Sunday, February 05, 2012

Coaching a Shorthanded Team to Victory

Our team was short its top two scorers this weekend. They're good athletes, rec league basketball is not their top priority, and their commitments to their main sports had them out of town yesterday. The meant that we had eight of our ten players, and everyone is required to play half the game.

At our one, one-hour practice during the week, I conferred with my co-coach and we decided that we would tell the kids the news at practice so that they could prepare for the absence of these two players. At no time did we say that we would have difficulty winning or that it would be hard. To me, that would be offering them an easy excuse for failure and then not give their best effort. They could say, "well, how could we win without these guys there?" Instead, I said that the absence of these two players created opportunities for everyone else -- to shoot more, to create more and to do more. I encouraged each of them to step up his game a bit, concentrate better, make better decisions. I also said that we played well as a team together, we should continue to play stingy defense, and that we should honor the good play that the two players who would be absent showed and play their best.

We played against a well-coached, talented team, a physical team with a heady point guard, a bunch of kids who could handle the ball and knew what they were doing. They ran high-post plays, and my guess is that they worked reasonable well. One basic was to have a post player start low, run to the high post, grab a pass from the point guard and then send it right back on a give-and-go for a layup. Good stuff.

It was by no means an aesthetically pleasing game. One of my kids forgot the travel rule -- again. A few who are newer to the game got called for three seconds, and when you're short players you don't seem to get the calls. . . whether that's real or imagined is something for the economists and behavioral psychologists to write about, but the refs seemed a bit shorthanded yesterday, too, in their thinking, and these are good refs, refs who for the most part lets the kids play. We got off to a good start, and took a lead after the first quarter, in part because of stellar defense and in part because of good spacing. Without our two leading scorers, we were left with only three kids who really can handle the ball, and I planned to make sure that we had two of them on the court at all times.

The second quarter would be the real test, because that's when the top three scorers are permitted to enter the game for both teams. We were without ours, and we played two kids again in the second quarter to help make sure that we had appropriate matchups (without two players, four players can play three quarters apiece). The second quarter proved to be a revelation. Yes, we fell victim to the give-and-go once, but then sealed the back door shut the rest of the way. Our third-leading scorer ran the point and weaved in and out, but it was our fourth-leading scorer who did a lot of damage, too. By defending their point guard tenaciously, and by setting screens at every opportunity on offense, giving the point guard enough space to drive to the basket. We were up four at the half, and I saw something in our kids that I didn't see as much of in the other team.

The kids looked at me seriously, and for those who might have had some doubts about winning, they knew that they were in a game and that they were contributing to it. Some of the less experienced players remained a bit stiff and frozen on offense, not sure how to get open, not sure where to move, but they defended closely and challenged every shot. We remained up four after three quarters and held on to win by two. Our good screener had played the first three and was unavailable in the fourth, and his absence proved somewhat costly, as those who were on the floor did not know how to set screens on their own the way he did. But in the end, it was "hands up", hard-working defense that wore out the other team and enabled a close victory under challenging circumstances.

Did everyone on our team step up? On defense, yes, on offense, no. Did our remaining leaders step up, yes, by doing what they did well -- either penetrating, defending, rebounding or screening, and it was enough -- just enough -- to help an average-sized, not all that physical team beat a good team on a challenging day. Yes, it is a rec league, but they do keep score and they have playoffs. It was, by all accounts, a game that the team should not have won, but the kids have worked hard in practice all year and have learned the value of team play and defense. Given their hard work, it behooved their coach to think of every possible way to coach them to put them in a position to win.

Their effort made it easy. I had them focus on the things that they could do well, and in a fifth- and sixth-grade rec league that started with playing solid defense. Deflections, steals, sealed passing lanes caused the other team to rush, to throw up bad shots, to toss the ball away. That changed the tempo in the game and required us -- a team short on scorers -- to need fewer points to win. The kids were happy with the victory, not knowing, afterwards, the significance of their accomplishment. When asked, about half raised their hands saying that they thought we could win without our two leading scorers. Naturally, these were the kids who contributed the most. We will tell all of them on Monday night why they won -- their attention to detail, their hustle, their focus -- and reinforce it, all without letting their heads swell.

We play a well-coached team again this Saturday, and we'll need a great effort to keep pace with them. But we all learned something yesterday afternoon -- that kids are resilient, that leaders step up and sacrifice themselves for the team, that everyone has a little something extra that he can share and give in a time of need. We learned more about the value of concentration and worrying only about what we control in front of us, and not about two teammates who weren't there. And yet, at the same time, it all seemed so normal, intense, yes, but just like another game. And that made it special, too.

There was no special rejoicing, no extra back-slapping, none of that, because the kids know how to win or lose with grace. They win more than they lose, and much of it is because they want to show each other that they can play and not disappoint themselves, each other or the coaches. They are eager to learn and to contribute, they are good kids who give a great effort. Knowing that, they were easy to coach. Sure, I yelled to them "stay with your man" or "get over there", and I coached individually ("that's not your shot", "push with your legs when you shoot" and other advice like that), and I gave advice about when to set screens, but in the end a coach is not a puppetmaster, and the kids are not marionettes. If they come to the game ready to play, ready to win, you have a chance.

By raising the bar, the coaches gave them a good foundation to put in the effort to win. Their leaders played with grit and confidence, and the others followed and stepped up.

It wasn't the prettiest game, the most graceful or the biggest win.

But in certain ways, it was one of the best.

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