Salvaging A Rough Season

I’ve been through 2 single-digit-win seasons as an assistant coach in college, and I suffered through a 3-19 season as a high school head coach. Those 3 seasons were miserable (for everyone except the windfall-profit-receiving owners of the bars and liquor stores near my residence), and I have thought about them often since then and wondered what we could have done differently as coaches to salvage those seasons. Clearly, turning around a rough season in the middle of it is not an easy thing to do, or more teams would do it. But, with the benefit of 17 years worth of reflection since the first awful season I endured, here are some thoughts on how to stop or at least slow the snowball before it reaches the bottom of the hill. To all the coaches going through a rocky season, I feel your pain, and I hope this article can in some small way be helpful.

Increase Your Empathy for Your Players

First, remember that your kids are dealing with the season’s results and effects right along side you. Sure, they don’t care as much as you do, but that’s not even a remotely fair expectation- however, they’re still hurting, and beating them up might not be the best move.

Second, invariably, bad teams have chemistry problems, and only a very arrogant and foolish coach fails to acknowledge his or her own role in the team’s poor chemistry. For example, rather than thinking to yourself, “Johnny is an uncoachable turd” you should instead sit Johnny down and tell him, “You’re having a hard time playing for me, but I am finished blaming 100% you for this reality- how can we work together to fix this?”

In short, blaming your kids won’t fix anything, but earnestly redoubling efforts to understand them as people while having more empathy for the “why” than you have disdain for the “what” might make a big difference.

Narrow Your Accountability Structures

In coaching, a sinking ship usually has dozens of holes (at least). As the ship’s captain, you should worry about the biggest holes first. To exit the analogy and return to basketball, you should simply go back and analyze the broad categories causing you to lose, and you will find 1 or 2 tangible causes that are hurting you the most. If you build or strengthen your accountability structures in those 1 or 2 causes, you will see massive improvements in those limited areas, which should at least allow you to be more competitive and could even get you over the hump; but if you continue trying to fix everything, you will instead continue to fix nothing.

Focus on Things that Bad Players Can Do Well

At this point in the year, you’re not going to make a bad player into a good player. No one drastically improves their skill sets or athleticism between mid-January and the end of the season. However, if you focus on core habits that require absolutely no skill or athletic ability and only limited aptitude in terms of basketball IQ (boxing out hard, setting good screens, sprinting back on D full speed, talking loudly on defense, crashing the offensive boards, staying in a defensive stance, etc, etc, etc), you can possibly help a bad basketball player become a somewhat more effective basketball player in a short amount of time, which can make a big difference for your team.

Let Effort Dictate Playing Time, Not Talent

As coaches, we like to pay lip service to this concept, but most of us will figure out a way to get our most talented kid(s) on the court because we want to win. However, during a losing season where the wheels are on the verge of coming completely off, there’s no reason to compromise on effort. After all, considering that you’re getting your ass kicked with your best kid(s) in the lineup, surely you can also manage to do that without them, right? By rewarding the kids who try the hardest, there’s a real possibility that your better players will react to being benched by starting to try harder- but even if they don’t, you’ll be happier and your program will be in better shape if you go with the kids who may well lose, but will do so without playing like losers.

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