One of the most important days of my coaching career took place in early January of my second year at Rhode Island College. We were good, having beaten Iona in an exhibition game to start the year and going into the Christmas break with only one loss. But the one loss was to Keene State in our league. They were a very good team, but I felt they were tougher than we were, and that bothered me. So over the Christmas break I made a decision as a coach that we had to get tougher, and when we came back in January I was going to set a different tone.
So I made a significant change in tone of practice when we came back after New Year’s. I was much tougher, much more demanding, and the tone of the message was different. I wanted it to be clear that if we were going to win our league things had to change. Our guys needed to see and feel tangible difference.
The D3 schedule is different, and often you end up taking 2-3 weeks off around Christmas. At RIC we finished our first semester games before finals, usually around the December 12-15, and then we didn’t practice or play again until after New Year’s. So when you came back in January it was like starting over. And the first few days of practice, as you can imagine, were generally awful.
But this was just my second year and I hadn’t really grown accustomed to that schedule yet. So after 16 days off we were back in the gym with 4 days to prepare for our next game, and I was going to set a much tougher tone. As you can imagine, the results weren’t pretty. The guys needed to work their way back into shape, and I had no let up at all. I was going to make us a lot tougher. So I was on them about everything. Practice wasn’t pretty, and the more I pushed the worse it got.
So after two days I got a call in the office from Kinsey Durgin. Kinsey was one of my senior captains, our starting point guard, and a first-team all league player. Kinsey asked if we could talk, and he was very respectful. But he basically challenged me and my approach to practice.
Kinsey basically told me that the guys all liked playing for me, and they thought we had a chance to be really good. But that things seemed very different in January and that the guys weren’t having any fun at all. He told me that in the past they had felt like coaches had given up on them before, and it was starting to feel like that again. That I was going to give up on them.
At first I was stunned. It was a little jarring to have one of my players call me and challenge me on the way I was approaching things. It wasn’t really a tense conversation, the tone was good, but it still wasn’t something I expected. I explained to Kinsey (like I had told the team before we started practicing again) that we needed to get tougher to win the league, and that I needed to hold them accountable for that. But to the team, it felt like I was getting ready to quit on them. Like nothing they could do would ever be good enough, and that I didn’t really believe in them.
Of course, that wasn’t the message I was trying to send. But that was the message they were receiving.
After the phone conversation I wasn’t sure what to do. I took what Kinsey said to heart, but I was also conflicted. Here it is just two days after I was trying to set a tougher tone to make us better, and my captain is telling me the players don’t like it.
So I called a coaching friend of mine who I really trust and relayed him the story about the phone call. His initial response was surprising. “You’ve got ’em. Wow. You’ve got ’em.” Not what I was expecting. But he went on to tell me that if my captain was comfortable enough to call me and give me some constructive criticism about what I was doing as a head coach, we must have a deep level of trust in our program. And if they trust me enough to come to me with that type of information, knowing a lot of coaches might turn on them and make it worse, they’d be willing to run through a wall for me. “They’ll give you everything they’ve got. They feel safe enough to lay it all on the line for you, they want to. But something is clearly off. So I’d listen to them. You’ve got them across the line.”
Ultimately I wasn’t comfortable with the way practice had gone, and the tone didn’t feel right to me either. But I also wasn’t comfortable with us getting out-toughed in our games, and that needed to change. I knew it did. So how can we accomplish that change? My approach was to hold them accountable for all of the behavior in practice that didn’t reach an elite level of toughness, but obviously they weren’t responding.”
So they next day at practice, I addressed the team and we talked about the conversation I had with Kinsey. I told them that I wasn’t just trying to be a prick to them, that I was trying to make us tougher. If everything we did every day was just fun and enjoyable, we probably weren’t going to win the league. But I also understood that to get the most out of them I needed them bought in. I explained what was necessary for us to win our league from a toughness standpoint, and I told them I would take the edge off of practice if they would hold themselves accountable for that stuff.
It wasn’t easy, and to be honest most of the year I still wasn’t sure we were tough enough. But we were back to competing at a high level every day, and I knew that would make us better. We would actually lose to Keene again in late January, but we would go on to beat them by 1 game to win the league (we didn’t lose to anyone else). We also went on to beat them in our league championship game to win the title for the first time, and then knock them off again in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite 8. We finished the season 27-4, still the best team in Rhode Island College history.
As a coach, what do you do when you get challenged? Think about that question. As a head coach we expect to be the one making decisions, and we aren’t supposed to be questioned. But to get better you really need people to challenge you. Obviously I’m not talking about your players questioning your decisions when they don’t like them. That really isn’t that common.
We often talk about adapting, growing, or staying ahead of the curve as a coach. How do you keep getting better, even when you are having success? It certainly isn’t by telling everyone what to do and just making sure they follow your orders. It’s about listening to the people around you, and sometimes those people might be your players. It might be your assistant coaches who have a different perspective on something you’ve been doing for a long time. If your assistant is challenging you on your approach to something (obviously doing it the right way) it shouldn’t make you angry, it should make you better.
When someone challenges you, look at it as an opportunity. It should make you think about your approach and your process. Is there a better way to do things? Is there a different way that would fit the personnel or the personality that this team has right now? Don’t let your head coach ego get into the way. It actually takes a high level of maturity to allow someone to challenge you as a head coach and not get upset about it. And if it’s someone you trust, the information they are trying to get to you is pretty valuable.
I’m not sure I knew how to handle it when Kinsey Durgin challenged me in my second year as a head coach. I respected him and trusted him, but at first I’m sure I was a little defensive about it. But listening to him turned out to be one of the most important decisions I’ve made as a head coach.
Think about the way you respond when you are challenged. It can go a long way towards your ability to grow as a coach.