My first year as a head coach we started out 8-7 in our first 15 games. I took over a very talented team, as it turns out one that I think was likely the best team in the league. But we didn’t get off to a good start. We’d play very well for a week and then we’d just no-show for a game or two, losing to teams that should never beat us. By mid-January we were barely over .500 and we should have been much better.
In my mind we were practicing well, our guys were bought in and they were competing very hard. We just couldn’t seem to put it together. I was a new coach that took over in September and didn’t recruit any of the current players, so we were still getting comfortable with each other. It was going to take time to pull it together, people told me. You have to get some of your own players in there. It’ll click, just give it time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We could attribute our difficulties to it being my first year as a head coach and the players still trying to get comfortable with a new system.
I knew something wasn’t right, but I really couldn’t figure it out. One of my assistants at the time, Bill Black, used to say “I just think we need to be more consistent.” He used the word consistent over and over. I was convinced our guys were playing hard every day and committed to what we were doing, it was just taking time for it to click. Something wasn’t right, but it was easy to attribute it to everything being new.
Coach Black kept using the word consistent, and I realized eventually he meant we weren’t being consistent in some way. As we talked it out it became clear that I was sending mixed messages. We talked about how hard we wanted them to compete every day, but some days I was on them about it and some days I was letting them off the hook. I was a first-year head coach, and I was unknowingly concerned what my guys thought about me – not holding them accountable.
For about 6 weeks we were trying to figure out how to get better, attributing our problems to the fact that things were just new and we needed to get used to each other. The reality was much different. We were inconsistent because of my approach with the team. It really had nothing to do with us getting comfortable with each other. I made some changes in my approach, earned the trust of my players and we started to play to our potential, going 11-3 in our final 14 games. The following year we won 27 games and went to the Elite 8.
We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to solve our problems. I’m not sure we spend enough time understanding what the actual problem is in the first place. I have a great friend, Phil O’Brien, who runs the York Consulting group, and he always says when it comes to problem solving “See reality for what it is, and act accordingly.”
I think the first issue we have with problem solving is we often don’t know what the problem actually is. I thought the problem with my first team was just that everything was new and it would take a little time to gel. The problem was my approach. If we don’t get to the reality of the situation we are going to waste a lot of time trying to solve the wrong problems.
A lot of this when it comes to coaching is self-serving. Have you ever been in a locker room at halftime or after a game and heard “We got the shots we want… we just have to make more shots?” That’s a pretty common coaching attribution after a loss. We played well, we got the shots we want, we just couldn’t make any. Not much else we can do. That usually makes the coaching staff feel better, but it also avoids reality. Do you really think the reason we lost is because we just couldn’t make enough shots? Sure, that may happen occasionally, but most of the time when I hear that it’s not reality. Usually if we weren’t making shots it’s because we weren’t getting the shots we wanted.
In evaluating your team, especially when you aren’t playing well, it’s very easy to go to what’s comfortable. You find a common narrative where you can tell yourself you know the problem and you can go about fixing it. My first team was on their 3rd coach in 3 years, so of course we were going to be inconsistent. That was the coach-speak, and it fit because it made me comfortable. That must be the issue, not much I can do about it, it’s going to take time. It just wasn’t reality, so there was no way to fix it.
I think about this a lot with the current global pandemic going on. We are in an unprecedented situation with devastating consequences. We’ve been sidelined for 5 months and no one knows when we can start getting back to normal. But there is such an urgency to get back to normal, that I’m not sure we are starting from reality. We see what we want to see, a narrative that allows us to get back to school and get back to playing sports. We have to get back to normal in the fall, right? There’s no way the virus can keep us shut down that long. There are so many anecdotes and different angles out there that we can find whatever information we want to support the most comfortable narrative. Just like I did with my first team.
As a coach, before you try and start solving your teams problems, make sure you know exactly what those problems are and the root cause behind them. Ask people you trust what they are seeing from the outside. Analyze the data so you are dealing with facts. Tell your staff they have to come up with a different angle, to disagree with something that you guys have been talking about. Talk to your players and get to know what is going on from their perspective.
We often don’t spend enough time dealing with reality. Before you can solve your teams problems you’d better know exactly what they are. Make sure you start with reality first. See it for what it is, and then act accordingly.