The cost of winning

Having picked them up and made a number of left and right turns we were on the motorway heading north and they were fast asleep, an opportunity lost to share a laugh and get to know some of them better. It wasn’t that I didn’t know them, but there was room to improve, to extend the depth of our relationship and to better understand each of them as individuals. The drive up was a long and quiet one, this would be our first real test, a team that we knew would be competitive, tough and difficult to beat.

I let the players direct their warm up having assigned a number of individual tasks to the team captains. “Why did it take so long for them to organise themselves?” Eventually they got into a shooting drill, okay, I wouldn’t have started there but if they are comfortable with it I will let them continue. The warm up was twenty minutes of shooting and a few dynamic stretches, not what I would consider appropriate as a means of igniting the large muscle groups, engaging the brain in focus and thought processes relevant to the task ahead and/or generally getting the players prepared. I wasn’t however going to say anything and managed to keep my word. I called them in, highlighted our three keys to the game and offered some words of encouragement as the horn sounded for the start of our forty minute competition.

The opposition scored the first points, we responded and then they scored again, this wasn’t going to be an easy forty minutes. I smiled, told the players’ behind me that we were okay, turned to the court and extended the same sentiment to the in-game players’, gesturing for them to relax, calm down and get into our ‘stuff’. As the game progressed however, I would not offer the same calming influence, I found myself correcting movement, directing player decisions and challenging players before retreating to a quiet moment, a moment to reflect on what I was doing. I was very aware of my inner thoughts and feelings, feelings of frustration at our inaccurate passing yet pleased with the effort. It was difficult to manage, I was in the midst of an outer body experience, trying to calm myself, to allow the players to examine their own play (something that they were doing pretty well). I walked down the bench and away from any immediate contact and had a personal  time out, we were down two points, we were not playing our best and yet we were right in the game. Suddenly we managed a sequence of stopping them, scoring and then stopping them again, we were down just two points and the first quarter had come to an end.

I let them talk amongst themselves for 15-seconds while I just kneeled in front of the bench and smiled, I then smiled at them. I had managed to find an inner calm and I wanted to share it with the players. “We have turned the ball over, missed eight free throws and are only down two points.” I continued to smile and talk in a soft soothing voice. “Guys, we are okay, we have now settled into the game, we are running the ball very well, getting to the line, challenging the defence to commit to guarding us and forcing them to make mistakes, we are okay.” We came together for a strong rally call, I believe I even shared a light hearted moment in the form of a joke and the players walked back to the court. I could hear them offering words of encouragement, statements of intent and there was a general positivity about their mood.

The second period was a tight affair, in fact it was dead even at 17-points a piece for each team. We struck and then they hit back, we would make a mistake and then they would. I tried to rotate players and keep a balance without losing anything (not something I had articulated to the players but now felt as though I would need to – there was so many things that I continued to think of that needed sharing with the players’). I was up and down, there were a few ‘what are you doing’ questions, quickly followed by some attempt to reframe and offer some opportunity for learning and confidence building. In short, I felt as though I was all over the place, one minute in control, the next minute, very much out of control. In the final seconds of the quarter I found myself directing traffic, the score was tied and they had 7-seconds to score. My efforts failed and the players walked back towards me from the court down two points having conceded the final basket of the half.

In a moment of calmness I once more turned to the players, highlighted the great work we had accomplished in the first half (rebounding, transition offensive and guarding the ball) as well as the fact that we had missed 10 of 12 free throw attempts and that we were only down two points. The mood was light, the players, most of them, seemed relaxed, albeit frustrated with their own level of play, the score and the very tight whistle being exacted on the game.

We started the third quarter with a flurry of strong moves to the basket and strong defensive possessions. We had turned a two point deficit into a five point lead (including going 0-4 from the free throw line). The hooter sounded and the official called timeout to the opposing team. The players walked over to the bench, their mood was somewhat more upbeat, jovial and confident. I applauded their effort, their execution and their togetherness. I then explained that we needed to be more like this regardless of the score – possibly a lesson for me as much as for them. As they walked back to the court following the minute break I felt a sense of pleasure, without knowing it they had demonstrated some resilience, they had fought through a difficult period of play, shown some real togetherness and, more importantly for me, had made a number of decisions that they were very much in charge of and aware of. I felt somewhat more relaxed.

We outscored the opposition 27-18 in the second half (including going 1 out of 8 from the free throw line in the half), we had managed to ‘weather the storm’ and really ‘fight’. At times our execution was poor, we didn’t defend the ball as well as we wanted to and we went away from some of our offensive and defensive principles. This being said, there were times when we executed very well, we would hit ‘strongside’, attack or move the ball and get something good going to the basket. We rebounded, and challenged for every rebound at both ends of the floor and managed to guard the ball and force them to change what they wanted to do. The final buzzer went and we had managed to travel the seventy-three miles north, play forty minutes of tough basketball and secure our third win. There were however some ‘holes’, some things that we would need to ‘fix’ and quickly – some of the players and parents were discontent with the allocation of playing time, frustrated at teammates play, ‘holding of the ball’ and other minor thoughts that detracted from a team ethos.

I walked out to the car park, congratulating all of the players’ as I passed them, wishing then a safe journey home. My three charges climbed into the car, battling for front seat occupancy and the right to comfort. We exchanged five or six minutes of chatter before silence fell once more on the journey.

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