Over time it’s really easy to settle into mediocrity without even knowing it. You go about things the same way, and you’ve had some success, so you don’t see any reason to really change. You make some minor adjustments, but overall you keep your foot on the gas and continue doing what got you there in the first place. You don’t notice it, but over time you look back over the last couple of years and realize things aren’t as good as they should be, and you wonder “how did we get here?”
Adjusting, keeping things fresh, staying ahead of the curve – whatever you want to call it – is important for any successful team or organization. But it’s a tremendous challenge, especially when you’ve been successful. As a basketball coach it’s a little different because your personnel changes every year. I think it’s important to look at your program as having a new team every year, and figure out what is best for that team. Yet so many coaches do the same thing year after year. It’s very easy to get stale without even knowing it.
You have to be intentional about changing things up, because it’s so easy to fall back into what is comfortable for you. There are some things you can do to make sure you are at least analyzing a different way of doing things.
Ask Your Players
I’ve always said I learn the most about my team when I talk to my players. Ask them what they think is best for them. Ask them how they feel about the way practice is structured. Ask them how what you do best suits their game, and the adjustments they have to make to fit into your style. You’ll get some great insight and ideas on how to keep things fresh if you listen to your players.
Tell Your Staff To Bring Something Different To The Table
It could be in the off-season, where you give them an assignment to study a different style of play on offense or defense, and bring it back to your meetings (Princeton offense? 3/4 court pressure?). Have them learn a different style of play from what you guys usually do, and see if parts of it might fit your personnel.
You can also ask this of them during the season. Obviously they won’t have time to go study a different way of playing, but ask them to bring something different to your meeting on Monday morning. What is something we are not doing, or something completely different than what we do every day, that you think might help us? Encourage them to bring you new ideas.
Bring in someone you trust from the outside to watch practice. Tell them you want them to write down the adjectives that they think of when they are watching you practice, so they don’t just say “Yeah, I thought it was good.” Ask them do describe what they saw watching your practice. Does it. match the identity you are looking for? Then you can start a discussion on what you can do better.
Mix Up Practice
Change the order of your regular practice. If you generally start with shooting, individual development, and then defense, change it up. Start with offense and go right to 5 on 5. Do your time and score at the beginning of practice. Practice :30 second time outs in the middle of your practice, where they need one bucket or one stop to win a game.
You can also let your assistants run a practice. Give them control, show they players a different look, and change the energy. Or let the players plan practice. Let them take control of it and see what they want to do. Give them some ownership.
In the off-season ask your players the question “When I go to practice, I am __________?” Is it excited? Ready? Bored? Have them describe practice honestly. Sure, they probably aren’t going to just kill your practices if they don’t like them, but you’ll be able to tell if there are certain things they don’t like. Your players are a great resource for your own improvement.
Engage their minds in a different way and you will keep things fresh and get more out of them.
Short-term and long-term, you should always be evaluating internally on two levels – asking yourself what does your team need, as well as evaluating yourself as the head coach. Take a critical look at what your team is doing well and where they are struggling. If rebounding is a big emphasis for your team but you aren’t rebounding the ball well, it’s probably not the players. You might want to change the way you practice rebounding. Take a a close look at what you are doing well and where you need to improve, and change things. You have to do more than say “Well, our big guys have to rebound better.”
I’d also recommend having your managers put a camera on you during practice. Just have them film you the entire practice, and study the way you interact with your players. It will tell you a lot about what you are doing and how the players are responding. I know after my first couple of years as a head coach, where we had a lot of success, I became much more demanding and even a little bitter with my players, without realizing it. Because we had gotten used to success, I wasn’t celebrating the good stuff we were doing anymore – it was like I expected it. But I was pounding them about the stuff I didn’t like more and more. I didn’t realize it, but I was being different, and it took me a while to figure out.
Relentlessly self-evaluate yourself and your team through a clear and honest lens.
Ask The Question
“What can we do differently?” That question should be asked in every meeting. Somebody tell me something different that we can be doing that will help us. Avoid the group-think that is so easy to fall into, where everyone nods in agreement at the same opinion. I don’t care if you are undefeated, it’s always worth discussing what you can do differently to make you better.
Learn In The Off-Season
Study a different system or aspect of the game in the off-season. Don’t just re-watch all of your games and evaluate your team for a second time in the spring to make yourself feel like you are working. You are going to come up with the same answers. Study someone else. Talk to other coaches. Go visit with them. Watch them practice or work out if you can. Come up with a different way to speak, to teach, to approach practice. There are great resources all around you. We are constantly on our guys about getting better and adding something to their game in the off-season. Are you doing the same?
It is very easy to settle into mediocrity and look up one day and have no idea how you got there. I’ve seen it happen plenty of times, and I’m sure you’ve either coached teams or seen other teams that have done it. Be intentional about change and keeping things fresh to avoid that trap.