Prior to the season, I listened to John Wooden’s biographer talk about his pyramid and how he measured his team by effort rather than wins. Obviously that’s a bit easier to say when you’ve won 10 national championships, but there’s something to be said for the attempt to judge a team’s success on something other than winning. Coaches and athletes alike have attempted to measure success in different ways since, it appears, the dawn of sports; just skim through the sports section of any local book store.
I’ve tried to do the same. I know that most, if not all, of my seasons will end short of a state championship. Every coach of every team knows that their fundamental job is to help their group of players improve. Another of my football coaches mantras is
You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
Whether it’s individually or as a team, somebody out there is getting better, which means even if you stay the same, you’re falling behind.
One challenge with coaching is that we often base our expectations off of the previous season. With graduation and such young players, it’s rarely a fair way to evaluate ourselves. Our team definitely fell into that trap. Returning three of our starting five and a number of players off of what was a deep bench, we felt great going into the season. Looking back, we should have felt great. But we may also have underestimated the work it would take to continue our growth.
The question remains, did we improve? From day one of the season to our last game, did we get better. Did individual players get better? Did our coaching staff improve? Did our team as a whole improve?
Individual Player Improvement
I’ll be honest that I have not been terribly intentional about this before, but this reflection forced me to dig deeper and really analyze our team individually. In the off chance that one of my players or their parents read this, I am going to refrain from any real detail here. It wouldn’t be fair to them to have their coach share their strengths and weaknesses with the public. Rather than giving my player by player analysis, I’ll share what I did to help me consider their individual growth.
I created a Google document table (you could use word or some other word processor or spreadsheet) with four columns. The columns were
- Player Name
- Skill level at start of season
- Skill level at end of season
- Other key notes
Within the skill level columns, I considered these elements:
- Offense – Shooting/scoring, ball handling/ball movement, passing, rebounding, IQ
- Defense – Effort, on ball defense (post/perimeter), help side defense, rebounding, IQ
- Leadership – vocal, example, coachability
- Intangibles – confidence, energy/positivity, clutch-ness
You could obviously tailor this however you want. I filled in both columns for each of my players, paying particular attention to their growth in each area.
It was a valuable activity for me and makes me think I need to be more intentional about it next season. I even think coming up with a few rating scales on each category and including the players in this assessment would help. Asking players to rate themselves in these categories and comparing them to the coaching staff could be valuable.
Looking at my team, we left a lot of room for improvement. While some players made significant growth in areas, I feel like we stayed the same in a lot of critical areas, like finishing and decision making. The one that strikes me most though is leadership. I know how important it is to develop leaders on your team, both for team success and their success after their playing days are over. Unfortunately I don’t see the growth I hoped for.
Most importantly, it makes me realize I’ve got a lot of work to do. I feel like any of my player’s shortcomings are a reflection of my leadership. I’ve got to create better systems, better drills, better practice schedules, to help them improve more individually. The hope of course, is that by improving individually, the sum of our parts will be greater. Even more hopeful is the idea that we become greater than the sum of our parts. The question is can we find a way to calculate the whole compared to the individual parts.
Team Improvement – Goal Setting
No. I can’t think of a way to calculate the sum of our parts or our whole. I think the wins and losses give you a sense of how you achieved compared to expectations, but expectations are ill-defined. In either case, I think it’s worth looking at team improvement in a few ways, similar to the player improvement above. Team play – offense, defense, leadership, intangibles. The results are a bit anecdotal, or game-by-game, but the evidence should be there. In this case, I’ll go into a little more detail.
Offense – Early in the season, we played 9-10 guys and saw contributions from many. We knew who our leading scorers were, but often deferred to them. As the season progressed, our scoring balance definitely improved, although we remained inconsistent. We struggled all season to find an offensive rhythm together. Our transition offense was also non-existent for the second half of the season. We were good enough to win games and showed glimpses of the rhythm we hoped for, but it would be hard to argue we improved offensively overall.
Defense – We are rarely the quickest or strongest team on the court, so our team defense has to be effective. For the second year in a row, our team has finished in the top-5 in the state in points per game allowed (44.6). Breaking it down into parts, our closeouts and rotations were much improved. We probably took more charges in our last 5 games than we did the rest of the season (and we took charges early in the season too). Rebounding became much more consistent (I take the number of fouls we picked up on aggressive box outs as a good thing). Toward the end of the season, we became very focused both on the fundamentals and the game plan, which helped us hold our opponents to 39 points per game and an average of 12 points below their season averages.
Leadership – We had a number of lead by example players, but no real vocal leaders. This is my greatest frustration – not helping players develop this skill more. We had a lot of players defer at key times to our designated leaders, despite them not really ‘leading’. I feel like this is all on me, and definitely an area I need to work on – setting the example and supporting them to become vocal leaders.
Intangibles – As I mentioned in the winners and losers, our team competed through the 32nd minute of all but one game this season. In our second game, one which we were supposed to lose, we played like if we just made one shot, or got one break, we could make it happen, up until the final horn. Interestingly, a very similar thing happened in our last game, despite every fan thinking we were completely out of it. I don’t take that for granted. I love our team’s effort and belief. We had a few things happen during the season that we wish we could take back. Most importantly, the team bounced back from each one, never getting on each other, pulling together, and overcoming the adversity. Our best team performance came in a the absence of our leading scorer to injury and another starter not playing near his best basketball. Our starting five set the tone early on that we would be fine, and came up clutch every time we needed them to. Bench energy is something we talk about consistently, and this was a huge improvement at the end of the season. We got a boost from one player in particular who took it on as a personal goal to make us better on the sidelines, since he couldn’t be in games. The difference was noticeable and helped us enjoy basketball again.
Overall, I’m so-so on our team improvement. Our defense consistently got better and our guys do lots of little things well to give us a chance to win each game. Our offense and leadership didn’t match and is something I’ll be thinking a lot about, and studying film, to improve for next year. I guess the 50-50 team improvement goals match up with our 11-9 record. Improvement in one of those other areas could have been a significant factor in improving our record.
Coach Improvement (Sort of)
As I write these posts, I think of new ways to evaluate our season. Evaluating myself is a key, and one I’m doing constantly, which means I’m going need much more space to go through it. So I’ll save this one for another day. I also notice as I write that I have a lot more to say once the words spill out on the page. Next time, I’ll be looking at our team’s core values, and possibly team goals, too. We’ll see how much room they take.