“Always prepare as your best and when the opportunity arises you will deliver your best”
Putting people first and into a positive environment is where I am my best and where I see others bring their best. I recently finished coaching my 26th youth sports team spanning across soccer, basketball, and baseball, over the last ten years. I appreciate that coaching gives me an avenue to be with my own children and to help create the positive environment I believe all these kids deserve to grow in. I see their ability to thrive in an environment where a team is built on positivity and continuous improvement, while having fun along the way. To me, the opportunity of coaching has been to help the kids see there is more to the team than just winning or losing games. While it is great to win, more is gained from the effort and what these children learn along the way.
I have had the honor of coaching a boys travel basketball team for their middle school years in 7th and 8th grade. The outcome is truly a tale of two seasons when looking at the win-loss records alone; 20-3 in 2018/2019 and 3-15 in 2019/2020. One year led to a championship run and in both years the boys ended better than where they started.
Each season, I set out with a similar tone about being good teammates, always giving their best and enjoying the game. After all, we wanted the boys to have some fun and to be excited about playing again next season. My approach is less stinger and more of the honey. My whole coaching philosophy and team dynamic are built upon positive reinforcement that never aims to break a person down in order to teach a lesson. It is about meeting people where they are and helping them move forward.
In the first season, a group of boys came together for the first time playing as a travel basketball team. It was unclear how this team would compete. After many joint practices with another boys team, learning the ‘Canton Warriors’ system, and creating similar routines to build skills, the Canton Maroon team began to play some games. The boys came out playing with heart, right from the first tip. The first weekend awarded the boys a couple of hard-fought victories. The second game was a buzzer-beater, in front of a packed house, against the top-ranked team that had won the regular-season title. It was clear this team was different and was creating chaos for opponents each time it stepped onto the court. We fittingly changed our name and set our purpose to create chaos for the other teams for the rest of the season. Go CHAOS!
During the season we hit a few rough patches with inconsistent play and experienced a few last-second losses in games the team felt we could have won. At first glance, the lesson was to see how we could have won. Then I found out what this team was really made of. Then came a game where I was fired up and not as positive as I committed to being as their coach. We were up by eighteen points and then lost by two at the buzzer. At the next practice, I asked the boys how it felt to lose that game and what we could have done better. To my surprise, each boy shared one emotion and a different observation of what we each personally could do better for the next game. I just stood there, listened carefully, acknowledging and thanking each young man for their open and honest feedback. I was in awe of this group of boys. Each willing to share and own their part. We all grew that day.
I felt like I was in a work debriefing session, where the approach is to self-identify areas of self-improvement. This model is used heavily in the military as a way to constantly improve, become a closer unit, and save lives. I felt inspired by the boys as they were more natural and vulnerable than any team I have been on in my life. I then openly owned my part for not being the positive, supportive leader I committed to being at the beginning of the season and took the blame for losing that game. I committed to being the positive coach they deserve and each of the boys committed to working on the areas they each identified in that very practice. It was a special moment I will never forget and one I hope the boys remember. Their willingness to share, coupled with their intentional efforts to improve themselves, made all the difference. The team got back on a roll and finished out the regular season strong and steamed through the playoffs to win the championship. Winning that trophy with the boys was awesome. However, the months of effort to prepare for that moment was that much more meaningful.
Winning in the first year put us into a higher and more competitive league the following year. The second season was a tougher one regarding winning games, yet we had several moments of brilliance and success. It seemed like we won many halves of games and were competitive. The boys mostly gave it their full effort, especially when I asked them to not give up when we were behind. I shared my belief that each moment we practiced was for the next live play, the next game, upcoming high school ball and life after. I find we all learn the most when we are being challenged and are willing to tackle these moments of adversity. Moving up to the next level provided us this challenge and opportunity for significant growth in basketball skills and character. When we are losing, it is too easy to blame the referees, the other team’s play or even our teammates. I am proud to say these boys were always great teammates and never gave up on each other. Both the parents and coaches continued encouraging the boys to give their best effort. We even created a lighter atmosphere in practice to enjoy the game a bit more. There were several shooting contests with prizes, scrimmages and the boys brought in music to enjoy while playing the game. Our big guy asked one practice if it was okay to play his music and I said let’s turn it up and have some fun.
When we began to take control of our actions and believe we could compete at this level as one team, it showed on the floor. The last half dozen games were a blast to coach because these boys put a scare into the top teams and even won a couple of games. The heart of this team started pumping with shots being made and the chaos began going in our favor on the floor. While we didn’t win a championship this season, these boys grew into young men ready to tackle tough situations with grit and heart. One thoughtful parent shared the following with me regarding this season, “I think the most valuable lesson you shared was the fact that even when the challenge seems overwhelming, you give your best and leave it all out there on the floor. They did that for you and each other. This is a priceless experience as they face adversity in their futures and thank you for that!” To me that says it all. Zig Ziglar would say, “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.” I leave this for the boys to think about: “always prepare as your best and when the opportunity arises, you will deliver your best.” The second season was harder in terms of how society gauges success based on wins, yet I believe the boys gained more life skills that will contribute to their future success. I believe in each of you, boys!
As a coach, a parent, a teacher or a community member, I believe it is our social responsibility to help people grow and to aspire to be life-long learners. Stay in front of the ever-changing environment we live in and encourage people to retain their dignity while we all evolve. Find avenues to intentionally support and encourage the right behaviors that put people in the frame of mind to take steps they can control and continuously get better. I used to have a boss that would say “we need people to stop watching the movie and get involved in the movie to get the ending they want.” That is what I am encouraging, no matter what seat you are in, get involved to help our youth and each other thrive. Live your possible and others will, too.