The spotlight is so much bigger on the game at all levels today with the explosion of digital and social media. No one at any level really coaches in private, and it’s very easy for everyone to have an opinion. No matter what level you are coaching at, it feels like someone is always watching.
It’s a bigger challenge now to manage the noise and the critics as a coach. Even at the lowest levels where it isn’t necessarily a big deal, it’s human nature to react to criticism. Even if you handle it well, it bothers you. It makes you think a little bit about what you are doing, especially during a rough stretch. There’s just a lot of noise you have to deal with as a coach.
I thought about this watching the game 7s in the the early rounds of the NBA playoffs. When the Sixers lost game 7 to the Raptors it seemed like more than a loss – it was a reflection on whether or not Jimmy Butler was really a superstar, whether or not Brett Brown should be there coach moving forward, and whether or not you could win big games with Joel Emibiid. It struck me that today when you suffer a tough loss, it’s more than just a loss. It’s a look deep into the soul of your team, your players and your ability as a coach.
Despite more hype, every loss is not a referendum on your ability as a coach, or the character and make up of your team. A bad loss during the year doesn’t mean you have to re-think how you operate, change the line-up or shuffle the deck with your approach. Sometimes the other team just beats you.
In 2009 my RIC team was loaded. We went 21-4 in the regular season and won our league title, in a year when the league was really tough. We won our first two conference tournament games at home to get to 23-4, and we hosted a really good UMass-Dartmouth team in the finals. And they beat us.
We still hosted the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and we faced a good MIT team in the first round. We had a small lead most of the game but could never really shake them, and we ended up losing in overtime. We had an experienced, talented team that I honestly thought was good enough to win the national title. We had gone to the Elite 8 two years earlier and the second round the year before, playing in our 3rd straight NCAA Tournament. I think that might have been the best team I coached at RIC in 9 years. And just like that, it was over.
Obviously I wanted to figure out what went wrong. There were definitely some things I could have done to keep my team looser when we were in close games down the stretch. Obviously there is always room for improvement. But what I realized is that sometimes you just get beat. There doesn’t have to be a great explanation or a major adjustment the next time out because you lost a game or a series. Looking back, that team was probably the best team I’ve ever coached. We lost to two really good teams down the stretch, but still won 80% of our games. Those losses don’t mean there was something inherently flawed about those teams. We just faced a couple of teams who outplayed us down the stretch in some tight games.
You want to evaluate every game clearly and figure out what you can do better the next time. But don’t dig too deep every time you lose. Every loss doesn’t mean there is something drastically wrong with your team or something has to change. Trust your culture and trust your principles as you make the necessary adjustments. Don’t fall into the trap of overthinking each loss. Sometimes you just get beat.