In my fourth year at Rhode Island College (2008-09) we had established the program at a pretty high level. We had been to the Elite 8 in 2007 and went back to the second round of the tournament in 2008, winning the Little East Championship in both years. We had beaten two division I teams in exhibition games (Iona, Holy Cross) the last two years. We had our entire team coming back for the 08-09 season, so we knew we had a chance to be good. We had established a championship culture and our guys were used to winning.
I knew going into the season we had a chance to be really good. I was locked in and ready to drive the team hard. As we started practice though, I noticed something different. I really didn’t have to say much.
Obviously with the whole team coming back our guys knew what to expect. We had added a couple of freshmen that year, so obviously they had to pick things up, but with so many veterans we really didn’t have to slow down. The new guys could just pay attention and pick things up as we moved along.
But what I noticed was the way the guys were coaching each other. It wasn’t just that they knew what to do, it was more that they knew what our standards were. They knew what was good enough, and what wasn’t. Our mission was always “Championship level, everything we do.” They had won championships before and been deep in the NCAA Tournament. So not only did they know what was expected of them, they knew what the right level looked like. And the best part about it, was they were holding each other accountable for our championship level standard.
I remember specifically how powerful the feeling was when I would blow my whistle and before I could drop it out of my mouth to say something, one of my players would beat me to it. I would stop shell drill when something wasn’t right and I’d hear “C’mon, no middle, let’s go.” Or I would blow the whistle and immediately here “That’s not good enough, let’s go, do it again.” They were coaching each other. They knew what championship level looked like and they were holding one another accountable to that standard.
As a coach, it almost made me feel good when there was a mistake. To know that they were going to correct it, to coach one another, and to be coached by one another, was very powerful. They were taking ownership of our daily approach, and taking responsibility for our standards.
This is where you are trying to get as a team. I didn’t set out to get to that point – at that time, in my fourth year as a head coach, I hadn’t really thought about that type of scenario. But I learned a lot about it from my players, seeing the way they took on the responsibility. From that point forward, it made me think about how you create that kind of atmosphere for your team.
There is no question it was the right combination of talent, success, leadership and culture. Talent makes a big difference, it always does. When the difficult stuff that you have to do to win comes naturally for your players it makes the buy-in that much easier. We also had some great natural leaders on that team – players that were generally concerned about the success of the team and the mentality of their teammates – and that makes a big difference. It was natural for many of them to speak up
But I also think it’s an environment you have to create. You have to give your players the room to take ownership, to speak up, and to lead. It was something that was a part of our culture, certainly off the floor. I always wanted to give my players a voice, to listen to them, to ask them how they felt about what was going on with the program. So I do feel like we created an environment that made them comfortable speaking up.
However asking their opinion in the office off the court is a little different than giving them some space in practice. I always had a pretty dominant voice in practice, because I didn’t want there to ever be any doubt about the message. I had to learn to give my players some room to take ownership, to give them the space to speak up. Sometimes I simply would ask them after I blew the whistle “Is that good enough for us?” And let them respond.
We want leadership, we want ownership, we want our players to take responsibility. But do we allow our players to actually take that on, or are we too busy telling them what we want them to do? We too often think coaching is telling our players what to do, when really it’s teaching them how to take responsibility for what they are doing. Too often the head coaches voice is the only one ringing in the gym, and the players are being told what to think. That suppresses their ability to lead, their ability to really own what they are doing.
Keep a close eye on the impact of your own voice. If you want leadership and ownership from your players, give them the space to make that happen.
Best teams I’ve coached – whistle drops out of my mouth, they are already saying something.