When the answer seems obvious, start asking questions. That’s one thing I learned as a head coach. A lot of times the first answer is an emotional one. It’s the immediate response that comes up in an intense environment. When the answer seems obvious to you, ask yourself why.
A kid doesn’t know the play? Get him out of there. A kid shows up late for practice? Everyone on the line. Are you talking back to a coach? On the line. Someone is late for a game day shoot around? He’s not starting today. It’s not that the obvious answer is always wrong, or an overreaction. It’s just that it may have an unintended impact on the player or the team.
When you put a kid into the game, he has to be mentally ready to go. So if he doesn’t know the play you are running, the obvious reaction is to take him out. He’s not ready. That’s unacceptable. Everyone needs to understand this. But when you put a kid into a game and pull him right out, even when he made a mistake, what is that going to do to his confidence the next time you put him in? What does it tell the rest of your team about making a mistake? Again, it’s worth asking the question. If I take him out right now, even thought it’s justified, what are the actual consequences?
Often as coaches we are forced to make immediate decisions, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We train every day to make those decisions based on what we see from our kids and how they respond. Hopefully, we become an expert at it and our gut instincts are the correct ones. That’s what practice is for.
This isn’t to say that your natural reaction isn’t the right one. If you’ve studied the game, your team, the opponent, and you’ve put in a lot of time to become an expert, often times your first reaction is the best one. But in situations that don’t require an immediate reaction, you don’t have to make one. You can take your time to question the obvious answer – and see if there’s a better way to navigate the situation.
When the answer seems obvious, that’s a perfect time to start asking yourself questions. What is the goal here? What is the best way to get there? Is this consistent with the message we’ve been sending every day? This is especially relevant in team discipline situations, where you know you have to discipline a player and send the right message to your team. Sometimes the obvious answer won’t always be the best one. There is a “by the book” response that on the surface covers the transgression, but doesn’t necessarily translate to your particular team or the particular player that you are trying to discipline. The personality of every team is unique, and your answers have to fit who you are as a coach and the standards of your team.
In my 5th year as a head coach at RIC we had established ourselves as a championship program and we had a lot of talent. Keeping guys level-headed and disciplined was really important year after year because we continued to bring in high-end talent for the division 3 level, and we were having consistent success.
At the beginning of practice that year one of our players got into some trouble on campus, away from the basketball court. It was definitely something that needed to be addressed, and it was pretty serious. Nothing that was going to get him thrown off the team or out of school, but something that merited a serious response.
Right away the thought was he needed to be suspended. We needed to take basketball away from him for a little while, and also make him sit out games. He needed to realize, and the team needed to realize, that what he did was unacceptable and would not be tolerated. I was angry and disappointed with him. A strong, swift response was the obvious answer.
But I didn’t make that decision right away. I thought about it, I talked to my assistants, I talked to some of the veteran players on my team. I thought about what my goal was – to make sure it didn’t happen again, to make sure the team and player knew it was unacceptable, and to hopefully use it as a way to bring our team closer together.
That last part was really what I kept thinking about. I didn’t want this situation, as bad as it was, to divide the team at all. To get the veteran players pissed off at this player, or to bring so much emotion into the situation that guys took different sides. For us to be good, we needed to trust this player moving forward. Granted, he made a mistake and would pay a price. But after we disciplined him I wanted our team to be closer together, not torn apart.
I knew the consequences needed to be significant. I knew the team had to see that he paid a penalty. But I also wanted everyone to know he was still a part of the team, just as important as everyone else. I thought about it, and I wanted the team to see that even though I was pissed, and it was unacceptable, that I was still with him.
So I decided not to suspend him from basketball. We brought him in at 6:30 AM for a week straight for extra conditioning. I met him every day, and made him run 4 miles with me in the morning around campus. Obviously he would hate getting up at 6:00 to meet me. And he hated the running as well. It was long enough and significant enough that he would have time to think about what he had done and understand the severity of it. We ran together for 5 straight days.
He hated it, and I think he got the message. But it was also important that it was visible to our team. As our guys were heading to breakfast or showing up on campus for class, a lot of them saw him running with me. They actually saw what he had to do, and that it was hard, and that made an impact.
But they also saw that he was with me, and I thought that was important. I didn’t want to make one of my assistants work him out early in the morning and report it to me later. He had to know that this was a big deal, it was really important to me, but that I was also still with him. I thought that was a powerful message for both him and the team.
The obvious answer was to suspend him, to get mad at him, to take basketball away from him. And that certainly would have gotten the message across that what he did was unacceptable. But I also felt like that would have divided our team, and had a negative impact on what we were trying to build. I also thought it would make him feel like he was in my dog house, which wasn’t my intention.
That team went on to have a terrific year, win the LEC Championship and advance to our 4th straight NCAA Tournament and play in the Sweet 16. That player was a key member of that team and went on to have a Hall of Fame career at RIC.
When the answer seems obvious, start asking questions.