Kansas was down 40-25 at halftime of the national championship game against North Carolina. They outscored Carolina by 18 in the second half to win the national title by 3. I’m not sure what was said or done at halftime, but the team clearly responded and played a great second half with their back against the wall.
What to do at halftime is always and interesting question. If you want to give your team a little time to warm-up, you’ve really only got 10 minutes to make sense of what happened in the first half, figure out what adjustments you need to make, and deliver that message to your team. It’s not an easy task, and it’s something you have to be intentional about. Halftime happens quickly.
The first thing to me is to start with the facts. You want to take the emotion out of it. What is the score, what does the box score look like, and how did we get here? It’s important to remember that it isn’t about how you are feeling as a coach, it is about what your team needs. Always. We often get too caught up in the emotion of the end of the half, and we bring that emotion to our players. Give them what they need, not what you are feeling.
Say you are playing a team you are better than, and you are controlling the game most of the half, up by double digits. But you get a little sloppy in the last minute, turn the ball over and give up a couple of transition 3s. You are up 5 instead of being up 11, in a game you feel like you had in hand. The emotional response is anger because your team didn’t close out the half and let your opponent get some confidence late. You go into the locker room pissed off. The facts are you really dominated most of the half, and you have a 5 point lead. That is what’s most important, and that’s what you should act on. Take the emotion out of it and think about what your team needs.
Your team may need some emotion. That’s always a hard one to judge, but you have to have a feel for your them. There are definitely times when they need a jolt and you need to change the energy. You have to get after them to snap them out of a funk. But it’s important to assess how your team played and not necessarily get caught up in the score. You might have missed a lot of open shots. Maybe you missed a few free throws. A mistake that is often made is we go to the emotion – “We aren’t playing hard enough!” – when the reality is the issue is technical. That is how you feel, not what they need. Your team may have been ready to play, they just couldn’t make any open jump shots.
I’ve found that sometimes, from an emotional standpoint, it’s actually a littler bit easier to be down 15 than to be down 6. I wonder if this helped Bill Self a little bit with his approach. Being down 6 when you haven’t played very well is aggravating, and it grates on you. Being down 15 (especially when you are Kansas) can be startling, but it’s so out of character that you almost just have to shake your head and reset. At that point you aren’t worried about one or two technical points to make, you have to get your team to reset mentally. What you saw was way out of character, and you know that isn’t the team you’ve seen all year. Take a deep breath and get everyone back to being themselves. It’s odd to say, but sometimes being down by a larger margin can make you a better coach at halftime.
We never ask our players to do anything they haven’t practiced, but I wonder why we do that as coaches. We can practice 30 second timeouts, where you only have 20 seconds to diagram something and get your message across. We can also practice halftime. You can get your kids used to taking a break, trying to reset, and coming out with a different approach.
When your team is really struggling one day in practice and you are yelling and screaming to try and get something out of them, give them a break. Put 15 minutes on the clock and send them to the locker room. Take 5 minutes to take to your staff, settle down and figure out how you are going to get more out of your players. Go into the locker room and tell them this is just like halftime of a game, but you guys are down 11. You haven’t been focused and you haven’t executed well. Figure out how you are going to go out and win the rest of the day.
When I’ve lost winnable games as a head coach, I think about halftime a lot. Did I take the right tone? Did the team need to see more emotion out of me? Should I have been more composed? It’s always about how to get the most out of your team and make the right adjustments needed to win the game in the second half.
It’s never easy to figure out the right approach to halftime, and there are a lot of different ways to play it. You can argue over the importance of it – how much of an impact does it really have? My approach usually falls into one of two categories – composed and deliberate, or intense and emotional. I’m more comfortable with a composed approach talking about the details of how we are going to play better. But there are definitely times when they need to see some intensity out of me to shake things up. I base my approach on the facts of the first half, and the feel I have for my team and their mentality.
It’s never easy. Halftime is a high pressure situation with a small window of time to deliver your message. Think about the best approach that fits you and also fits your team, and practice it. Getting the right adjustments to your team can make a difference. When you see a team like Kansas come out in the second half and play the way they did to win a national championship, it makes that clear.