Having arrived at the venue in plenty of time I felt relaxed and prepared. We had spent a great deal of time on the scout, covered as much as I felt we could have in the time we had, and enjoyed a number of positive hours on the court. I stood and chattered with parents for five minutes before going to see the team. I had stuck my head into the changing room earlier and was greeted by laughter, banter and a pretty strong baseline. All in all, the mood was light, confident and prepared.
I started by discussing identity, knowing who we were as individuals and how this fed into the collective ‘we’. I challenged each player to find their inner confidence, a source of energy that would bring out their very best version of self. I then spoke of our approach and how this would enable us to meet our goals, focusing in on our five offensive principles and three defensive rules. I asked the players to trust that each other would be there for them, that they would communicate with each other and help each other through the difficult parts of the game, the moments when we were unsure what was next. I finished with my Sunday best speech and a motivational nugget to send them on to the floor.
We got off to a good start, offensively, our spacing was okay, we made decisions based on our game preparation, and the five individuals that started the game appeared to be in control and confident in their game play. I was in a comfortable place, my pre-game nerves had quickly dissipated and I found a calm and relaxed self occupying the side line of a unfriendly hardwood. I spoke to the bench, asked them to consider moments, actions and reactions as they occurred on the floor and to solve problems in preparation for their entrance into the game.
However, and perhaps as is to be expected from the competition setting, the mood began to shift. The calmness that had held me together and kept me where it was I wanted to be had become uncomfortable, it began to wriggle its way free and leave me exposed and vulnerable. I could hear instruction as it began to take over my behaviour, my questioning was retreating, and I was caught in the middle. Our play was no longer a reflection of our identity, who we wanted to be, but rather a desperate attempt to fend off our opponent as they flexed their muscle and kicked and screamed their way back into the game. I often refer to this as a state of mental breakdown, fear that we, our collective and shared identity would not hold up against the pressure. The symptoms were a lack of communication, poor decision making and failure to solve immediate problems as they showed themselves to us.
We got to half time with a lead, but our play, or rather our identity, was very much in doubt. We had lost sight of the things that we did well, the things that secured our shared being, and instead, we were battling to survive as one. I watched us walk to the changing room, pausing only to gather my thoughts. I didn’t speak for long, partly because I wanted their voices to own the time and space we had. I merely asked them to look at one another, and with honesty and composure, find a way to fix what, if anything, was broken. I then left them and went to a quiet place myself, a place where I could regroup and consider my role, my behaviour and how I could help to get us rebalanced and heading in a direction that best reflected who we had agreed to be.
The wave of pressure that typically accompanies the third quarter of a basketball game did not materialise with the same vigour expected from a team that had hold of a deficit. We also began to find a little bit of self, who we were, who we wanted to be and how we would get there. I could hear questioning as it reaffirmed its dominance in my behaviour. However, I wasn’t quite out of the woods, there where one or two moments where I fell foul to frustration, even a little disappointment, at both myself and our play. I could see it and hear it in my practice, visions of an aggressive stance, a non-supportive comment and an over-bearing posture. It was almost as though I was at war with self, battling to allow the questioning and positive challenge self to override the instructive self.
Having fought our way through the remainder of the game and secured a victory, we departed amidst mild celebration. The drive home was nothing more than fifty minutes or so, not really enough time to process the events of the previous two hours, but certainly time to recover. A few hours later, I took myself up to my office and sat at my desk, a real sense of exhaustion took hold and I wasn’t entirely sure where it had come from. I think the constant battling with self, the emotional shift back and forth through various behaviours had taken its toll. Could it really be this hard to become a good coach?