Pete Strickland was the head coach at Coastal Carolina for a number of years, and before that an assistant coach at a bunch of different places including NC State, GW, Old Dominion, and Dayton. He’s currently the head coach of the Irish National team.

I got to know Pete a little bit when he was an assistant coach and he used to go back and work Morgan Wootten’s basketball camps outside of DC when I was a young coach trying to learn and make my way in the business. I picked up a lot from Pete watching him teach and coach at camps.

Pete used to give this talk to the kids at camp about habits. He’d pick a kid out of the crowd, ask him where he was from and who his big rival was back home. He’d put him in a scenario in the big game back home against his rival, with :07 seconds left and his team down by 1, with no time outs left. He’d have the other kids count down the final :07 seconds and he’d ask the player, “OK, in this scenario, down by 1 with no time outs left, against your biggest rival, packed gym, which habits are going to take over for you? Your good habits, or your bad habits?”

He’d then ask the whole group of kids to show their hands. How many people say his good habits are going to take over? How many people say bad habits? There would usually be a decent split between good habits and bad habits.

Pete would then tell the crowd that he couldn’t answer the question, because he had never seen the young man practice. His point was the habits that will take over under pressure with the game on the line will be the habits you practice every day. If you practice good habits, those habits are going to take over. If you practice bad habits, those habits are going to take over. The answer is whatever habits you practice.

Practice good habits. I’ve always remembered that from Coach Strickland as long as I’ve been a coach. Isn’t that what we are really trying to do as coaches? Figure out what the habits are that are consistent with winning, and get them to practice them every day. Hold them accountable for their habits.

It sounds pretty simple and it makes a lot of sense. But in practice, it’s not that easy.

Think about how much you focus on habits in practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, in what the whole thing looks like. It’s easy to overlook habits if the overall result is something you can applaud and feel good about. And at the end of the day one of the real traps in coaching is that we want to feel good about what is happening with our teams. So we tend to overlook the stuff that doesn’t make us feel good, especially if it’s not having an immediate effect on the result.

So one of your players jogs back on defense in practice. He misses a shot and doesn’t immediately sprint back, giving the offense and advantage. But your big man gets back and blocks a shot at the rim, saving two points. What are you coaching in this scenario? The bad habit was your shooter jogging back on defense, something that is surely going to cost you in games. But are you addressing that lack of hustle, or are you celebrating the blocked shot?

Say you’ve got an athletic kid who is a pretty good rebounder, but doesn’t usually block out. He just goes and gets the ball. When a shot goes up, are you holding him accountable for the fact that he doesn’t block out, or are you letting it go because he’s going up and getting the rebound? There is a difference between accountability for the right habits and accountability for the result.

Is it okay for practice to start a couple of minutes late every day because two kids are still in the training room, or hanging out in the locker room? If it is, you are overlooking the importance of being on time. It’s still possible to have a great practice if you start 5 minutes late, but you are overlooking a really important habit. Does the specific message you give to your players really matter?

I’m reading a book called “The Program” which studies the cultures of elite military units. One of the things they say all the time is “The standard you walk past is the new standard.” The point being if you just walk past something and let it go, without addressing it, that is the new standard you’ve set for your team. If your kids are throwing their dirty laundry on the floor in the locker room and expecting someone else to clean it up, and you see it and don’t address it – well, that is the new standard for your team.

Think about the habits you want your team to establish. That is really what we are coaching. There are so many things that we “walk past” in practice because the result turned out okay or we just don’t seem to have time. We are “locked in” on certain things, and we overlook the basic habits.

Our job as coaches is to hold them accountable for the right habits every day. That is what translates into the games and sets you up for success. Figure out what habits are important to you and your team, and coach them on those habits every day. Hold them accountable when their habits don’t meet your standards. Training them on their habits is essential in a high-performing culture.

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