This post was originally published in Texas COACH magazine. It details the philosophy I have used to turn basketball programs around. A much more detailed look at this philosophy can be found in my book Coaching From the Heart. It can be found on Amazon Kindle, Nook, or Paperback.
Every year coaches across the state take over programs that have not had success in years. Those teams have not tasted a winning season or smelled the sweet fragrance of the playoffs in years. Those teams have been losing for so long, it has become a way of life. These coaches who take over these programs face challenges that no other coach faces – the challenge of trying to win without a tradition of winning. Quite often, when losing has become the norm, it is hard to break out of that mindset. Early losses will trigger the “here we go again” thoughts that plague teams who are not used to winning. Before long, the new coach at the school is frustrated into believing that this team has a losing mentality and his only hope is to build from the ground floor up in hopes to having a winning team down the line sometime. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Four times in my 21 years of coaching basketball I have taken over programs that had not won in years. Each time, in my first year with that team, we not only made the playoffs, but went several rounds in the tournament. One time, I took over a program that had not had a winning record in a decade and had won only 4 games in the previous three years combined. For all practical purposes, it was a program that had been dead and buried. By the time we were making our playoff run at the end of that season, our team’s slogan became Back From the Dead. When one of the players was asked in an interview after the season about what turned the team around after a decade of losing, he responded, “Coach Biddison was the first coach that ever taught us about HEART
Playing With the Heart has become my coaching mantra. I believe this philosophy, more than any X’s and O’s can turn a team around. I preach the HEART from our first pre-season team meeting to our final post season team banquet. Before every game, I speak individually to each of my players with the words, “Give me your heart tonight.” My coaching and my team are all about the HEART.
H – Hard Work
Every coach will tell you a team cannot be successful without hard work. That’s no secret. I work hard and my team works hard. I think the majority of coaches and teams work hard. But what do we work hard at? It would sound really good for me to say that when trying to turn a program around that we work hard on every aspect of the game. To a degree, we do that. We cover all aspects of the game and we work on all of it. But our focus – our hardest work – will always be on defense. The old cliche that offense wins games, but defense wins championships in only partially true. For a team who is not used to winning, playing shut out defense also wins games. I work my teams defensively every day. Early in the season the majority of our practice time is on defense. My philosophy is that any team can have an off night offensively, but there is never an excuse for not bringing your defensive “A game.” Because we work so hard defensively, we are in every game with a chance to win because the opposition has a hard time scoring. I have also found that the harder we work on defense, the more our offensive production goes up. That is because I teach a simple philosophy for our transition game. Besides running the proper lanes and executing a secondary break and other things that all teams do, I teach my players the difference between running, running fast, and sprinting. All teams run, many run fast, but very few teams sprint on the basketball floor. To sprint, you must run like you do in a 100 meter dash in a track meet. If you do that on the basketball court, you will beat your opponent down the court on both offense and defense. We actually practice sprinting, like in a track meet, during our transition drills.
E – Enthusiasm
As a basketball coach in a school that is in a football dominated state, I am one of the minority of people on campus who from the first day of school is gung ho basketball. This is especially important when I am trying to demonstrate a new attitude about winning. Even long before basketball season begins, when I see the basketball players at school or in off season, I am building up the basketball season. Once practice begins, there is no hiding my enthusiasm. My players soon realize how much I love teaching the game and molding a team. I want them to pick up on my enthusiasm. I believe that a team cannot reach its full potential without enthusiasm. I encourage “high 5’s” and positive communication on the team. I want them to love what they are doing and get excited about it. That enthusiasm carries over to how they play in a game. It is like extra adrenalin.
Game time for me means my enthusiasm cannot be stopped. If I want my players to “leave it all on the court,” then I must lead by example. I simply cannot be still, quiet, and laid back in a game. I am constantly communicating with my team, instructing them, and demonstrating enthusiasm. Until they can learn to establish their own enthusiasm from their own experiences of winning, I want them to feed off my enthusiasm.
A – Attitude of Confidence
In trying to establish a winning program, confidence is both essential and difficult. Without confidence, a team has a very hard time winning. But to have confidence, a team must establish winning ways. At first glance, this is a vicious cycle. You cannot win without confidence, but you can’t have confidence without winning. I try to break this cycle from the very first day of practice by being positive. I allow only positive expressions from my players. In teaching every section, strategy, or skill of the game, I use my own experiences to make the point. I tell stories of other teams or players who have learned how to win. In a subtle way, this builds confidence into players because they know that others have gone through this same process and emerged as winners.
One way that I build confidence is by finding the one thing that we are going to strive to be the best at – that area of the game that is going to be our signature or forte. For most my teams, it will be our defense. I make promises to my team that if we learn to play defense the way we are teaching it, we will win games that we otherwise would have no business winning. By the time we play our first game, they believe in that defense. After a couple of games, they have confidence in it enough to know they can be in every game they play. That confidence in our defense then translates into confidence in the rest of our game.
In trying to establish confidence, I found it is important to never talk about losing. When I start coaching a team who has not been winning, I tell them early on that this is not the same team as before. This team has a new identity and a new attitude. From now on, we don’t talk about the past. We focus on the present and the future.
R – Relationships
I discovered early on that coaching is more about relationships than it is X’s and O’s. If all I was doing was teaching fundamentals and strategies of the game, it would be a fairly meaningless life. But instead, being a part of a basketball team is being a part of something much bigger than just what happens on the court. For any team, especially one that is trying to establish a winning mindset, to be successful, it must be unified. Each basketball team is a family. Some are broken families, some are dysfunctional families, but those teams who are successful are healthy families. I try to make my basketball team that healthy family. For some, it is the healthiest family they have.
I make it a habit to make time for my players. I have been known to sit down and eat lunch with them. We don’t talk about basketball. We talk about life. When I see my players in the hallway or in class, I always ask them how they are doing. I will often ask about their classes, their family, or their relationships. I want to build a relationship with my players to the point that they will come to me with any problem. When I can build that kind of trust with my team, it carries over to our relationship on the court. If they trust me because they see me caring for them in their daily life, they will also trust me when I give the instruction or even criticism on the court. If they know I care about them as a person then they are not afraid that I base my relationship with them on their performance. This gives them the freedom to play without fear.
I not only work on my relationship with my players, but I work on their relationship with each other. I purposefully work drills into my daily practice that force them to work together as a team. I love to see their unity and teamwork increase throughout the year as they reach for higher goals in their daily drills. The more they work together as a team in practice, the more it translates into teamwork in the game.
When players learn to develop a solid relationship with each other, they will many times begin playing for the team, not just for themselves. They believe they are part of something bigger than themselves and that always translates into better play on the court. They play both harder and smarter because they don’t want to let anyone else down.
It would be nice to say that I have discovered the way to turn all teams around, despite their talent level. But the bottom line is that for a team to succeed, there does have to be a certain level of talent. Even if you implement everything else, if there is no talent a team cannot win. Fortunately, in most cases even in losing programs, there is a certain degree of talent. It just may not be suited for a particular style of play. As a coach, I do not believe in running a system. The talent level may or may not be able to run a particular system effectively. For instance, a coach may believe strongly in a full court pressing up tempo style of game. If his talent base is too slow to run that game, then that coach will be more effective coaching a new system that is better suited for the talent on the team.
One of the biggest strengths a basketball coach will have is the ability to know how to maximize the strengths of his team. A coach needs to find the positives on his team and work every possible way to utilize those positives. In a team that has been traditionally losing, this is even more important. It will obviously take time to develop the talent base in the program to make well rounded basketball players. But a good coach will find the positives in the talent currently there and maximize that talent while trying to build all the other talent.
Although I cannot guarantee that all coaches who follow this system will turn around teams and develop playoff caliber teams, I can promise that following the HEART will bring about more success and less frustration than trying to turn around a program without a plan. This is how I coach, no matter how successful the history of my team might be. It’s the only way I know how to coach. I coach with my HEART. In addition, if a team truly develops Hard Work, Enthusiasm, Attitudes of Confidence, Relationships, and Talent, then they have truly developed a Heart of a Champion. And that lasts longer and is more important than simply winning games