Basketball Coaching – Struggling Through a Losing Season

By Dr. James Gels, From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

"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 bad! But you're not alone. 50% of teams are winning, while 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). 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.

Parents and fans may be laying the blame on you. This only natural, but is also usually unfair. This all adds to your 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 decide to quit, or make some other rash decision, sleep on it, and take a couple days before deciding.

a sad locker room after the final loss

There's a lot more to being a good coach than winning and losing. 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 coaches spending a lot of time talking during practices. Just work, practice.

But if you really have no chance 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.

Make it fun... find a way for your players to still have fun and feel good about themselves. Get to know them, and show them that you are 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. With repetition, they can become better players. And they must become better players before you can consistently win. Clever 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, consider having 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 rebuilding with your youth program. Be passionate with younger kids and get them interested early on.

Talk about your goals. Be realistic. Maybe there are 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 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 friend of mine, "coach Sip", a former D1 college 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 Billy, 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 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, and 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

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