One year when I was the head coach at Rhode Island College, my father had to have open heart surgery. I had gone to visit him in the hospital before the surgery, and we had a game at Eastern Connecticut on the day he had surgery. After the game I went to New York to see my father as he recovered from surgery. We had a day off and then practice scheduled for Monday, and I had really good assistants who were more than capable of handling practice with the team.
That year we had a very talented but young team. We were coming off the best year in school history, going 27-4 and reaching the Elite 8. We were immature, with a lot of new guys, trying to live up to a pretty high standard we had set as a program. It was very challenging for me to start the year because I knew what it was supposed to look like, but our focus and effort were not where they need to be. So I was wrestling with that team a little bit during the first semester, and I was struggling to get the best out of them. The energy wasn’t great every day, and I was always trying to pull it out of them.
I drove back to Rhode Island on Monday, and I was hoping to be there on time for practice but I had to take care of my father first, and I ended up getting back on the road a little later than expected. I got back to RIC about 45 minutes after practice had started.
When I got to the gym, I stood outside the door and watched practice through the window. The energy was terrific. My assistants had everything running very efficiently, the guys were sharp, and everyone was communicating. It was loud, just the way we wanted our practices to be. And the noise was coming mostly from our players – they were talking to each other, teaching each other, and encouraging one another. The energy level in the gym was noticeably different than where it had been day to day with this team.
So I stayed outside the gym and watched through the window. The last thing I wanted to do was walk in and change the vibe. Practice finally looked the way we wanted it to look every day, and the only difference was that I wasn’t there. It really made me think.
I had been trying every day to get this level of intensity and consistency on the practice floor, taking different approaches both physically and mentally with the guys. But I couldn’t get the message across. Now I was gone for one day, and the energy was completely different. I had to reflect on what I was doing. Clearly something I was doing – the tone I set, the way I demanded things get done, the energy I was bringing – was having an effect on practice. Or the guys had just tuned me out somewhat. They were going through the motions for me, trying to get through it and give me what I wanted. But they weren’t fully invested. It wasn’t theirs. As I stood in the window and watched that practice, it was clearly theirs.
Sometimes the message we give as head coaches can become too much. Even if it is the right message trying to accomplish the right goal, it can become overbearing on your team. Especially depending on how you deliver it. If you are constantly hitting them over the head with the same message, delivered the same way, they are just going to tune you out. It’s nothing personal, and it doesn’t mean you have bad kids or they don’t want to play for you. It’s just human nature.
What we do is constant and intense, and for us as coaches it is our life. For our players, although it’s surely very important to most of them, it’s something they do during the day. It’s not what they do, like it is for you and me. We have to remember that. The intense nature of what we do can wear on everyone – coaches included – and have an impact on their approach.
I learned that day, watching my players go through practice with my assistants, that my approach with my team could sometimes become too much. My tone, my intensity, my message – while always well thought out and with the best intentions in mind – could sometimes suffocate my team in practice. It’s something to be keenly aware of as a head coach. When they aren’t responding the way you want, often it’s you that needs to change your approach, not them.