows you are really good. The confidence that comes from that is powerful.
But there’s also something that comes along with that, that surrounds great teams that are expected to win every night: tension. It’s something you have to deal with as a coach, and they don’t really teach you about it in head coaching school.
My second year at RIC we had most of our team back and we were picked to win the league. RIC had never won the league and hosted the conference tournament, and had never even played in the championship game. From the first day of school our goal was clear – to win the league.
We started that year by going to Iona College for an exhibition game, and we beat them. We didn’t just squeak by. We were up by 22 at halftime. We led the whole game, and ended up winning by 9.
As soon as we won that game, everything in our program changed. You could feel it right away. It was a great feeling, knowing we were really good. But it also came with a lot of pressure. Not only were we supposed to win every night, everyone expected that we should dominate. It created a lot of tension that we had to deal with, almost like we expected perfection from everything in our program.
We are all in situations at times where we have to learn how to handle success. Most of that we usually consider to be dealing with egos, guys who want to play more, and maybe guys who get lazy because they take success for granted. We also talk about dealing with new expectations. I’m not sure we prepare for the tension that comes with expected success.
I’m always struck by how great teams, teams that are expected to win every day, are surrounded by tension. It’s a feeling like nothing is ever good enough. Our RIC teams would go on the road and get a good league win over a good team by 8 points, and the first question we’d get asked is what happened? Why was it so close? Man, I learned at RIC how hard it is to win, and to win consistently. And we did a lot of winning.
When that tension creeps in you have to be aware of its effect on your team. Everyone is just a little tight. Every bad play gets magnified. Good plays are like a relief. We don’t celebrate them the way we used to. The good stuff becomes expected and the bad stuff is unacceptable. It’s very easy as a team to lose perspective, and as a coach you have to combat that.