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Basketball Coaching – Struggling Through a Losing Season

By James Gels, from the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook, @
"We can't win at home. We can't win on the road. As general manager, I just can't figure out where else to play." - Orlando Magic GM Pat Williams when struggling through a tough season.

"Nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad, but somewhere between reality falls." - Lou Holtz

OK, maybe it really is as bad as it seems! But you're not alone... probably about 50% of teams are winning, while about 50% are losing. I've known a number of great coaches who had awful losing seasons, with only a win or two (see Sip's story below). My golfing buddy, a successful former NFL and college football coach once told me that he was a lot better coach when he had good players.

It's hard to win without talent. Or as another coach explained to me, "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken s--t." A youth coach once emailed me, "We're playing a team this Saturday that is much bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, with great ball-handlers, passers and shooters, and tough rebounders and defenders. What should I do?" My short answer... "Lose". My friend, Coach Sar's answer was "Score first and hit the fire alarm!"

But parents and fans may be laying the blame on you. This only natural, but is also usually unfair. But this all adds to your own frustration and anxiety as a coach. It's hard to have a thick skin and let this roll off your back... but that's what you have to do. Before you make a rash decision to quit, or make some other drastic decision, sleep on it, take a couple days before deciding.

a sad locker room after the final loss

Take time to reflect on why you wanted to coach in the first place. Was it just to supplement your income? Was it because you were going to be the next Coach K? Or you were going to be the savior of this perennial cellar-dwelling team? Do you find yourself always screaming at the refs and your players, and losing your temper? Then maybe it's not for you.

Or was it because you love the game and like working with young people? And you want to help young people succeed? And you want to be a good example and role model? You want to help develop character, work ethic and good values in your players? OK then... let's hang in there!

Ask yourself again, "what's important?" Here are a few more relevant quotes from great leaders:

  • "What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player." - John Wooden
  • "Winning is overemphasized. The only time it is really important is in surgery and war." - Al McGuire
  • "If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you're going to have problems. You'll be dead a lot." - Dean Smith
  • "It takes as much courage to have tried and failed as it does to have tried and succeeded." - Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed." - Theodore Roosevelt

So how are you going to get through the rest of this ugly season?
Don't forget those goals... teaching kids the value of teamwork, sportsmanship, hard work, etc. When kids are down in the dumps from losing, realize that this affords a great opportunity for teaching some life lessons. Usually I don't like to see coaches spending a lot of time talking during practices... just work, practice.

But if you really have no prayer of winning your next game against that really strong opponent, why not "step out of the box", and talk with your kids. Talk to them about how life at times can be a real struggle, but "you buck up and get through it". How life can be unfair... and how you can make the best of a bad situation... how you can make lemonade from lemons, etc.

Make it fun... find a way for your players to still have fun and enjoy themselves, and feel good about themselves. Get to know them, and show them that you are still interested in them and care about them as individuals, even if basketball is not their best attribute. Teach them that "you don't have to win a trophy to be a winner."

Focus on fundamentals, especially your younger players... ball-handling, dribbling, shooting drills, etc. Yes, with repetition, they can become better players. And they must become better players before you can consistently win. Razzle dazzle game-time coaching strategies may help a little, but you have to have good players.

Rebuilding. It's tempting in a losing season for a coach to decide to "rebuild" for next year. OK... but DON'T forget your seniors who have labored in the program for four years, and this was supposed to be their year. If you want to give your underclassmen more playing time... maybe let your seniors start the game, but then substitute liberally.

But don't just forget your seniors, assuming they are still working hard with good attitudes. Start the rebuilding with your youth program... be passionate with younger kids and get them interested early on.

Talk about your goals... be realistic. Maybe there's eight games left... let's look at the schedule. We have a good chance of winning 2 or 3... so let's win those games, and then see if we can win another game or two that nobody thinks we can win. The old upset! Nothing more fun than that.

A few years ago, we were conference champs but lost in the District tournament to a team that had won only 3 games the whole season! Yes, we had some illness and injuries, but mainly that underdog team just played harder than we did and they deserved to win. After my initial disappointment, I reflected back and had to give tremendous credit and respect to that coach and those kids, who, after a miserable season, could have just folded up for us and ended their season. They had the guts and persistence to come out and put it to us.

Talk about tough losses...
Another good friend of mine, coach Bob Sippell (aka "Sip") a former Central Michigan Univ coach, told me about one of his seasons, when he was coaching a boys varsity high schoool team that ended up 1-19. Last game of the season, playing the undefeated conference champs, a highly ranked team, Sip's underdogs are playing tough, and have just tied the game.

With 7 seconds left in the game, his team fouls and the opponent gets the 1-and-1. Sip calls time-out... he looks down the bench and sees a big tall kid who hardly ever gets to play, but can really jump and rebound. "Billy... you check in now. He's gonna miss the free-throw... you go up and get that rebound and we'll call another quick time-out, and then go down and score."

Sure enough, the kid misses the free-throw, Billy jumps up, grabs the rebound, jumps back up and dunks it! Sip loses by 2... Billy comes over to the sideline in tears when he realizes what just happened. Sip says, "It's OK Bill, you got the rebound like I asked you... I just didn't want you to shoot..."

So hang in there, and someday when you are on the winning side, remember, "The two hardest things to handle in life are failure and success." - John Wooden

Helpful articles:

Helpful DVDs:

Bob Knight - Knight School: Teaching Coaches How to Coach

Bob Knight - Knight School: Teaching Coaches How to Coach
with Bob Knight, former head coach at Texas Tech and Indiana University; Over 900 career wins, 3X National Championship Coach, Five Final 4 appearances; 4X National Coach of the Year; 1984 US Men's Olympic Coach (Gold Medal)

In the unique presentation, Bob Knight answers more than 70 questions covering a vast range of topics concerning coaching and off the court responsibilities. Now you can improve your program by pulling ideas and concepts from this catalog of coaching wisdom.

A program's success is not only about on-the-court production but also what is does off the court. Coach Knight gives you all of his thoughts and beliefs for building your team, staff and program. The topics Knight covers include: (more info)

Price: $79.99     (includes a FREE ebook, "Basketball According to Knight and Newell, Volume I)
Buy Now

Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs: Winning with Undersized Teams

Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs: Winning with Undersized Teams
with Brad Stevens, Butler University Head Coach

Coach Stevens lead his Butler Bulldogs to the 2010 NCAA Final game, losing to Duke in the final seconds. Coach Stevens hit the college basketball scene like a hurricane in 2008, becoming the third-youngest NCAA Division I coach to guide his team to 30 wins in a season. Known for his ability to lead undersized teams to success, Stevens will show you how smaller teams can flourish in this system of play.

Stevens takes negatives and turns them into weapons through defense, rebounding, and ball security. Stevens examines five keys to beating bigger teams, as well as nine "areas to address" as you implement this system for undersized success. Stevens shares a perfect mix of drills and philosophy as he shows how his teams can conquer any national powerhouse... (more info)

Price: $39.99
Buy Now

Bob Hurley Practice Planning and Program Development

Bob Hurley Practice Planning and Program Development
with Bob Hurley, St. Anthony's High School (NJ) Basketball Coach; 2010 Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee; 25x State Parochial Championships 3x USA Today National Championships (1989, 1996, 2008); 2x National Coach of the Year by USA Today (1989, 1996)

Coach Hurley takes you through his coaching philosophy and provides an outline into what you need to be thinking about when building your high school program. Everything from developing your style of play to building a feeder system to cultivating an identity for your team is covered. He describes what he calls the keys to a successful program. These eight keys include having an emphasis on fundamentals, physical fitness, playing hard,... (more info)

Price: $39.99
Buy Now

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