Measuring Coaching Success (Part 2): Winners and Losers

Read Part 1: Reflections on a season past

My high school football coach used to tell us that high school sports weren’t meant to be fun, they were meant to be rewarding. I’ve never fully subscribe to this belief, but completely understand his sentiment. My son’s under-8 YMCA games are meant to be fun. There is a scoreboard, but you generally shouldn’t care much about who wins and loses. (Of course a lot of people still do.) I believe that you can have fun in high school sports (and my football coach knew how to make things fun, too), but it’s pretty difficult to have fun when you’re losing. Losing sucks and the phrase moral victory is a bit oxymoronic (can you really win if you lose?).

As a competitor, it is impossible for me to compete in anything and not want to win. I find it hard to believe any competitive person could play without a desire to win every time they step on a field or court. While part of me wishes I could judge my team’s success on something other than wins and losses, I know that it will always be a part of the experience. My main goal is to determine if we were successful. A secondary goal of this post is to determine whether wins and losses is the best tool for evaluation.

High expectations

Before each season, as you finalize your schedule, you start thinking about which games you expect your team to win. Essentially there are three categories of games – those you should definitely win, those you should most likely lose (but won’t admit you will definitely lose them), and the 50-50s. Obviously, ESPN isn’t providing me with a win probability for each game, and prior to the season, everyone most likely overestimates how many games are 50-50s, but hopefully you don’t have too many of the 20% chance of winning type games that you’ll only win if their team comes down with the week of your game.

From an outside perspective, looking at our 20 game season and an 11-9 record, the above .500 mark sounds just above average. Coaches know, however, that a record is only a useful benchmark relative to the team’s expectations. Prior to our 20 game season I would have predicted 13 wins for us, which would mean we underachieved. Hindsight being 20-20, I may have overestimated our ability and underestimated a few of our opponents. Everyone is optimistic in the preseason and you can’t take into account injuries or other unpredictable factors.

I’m a little bit of a math nerd, so I’ll attempt to use some statistics on our season with what should be a more realistic perspective on our games now that it’s over. In a really simplistic model with pretty simple numbers (because I’m not that big of a math nerd) here is how I would break down our win probability:

  • 4 games 85%
  • 3 games at 60%
  • 7 games at 50%
  • 2 games at 40%
  • 4 games at 15%

If you run the numbers, we should have won 10.1 games. In this model, that 11-9 record shifts from underachiever to mild success. Unfortunately, the statistics do very little to lessen my frustrations. I’ll have to dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the bad news – the 9 losses.

I’ve tried to write this part of the blog multiple times, only to feel like I’m making excuses for why certain losses were acceptable so I’ll spare you being annoyed by my excuses. To summarize, we lost most of the games we were expected to lose and we lost one in which we played so poorly, I still can’t wrap my head around it completely. In the games we were expected to lose, we played hard and fought until the very end, which I don’t see in most high school teams, so I’ll take some solace in that. I never walked out of the gym disappointed in our effort.

The four most frustrating losses came at the hands of two other teams, two conference rivals, by a total of 9 points. We lost a lead on a buzzer beater in the first, fought neck and neck until the end in second and third, and made a nearly miraculous comeback in the fourth. One shot, one block, one tipped finger in any of those games, and things could have shifted dramatically. Any of those small changes probably gets us in the playoffs, which means you are spared from reading this blog post. Each game has at least one moment, one missed decision I will regret – a time out, a substitution, a play call – and forever think that it could have won us the game (yet I tell our players that no one individual can win or lose a game).

Now for our wins. Of the 11 wins, five were games we should have won, and we played to our potential in all but one of them. We moved the ball and executed our defensive game plan to almost perfection in a couple.

Five of our wins were essentially 50-50s. These mostly feel like a relief when you win them, because (like most coaches?) I feel like we should win every 50-50 matchup. (I understand how unrealistic that is from a mathematical standpoint. My math nerdiness can’t match my competitiveness.) Looking back, the difference between these 50-50 wins and the 50-50 losses is minimal. We played well enough offensively and defensively to win in all of them, but a few things broke our way.

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity

In one of those wins, of which our guys should be incredibly proud, we were missing  our two leading scorers. Multiple players stepped up and we scored the most first quarter points of a game all season. In the end, we had to hang on for the victory. One particularly call went our way at a crucial moment, but there were a few that didn’t go our way early on. Given the chance, we made some clutch free throws to seal the victory.

A lot of success in high school sports can feel like luck. Others might even attribute your success to luck. But I’ve always subscribed to the mantra above, and feel like it’s my job as a coach to make sure my team is prepared to meet every opportunity.

So when our team plays poorly on offense for three and a half quarters and it looks like we pulled out a win because one player got hot, others might call it luck. I’d argue it was more than that. We played well enough defensively that our offensive woes didn’t put us out of the game. When they tried to stall, our team knew where to trap and get a steal, without using a timeout.  When they were yelling foul because they had two to spare, we had gone over that situation in practice, and the player with the ball was smart enough to shoot so that we might get three free throws. Is it lucky they missed their free throws? Is it luck that our desperation shot went in? Yeah, but we did a lot of things right to give us a chance for that desperation shot to win it for us. It wasn’t our greatest win, but it propelled us forward in the season and gave us some momentum to win a game two nights later that no one gave us a chance.

In our highlight game of the season, we were clearly the underdog, but we executed for four quarters on both ends of the court. I’m not sure we’ve had a more complete performance in my time as a coach. To have that happen at the end (next to last game) of the season is what you want; to be playing your best when it matters most. I can’t remember the last time our school beat them in anything. To beat them in their own gym is a memory the players will take with them.

Does measuring wins and losses tell you if you’re successful?

No matter how I spin, we end at 11-9 with some highlights and lowlights along the way. Did measuring our success through wins and losses work? I don’t know, but I think it helped me process the season more effectively. I was able to put aside my preseason expectations and look more realistically at our accomplishments. It doesn’t provide me with some real conclusion about our success as a team, but it makes me feel like we may not have been as UNsuccessful as I felt last week.

As I’ve reflected, one thought stood out among the rest. We should never be satisfied with losing, but our success doesn’t have to be defined by winning. Then again, maybe that’s just something you say when you’re not winning as much as you want.

Next time, I’ll look at the improvement of our team over the season, on both the individual and team levels.

 

Part 1: Reflections on a season past

Part 3: Getting better or getting worse?

 

 

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