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Coaches Corner: Keeping Focus and Perspective in Your First Year as a Head Coach

Summer has always been one of my favorite times of year as a basketball coach. I consider this time period an essential time for individual skill development, and I thoroughly enjoy watching kids develop their skills through the open gyms, league nights, and summer tournaments that we enter.  For a variety of factors, I feel that many individuals make the greatest gains in terms of their skill during this time. While the players are honing their craft, summer also offers us coaches the opportunity to evaluate and refine our programs. For many individuals this summer is offering the first opportunity he or she will have to lead a program. As I approach my 17th year coaching high school basketball (6 years as a girls coach and 10 years as a boys coach) in the state of Wisconsin, I hope my article speaks to these individuals by offering them insight, support, and luck as they enter into one of the most rewarding professions an individual can enter into.

The first thing I wish I like to say to a young coach is congratulations on being named the head coach. You should feel excited about everything that lies before you now. However, you should know that the easy part is over. Don’t get me wrong, the interview and selection process are difficult and at times it may seem insurmountable. Very few individuals have been given every job that they have interviewed for in the coaching world. Dealing with the trials and tribulations of landing your first job leading a program has strengthened you and made you an individual that will have experiences to share with the most important people in your job, the kids.

These kids will have to learn how to deal with perceived failure and you are now readily prepared to help them with this struggle. As I often times tell my teams, your ability to have success doesn’t define you; it is your ability to deal with failure that will define you and your team. You see, basketball is a game of failure. To illustrate what I mean by this let’s take a look at one of the greatest players on the planet.

Steph Curry is arguably the best three-point shooter the game of basketball has ever seen. Just how great of a three-point shooter is Steph Curry? Video game designers cannot create an algorithm that can properly simulate how much better of a shooter he is when compared to his counterparts. Despite this greatness, Stephen Curry is a career 44% three-point shooter. A man that outperforms statistical probabilities designed by video game designers misses over half the three-point shots he will take. Heck, if Steph Curry was pulling a 44% in class, he wouldn’t be eligible to play for many of us. You see, Steph Curry is not great because he makes every shot he takes. Rather, Steph Curry is great because he has learned to deal with failure. He has accepted the pursuit of perfection despite the guarantee of imperfection. In order to survive and thrive as a young coach you need to remember that as you enter into your first season. You as a coach cannot afford to have yourself or your kids lose perspective of this.

You are not just a coach; you are now a leader of young men or women and your “success” or “failure” in the upcoming year should not be tied to your wins and loss record. Many of you are most likely taking over programs that have recently struggled in terms of wins and losses. I know this was my case when I took over the boys program at Mondovi 10 years ago.

Mondovi was coming off a 3 win season the previous year with many of the losses coming by double digits. If I would have focused my team on winning games in that first year, any “success” would have been very temporary and fleeting in nature. Rather, our focus was building a program that would prepare boys to become better individuals in life by learning to compete for perfection despite the guarantee of imperfection. We outlined this vision to our players and communicated to them that we would not focus on the end product (game). Rather, we would be focusing on the process (preparation in practice). I still vividly remember the first game we played that year.

We played the Plum City Blue Devils at their place. That year Plum City was a solid team, and playing them in their small and extremely loud gym would be a challenge for any team, let alone a team coming off a three win season with a new coach. We competed extremely hard and eventually lost the game 58-54. If we had tied our value of success to winning, we would have deemed the game a failure, but due to the fact we had tied success to the process, we were able to reflect and experience success by seeing the gains that had been made as a result to the effort the players were putting in.

Two games later we were playing Glenwood City. In the previous year, they had beaten Mondovi by a combined 80 points in addition to coming off a state appearance. Needless to say, it was a tall order facing us in that game. The kids performed brilliantly and we ended up winning the game 54-49. It was a key moment for the development of our program, yet we could not allow the kids to see that moment as an end. If they judged success as a win, the kids very well could have felt complacent and allowed that third game of the season to become the pinnacle. Instead, we once again stressed to the kids that they needed to focus on the process and trying to continue to grow. As a result we learned how to deal with failure and success, and those lessons became the foundations on which we have built our program in Mondovi for the past 10 years.

I was recently asked,” How do you know if you were successful?” While the easy answer would be to point out the wins and losses, the conference championship, or the regional championship as the benchmarks of success, those are fleeting and carry little meaning in the grand scheme of what we hope to achieve as high school coaches. Rather, I answered by saying I know that I am successful because I was recently invited to attend a wedding of one of my former players from my first era at Mondovi. I know that I am successful as a coach because of the relationships I have built with the most important people in my program, the kids.

So with that in mind, I wish all you young coaches all the success in the world this summer as you begin to do the most important aspect in building your program, establishing relationships with your players.

Written by Mondovi boys basketball coach Chad Brieske, who has coached 16 years at the high school level, including 10 years as boys coach.

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