In my third year as a head coach at Rhode Island College we had a young, inexperienced but very talented team. We had just come off a 27-4, Elite 8 run season with a group of six seniors who had all moved on. That RIC team in 2007-08 – the year after the Elite 8 run – was talented enough to win a lot of games, but not nearly as mentally tough as the team had been the year before.
We had made it to the LEC championship game and I remember talking to a couple of former players in the stands as the guys were warming up, and I said “the difference between this year’s team and you guys, is these guys want to win today, because if we do they get to keep playing. They love to play. You guys wanted to win because you just refused to let each other down. You wanted to keep playing – together.”
We were talented enough to win that game and get back to the NCAA Tournament, where we won our first game before getting beat in the second round. But I always remembered that conversation and the feeling we had with our 2007 Elite 8 team. They refused to let each other down. They were playing for each other.
Since I coached those teams I’ve always felt like the elite teams do that – they play for one another. The question is, how do you get there?
Off The Court Experiences
Shared experiences off the court create a deeper level of understanding and trust. They also create psychological safety – where you know no matter what you do or say, the guys you are with have your back. This leaves to competitive excellence on the court, where everyone is willing to lay it on the line for one another.
The challenge is these shared experiences often take a lot of time to make a difference, and they are most impactful if they happen naturally. I was fortunate in this area, in that I took over a talented team that had been through a lot with each other. I was their third coach in three years. They had to stick together over the years, not knowing who their coach was going to be, even as they came back to school. They were forced to deal with a lot together, and it showed in the way they refused to let one another down.
You can do your best to try and create shared experiences off the court. Getting your group together outside of the gym is important, and giving them time and space to get to know and trust each other is important. But it’s more than just going bowling one night or watching Monday Night Football together. It’s how you handle the challenging situations that come your way – on and off the court.
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. Direct communication really helps build trust, but genuine trust really allows for direct communication. But the fact is that elite teams, teams that play for each other, have no problem communicating directly. They don’t get caught up in ego and they don’t take it personally. They understand that the tone or the message might be a little harsh. That’s okay. It’s all part of the commitment made to one another.
Establish the fact that you are always going to communicate honestly and directly from the first day. I tell the story in my book, Entitled to Nothing, about my first team meeting each year. The first thing I said to the team was “Today is the day I’m recruiting over you.” It might have been a little harsh and unsettling, but it was true. My job was to get better players, and I was going to do that. Their job was to make sure they didn’t lose their job to a new player I recruited.
It helped set the tone that I was always going to be honest and direct, and I expected the same from them. To be a great team, we didn’t have time to bead around the bush on important topics. We needed to get comfortable with issues being out in the open and discussed directly. Open, honest communication helps teams play for one another.
The make-up of your group has a big impact on their ability to play for one another. You can create an elite environment as a coach, but without the right people in the building, the culture won’t work. You need guys who can handle the level of commitment and discipline that it takes on a daily basis. It’s not for everyone.
Our Elite 8 team had a core ethos that fit our approach. They were good kids, hungry to be a part of something, fed up with what they had dealt with in the prior years. There was a determination to be great and a perspective and awareness of what was important. Their character allowed them to play for one another as much as anything else.
Set Ego Aside
Bill Russell famously said he had a huge ego, but it was a “Team ego.” It was always about what was best for the team. It’s okay to have an ego – we all have them. It’s okay to strive for personal success – playing time, individual awards – I have no problem with that. But it’s important to establish that your team and your teammates matter more than anything you do as an individual.
Our guys had been through so much together, they had pretty much exhausted their individual egos. All they were concerned about was having the best experience they could together and giving everything they had for each other. Our Elite 8 team had 6 seniors on it and only two of them started, although all 6 were good enough to be in the rotation. It didn’t matter to them. They wanted what was best for the team, and they were willing to sacrifice for it.
Our Elite 8 team had a different level of trust, a trust so deep you could actually see it on the floor. The way they communicated to one another, they way they helped each other, and the way they picked each other up. No one ever questioned the effort or motivation of one of their teammates. They knew each other too well for that.
It’s hard to get any team to the point where they trust each other unconditionally. It is earned through shared experiences and a willingness to give incredible effort at all times. It involves the ability to immediately own mistakes and handle them. Guys would almost fight over taking the responsibility for a mistake.
Giving full measure at all times leads to a deep level of trust that you don’t see on a lot of teams. By the time the second semester comes around there is a trust you can actually see in their actions on the court.
Commitment to an Elite, Uncommon Approach
Plenty of the stuff that we did with that team was seen as a little nuts. The way we practiced, the amount of running we did, the level of accountability we always had to our standards – it was different. A lot of guys weren’t used to it. But they were willing to commit to it, without any guarantee of a reward.
Teams that play for one another commit to an uncommon approach. It’s in the competitive edge you see in the gym every day. It’s understanding that everything they do off the court is just as important. It’s taking ownership of the approach and culture, not waiting for someone else to take responsibility or tell them what to do. Playing for one another at a high level is uncommon, as is the commitment it takes every day.