My last season at RIC we really struggled to play at a high level consistently. We had lost some talent from the year prior including an All-American point guard who led us to 26 wins. But we had a lot of important players coming back and brought in some good players as well. We were good, but we just weren’t playing consistently well, or as well as we all thought we were capable of. We had set a very high standard, but something was off.
One of our key players on that team was a senior who was very talented but also had some small issues staying balanced. He was a good kid and terrific 90% of the time, but there were times when he struggled with his emotions. He would lose it at time during drills, and it would take him a little time to settle down and be ready to go again.
Our team was aware of it and always tried to help him. They knew he was emotional, but they also knew he was important to the team and they wanted him on the floor. So while they generally would get a little frustrated with him, they knew he was trying and didn’t mean any harm by it. It helped that he was a terrific competitor and cared about winning – he played really hard all the time.
I knew that I couldn’t respond every time he got emotionally, because my emotion would simply add fuel to the fire. When he started to lose control, I would just sub him out of the drill and keep him on the sideline. I wouldn’t say anything to him in front of the team, or yell at him for losing control. I would just take him out and practice would continue to move forward. When he calmed down a bit, I’d call him over and have a conversation with him. I’d ask him if he felt the way he reacted was the right way, and he would say no, and usually apologize. I’d ask him if he was okay, and when he was I’d put him back in the drill. After he calmed down, he’d go back into practice and compete without incident.
This situation was present throughout the year, but started to get worse in mid-February. The incidents started to happen more frequently, and it really started to disrupt the flow of practice. More importantly, it was taking a ton of energy from me to handle the situation and not let it affect the team. It was becoming too much.
So I had to do something, and I didn’t really have a choice. I brought him in the office and told him I was removing him from the team. I didn’t say I was “kicking him off,” but just that he wasn’t going to be with the team. We needed to move forward and we couldn’t do it with his outbursts interrupting practice each day. He actually gave me a hug with tears in his eyes and thanked me for giving him the opportunity before he left my office. I felt terrible, but I knew it was what was best for the team.
We had about 5 games left, and we had just lost our second leading scorer. Our leading scorer was a freshmen who got hurt, so we were heading down the stretch with out our top two scorers. Having been inconsistent all year, I didn’t feel great about finishing strong, but of course I was wrong about that. We started playing better down the stretch, went into the conference tournament as the #2 seed and played great. We dominated all 3 games, winning the title on Eastern Connecticut’s home floor and heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the 8th straight year.
(By the way, I invited the player to join us for the conference tournament and sit on the bench in street clothes, and he jumped at the chance. He was with us the entire way cheering his teammates on).
After we won I talked to our seniors about what was different. They all pointed to the way I was handling that situation and about how after time it just became too much for them. They all got to the point where enough was enough, and they felt that my approach to that one player was unfair and I was treating him differently than everyone else. When I finally removed him from the group, there was a collective deep breath and we got back to being ourselves.
When you talk to coaches about handling a difficult situation with a player you hear the word “manage” a lot, like “that’s a situation we are going to have to manage.” Like there has to be some give and take, usually because the player is talented. I tried to manage that situation with my last team at RIC, and it was really hurting us. It wasn’t until I finally eliminated the situation that we were able to get over the hump as a group.
So think about situations where you feel you need to “manage” a talented player. When it’s all said and done, I wonder how many of those situations work out favorably because they were “managed” well. It’s obviously a very difficult situation when you are in the middle of it, and you can’t just eliminate someone every time you have a problem. But when you are managing a difficult situation, I’m not sure you are actually coaching anymore. While I was managing that situation at RIC, I was unaware of the negative impact it was having on the rest of my team.
If you aren’t comfortable “managing” a situation, stick to your principles and to who you are as a coach, and coach accordingly. Long-term I’m not sure managing it will get you the desired result.