The hardest thing to do in sports is to sustain elite success. What is winning again all about?

Perspective

The best teams and the best athletes have a great perspective on success. Their specific attitude towards winning is very process-based. They understand that winning is hard, and they don’t let winning change their approach. That isn’t easy to do.

Once you’ve achieved success, it’s so easy to simply expect it to happen again. And when things don’t go quite the same way the following year, you overreact to what is “wrong.” The right perspective allows you to stay balanced. That’s not easy when everyone is telling you how good you are, and your mind naturally goes to you being even better the next year.

Championship years are special. They are a lot more than just working hard and getting what you’ve earned. The other guys are doing that too. So much has to go right for you to win, and some of that is stuff that isn’t even within your control. The right perspective on success allows you to stay on a path to continued achievement.

Failure

Short-term or long-term, you are going to deal with failure during any season, even a championship season. But once you’ve tasted success, any kind of failure is magnified. A bad practice can get blown out of proportion (“We didn’t do this last year!”). A loss, or a losing streak gets magnified (“What is going on?”).

Championship seasons get remembered by hanging banners, and when you look at them you don’t think about the adversity you went through. Those seasons are often glorified as if nothing went wrong. It’s hard to remember the day-to-day, you really just remember the big wins and cutting down the nets.

Dealing with failure gets harder after you’ve won. There’s a a sense that “this isn’t supposed to be happening,” and adversity can make you a lot tighter. The best teams understand failure is part of the deal and get past it pretty quickly. They don’t allow it to creep into their psyche and start to chip away at the collective confidence.

Sacrifice

Everyone thinks they are going to do even better next year. We just won, and I averaged this and this, and this many minutes, and next year everything will get even better. But that isn’t possible for everyone. No team keeps the same roster, no matter how many veterans you have coming back. You have new players, you have older players, the freshmen are now sophomores and they naturally want bigger roles.

Sacrifice is harder after you’ve won because it’s natural to expect more. But there just aren’t enough shots or minutes for everyone to get what they expect individually. The sooner you can get your team to recognize this, the better your chances will be of repeating success.

Remind your guys how good it felt to be cutting down the nets at the end, and make the point that it didn’t happen because everyone had really productive years. Guys could have shot more, could have scored more, could have played more. But at some point along the way, great teams understand that sacrifice is essential. Getting your team to understand that after they’ve hung a banner is a challenge.

Focus

The right focus is essential to continued success, and I put most of that responsibility on the head coach. It’s very important to get your team to be forward thinking. And this is extremely hard for the head coach.

I would avoid at all costs any references to “last year.” I never wanted our players to think we were trying to live up to last year, or that we had to have the same type of year. This year’s team is always new, and they are trying to achieve something on their own. References to last year only bring on doubt – why isn’t it the same, what’s going wrong?

Richard Pitino at Minnesota writes two things up on the board at his first team meeting every year –

  1. It will not go the way you think it’s going to go.
  2. We are all on the same team.

I think that’s a great message for any team, but especially one coming off a great year. It will not go the way you think it’s going to go. It won’t be the same. It won’t be that easy. It won’t be smooth. But most importantly, that is okay. That doesn’t mean we won’t be great. It doesn’t mean we can’t win. We just have to know what to expect. We are going to have to deal with some stuff that we didn’t see coming.

Sustaining success is about focusing on what’s in front of you, and eliminating the noise. The year you had last year, and the banner you hung, is just noise to this years team.

Caring

The last characteristic I see in teams that win again is caring. Genuinely caring about the success of your teammates, and putting your teammates ahead of your personal interests. When everyone on a team does that, it’s incredibly powerful.

Connected teams are very difficult to beat. Teams that play for one another, that pour all of their energy into what is best for the team, find their way to success. If you care enough to sacrifice something personal for your teammates you’ll do whatever it takes to help your team succeed.

Great teams don’t play for themselves or because their coach tells them what to do. They play for their teammates, and the last thing they want to do is let their teammates down. You have to do a lot of hard stuff as a team to achieve success, and as a coach you want to get your team to understand you are doing it for one another. It’s not for you, or me, or to try and win. It’s for my teammates, to make sure I don’t let them down. Finding that level of motivation is a powerful element of high-achieving teams.

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