In one of my last years as the head coach at Rhode Island College we had an interesting balance on our team. We had a group of veteran players who were solid program kids who were used to winning and had continued to carry and live our championship culture. We also had a bunch of newcomers who were very talented but had only been with the program a year or two. We had some freshmen and a few transfers who were older and pretty talented. The transfers were more talented than our veteran players, but obviously didn’t have the winning experience within our culture.
Our team got along well, but the dynamic was interesting for me. Our better players were the transfers who hadn’t been around as long and weren’t used to the way we operated. There really wasn’t any jealousy within our team, as our veterans were mature and they understood that playing time was earned. The players who competed, produced and were great teammates would earn their way onto the floor. It was still a dynamic I had to manage, to make sure we were all on the same page.
One of our transfers, a starter who was very talented, was one of the physically toughest kids I’ve ever coached. He competed his ass off and wanted to win. But some days he had trouble handling his emotions. He’d lose it at times in practice, and I’d just pull him out of the drill and let him cool off. I wouldn’t yell at him or make an example of him in front of the team. I didn’t think adding my emotion to an already emotional situation was the right thing to do. I’d let him calm down and then I’d go over and talk to him calmly, reminding him he couldn’t just lose it emotionally with his teammates, while also making sure he was okay. After a few minutes he’d rejoin practice.
We were talented but pretty inconsistent all year, staying near the top of the league but never really playing to our full potential. We were counting on a bunch of new guys and we were mentally inconsistent. I thought we were the best team in the league, but we’d go on to finish as the #2 seed.
As we got into February the situation with this player became a little harder to manage. It was taking up too much time and energy. Despite his talent (he was our 2nd leading scorer and toughest player), we had to move on. With about two weeks left in the regular season I made the decision to remove him from the team. It was one of the most challenging decisions I’ve ever made as a head coach, because I genuinely liked him and wanted to make sure he was successful. When I delivered the news to him, he gave me a hug and thanked me for giving him the opportunity to play for our program.
As the #2 seed we had to go on the road for our conference tournament after winning our opening round game against the #7 seed at home. We then had to go to the top seed for the semi-finals. We hadn’t been consistent all year so I didn’t know what to expect, and our leading scorer for the year was also out with an injury. So we were playing without our two best scorers. We played very well in the semi-finals and controlled the game from the tip. We advanced to the finals pretty easily.
We had to play the championship game against the #1 seed in their gym, and we played great. We dominated the game and were up 19 at one point in the second half. Down the stretch, it never really got close. We won the conference championship and were headed back to the NCAA Tournament.
After the game, I laughed with our guys in the locker room. The vibe was like “Where the heck was that all year???” We put together our best 3-game stretch by far in the conference tournament without our two best scorers.
Talking with my seniors after that game, they had an interesting take on what happened with the team. They said that the way I had handled the one player with his emotional outbursts really had an impact on the team. I thought I was doing the right thing by keeping things cool and not letting them blow up whenever he got upset. But they looked at it differently. They thought he was being given preferential treatment. A few of them told me the talk amongst the team was that if anyone else had acted that way in practice, they’d be thrown out. It wouldn’t be put up with. But there was a different set of rules for this one player. I hadn’t looked at it that way. But clearly it had a negative impact on the team. When he was moved from the mix, it was like weight was lifted off of their shoulders.
Coaches will give you different opinions on whether or not you should treat players differently. Many accept the fact that your star players or better players have to be given a little more leeway with the rules. I don’t believe that for a second. I do think everyone needs to be coached differently based on their personality and how you can connect with them. But if the standards are different for different players, your culture is going to suffer.
I didn’t think I was giving this player preferential treatment. But the rest of the team did. And that was more important. So I lost credibility with regards to our culture and what I believed in, because the team thought I was being inconsistent. They weren’t really bought in to what we were doing, and it was my fault. It had affected the way we played all year, and when that situation was removed, we were a different team.
I’ve never believed your team should have different standards for different players. I’m not a fan of treating your star players differently. Anything your team perceives as being inconsistent or unfair will take away from your ability to get the most out of them. Sometimes it’s happening when you don’t even see it.