Great competitors can have a huge impact on the way you practice.
I coached a player at Rhode Island College named Ethan Gaye, who was a tough combo guard who wasn’t recruited and came out for the team in the fall. I knew something was different about him when my veteran players kept asking me if we were going to have a spot for him before practice started. Ethan wasn’t the most skilled guard but he was athletic and tough. He wasn’t a pure ball-handler or a great shooter, but he made up for any shortcomings with how hard he competed. He was like a free safety. Ethan made our squad, and over time worked his way into the starting line-up and a key role on some great teams.
One year Ethan had some challenges to handle balancing school, work and his family and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play. We had a few conversations and he decided to take the first semester off from basketball. When he came back in December, it was clear right away how much we missed him. We hadn’t gotten off to a great start and we were inconsistent in the way we practiced and played. But Ethan changed the tone of our practices as soon as he came back, just with how hard he competed. He was hungry, he was full of energy and you could tell how much appreciated the opportunity to compete every day with his teammates. His competitive edge set a completely different tone for the rest of the team.
When I look back at our success at RIC, we had a number of tone-setters like Ethan Gaye, although I don’t know that I recognized it at the time. Kinsey Durgin. Tahrike Carter. Terrance Tribble. Alex Cruz. It’s remarkable how much of an impact great competitors every day in practice had on their teammates.
John Linehan was one of those players at Providence College. We were lucky to take over a team in 1998 at PC when John was a sophomore, and I’m not sure I’ve ever coached anyone who competed as hard as John did. He was your typical undersized, something-to-prove guard with a chip on his shoulder. People who would come to practice and watch us play would comment about how hard we competed, and I always felt it was really just because of Linehan. He competed at a level that just wouldn’t allow anyone else to take a day off, or a play off. If you didn’t compete, he’d find a way to embarrass you by going so much harder than you and making you miserable. There was a competitive edge about the entire team anytime Linehan was on the floor. There’s a reason why he’s got more steals than anyone in the history of college basketball.
When I first got to Maine we didn’t really have any tone setters. I was the tone setter, and that was a challenge. I was trying to coach and will our guys towards the right compete level, but all they could do was hear it from me. They couldn’t see it. There really wasn’t anyone who understood that competitive edge and had the toughness and mentality to bring it every single day. The team was looking to me to provide it, and that won’t translate nearly as well. There is a difference between the coach telling you to play harder, and getting embarrassed on the court by someone who is kicking your ass because of how hard he is playing.
Seek out and value players who can be tone setters. They might not be your most talented players or the guys that put up the best numbers. But the edge they bring to practice every day can have a huge impact. They make your job as a coach a lot easier.