Prepare To Win

I believe one of the common traits amongst successful coaches is a love for practice.  Personally, the preparation that went into putting an overall plan together for a season, breaking it down into parts, then working daily to put it into play was one of the most enjoyable aspects of coaching.  I always loved practice and felt that our preparation was definitely one of the keys to our success.

In this entry of Coach With A Purpose, I will outline my thoughts about practice and how it fits into the overall concept of developing a Championship Culture.  

Upon becoming a head coach, one of my first undertakings was to develop a practice plan sheet for each level of our program…middle school, freshman, JV/Var.  These plan sheets fit the objectives for each level (see Program Progression) and developed a plan specifically for that part of our program. The plan sheet was broken into offense, defense, and special situations with the drills we would use for each aspect of these.  For example, each man offense would be broken into the individual and group drills we would use to develop that offense.

By providing a specific plan sheet for each level of our program, these coaches had a constant reminder of the objectives that needed to be accomplished at their level and helped to keep everyone focused on their piece of the puzzle.  

Once the plan sheet was developed, I used this to design each specific practice and it provided a blueprint to make sure that we were staying on track for each phase of our program.  Additionally, I was always a believer in keeping a copy of each practice so that I could reference our workouts at the end of each season if necessary. To this day, I have a copy of every workout for the 25 years I was the head coach at White Oak.

Our normal overall game plan was to play at a fast pace so in order to do this, I felt I needed to design practices that could be conducted at a fast pace.  For this reason, I was never a believer in teaching a bunch of different drills to work on the same skill. I wanted to develop drills specific to our schemes, have our players understand the purpose of the drill, and then be able to perfect the skills the drill was designed to teach.  Once a player got to the varsity level, we should be able to conduct fast paced practices as a result of them being familiar with the drills. I never wanted to waste practice time by constantly teaching new drills that trained the same skills. For some coaches, I know they would be concerned about practice becoming stagnant or becoming bored themselves with the same drills.  I was just always more concerned about efficiency and I think our kids functioned better by knowing the general format of workout along with the expectations of each drill.

In order to keep practice efficient and from becoming stagnant, we incorporated 3 concepts…encouragement, accountability, and competition.

“A quiet gym is a losing gym” is a quote I agree with so one of the aspects we emphasized during practice was to be a good teammate by constantly encouraging one another.  Whether it be through clapping, physical touch (high fives, fist bumps, etc) or verbal communication, we expect our players to be encouraging each other throughout workout.  If I jumped on someone pretty hard for something, then there needed to be 4 or 5 teammates offering this player encouragement afterwards. I know not all coaches agree with this, but my rule during practice/games was that I was the only one allowed to offer negative criticism.  If someone needed a butt chewing then I was more than qualified to deliver it but teammates were to always be positive with each other. I never wanted players chewing out each other.

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the years is, “How do you get those guys to play so hard.”  It’s really very simple…not easy, but simple. For us, it was about demanding a certain level of effort and intensity then refusing to accept anything less . One of the main ways this was accomplished was through our accountability system. We kept a simple chart during each practice with 2 columns “Marks” and “Bank”….a plus/minus system.  There were usually 3 things that would get a mark (negative) on the chart….lack of concentration, lack of effort, or no encouragement. Don’t block out, don’t dive for a loose ball, don’t communicate…that’s unacceptable. When these situations would occur, I would simply say “Give us a mark” and our manager would record it. A mark consisted of a down/back to be done after conditioning at the conclusion of workout. By using this method, we were able to have accountability without having to stop practice.    

Conversely, when players would show extraordinary effort or take a charge in practice, I would tell our manager to “Put one in the bank” which negated one of the marks on the chart.  We used the phrase, “Put one in the bank” because this phrase coincided with making an investment which is something we spoke about often.

Being responsible for having marks put on the chart could make you public enemy #1 so players worked diligently to meet our standard for effort and intensity.  Consequently, taking a charge or doing something else to gain a “bank” always led to cheers and a desire for more. We all need accountability and I believe our plus/minus chart for practice helped to keep our workouts meeting the standard we had set.  Once we started district play, our plus/minus chart would determine conditioning for Mon/Thur workouts so our players knew if we had a good workout they would have limited or no conditioning on those days.

The third area of emphasis for us in order to have an efficient workout was to make it competitive during drill work.  We almost exclusively practiced the JV/Var together. Each varsity player was assigned (they don’t get to choose) a JV partner for drill work and the varsity is split into 2 groups.  When we split up for drill work, varsity Group 1 (along with their JV partner) would start on my end of court and the 2nd varsity group (with JV partner) would work on the other end of the court with our JV coach.  If we were doing a defensive drill, then the 1st varsity group (which was on my end of the court) would be on defense with the JV being their training partner. To make the drill competitive, the varsity would get 1 point for stops and the JV would get 2 or 3 points for baskets.  At the conclusion of the drill, the winners would get a “bank” and the losers would get a “mark” on the plus/minus chart then we would start the score over for the next drill.

On the other end of the court, the JV would be on defense with the varsity being the training group.  However, we didn’t score their end of the court. After Group 1 had completed its defensive drill work, we would switch ends.  We would score our offensive drill work in the same manner except the varsity received 1 point for baskets while the JV will get 2 or 3 points for stops based on the drill. Because of the weighted scoring system (which helps the JV), our drill work was normally very competitive yet we still competed within our teams.  Early in the season, we would do some work with varsity on varsity, especially if some positions were still up for grabs, but I didn’t like to do much of this once we got to district play. I preferred them to be competing together at this point rather than against each other.

As far as having an efficient, fast paced workout, I believe the elements I have mentioned so far were critical for success.  However, none of this would work unless the workout was organized, well thought out, and structured. We didn’t post our workouts before practice, but by the time they got to the varsity, most of our players knew the drills and the format that we used and I believe they liked the structure (not necessarily all the drills!).  

One final element as far as having a fast paced, efficient workout was not having designated water breaks.  Each of our players was issued a water bottle and they took this with them during drill work. Any time they were not in a drill, they could get a drink.  Otherwise, we didn’t take breaks during workout. Inexperienced players learned quickly the value of that water bottle so they learn to keep it close.

As far as the structure of our workouts, I always looked forward to district play so that we had 3 practices per week and 2 games. Tournaments were fun, they served a good purpose early in the year and the kids loved them, but I hated the slippage that could occur during this time of the season.  I believe our workouts during district play allowed us to continue to get better which coincides with peaking at the right time.

Once we entered district play our practice format was generally as follows:  Monday and Thursday would pretty much mirror each other. Our athletic period was the last period of the day so we allowed the first 30 minutes for our varsity scouting report.  During this time, our JV would work on their team offense against our freshman team because they mainly became the scout team for the varsity during the team portion of workout once we started district play.  

After scouting report, we always started with our fundamental period which consisted of dribbling, passing, and shooting drills.  Next, we would go into the our individual and group defensive work followed by our individual and group offensive drills. After all drill work was complete, we would go into the team portion of our workout which was always Varsity vs. JV.  We may work half court set plays for 5 minutes but everything else during our team portion of workout included transition offense and defense. So, for example, the varsity would run an offensive set then transition to defense then run transition offense which put us back on the same end of the court that we started. We would stop the action at this point and players would rotate in.  I would line out the rotation before practice then the players were responsible for rotating themselves in during workout, I didn’t rotate them.

Once we completed the team portion of workout, we would do team conditioning.  Before district play, we would do some form of conditioning after each workout.  Once district play began, we would do team conditioning on Wednesdays. I believe conditioning after workout accomplished 2 things.  First of all, it allowed us to end practice doing something physically demanding as a team. Secondly, it built mental toughness. We finished practice doing something that required no talent, just effort.  It’s was an opportunity to remind ourselves that we were building toughness and that no one would outwork us. There was no doubt in my mind, we gained as much or more mentally from conditioning as we did physically.

For us, Wednesday was a day to get in more shooting and work on special situations or prepare for something we would see later in the year.  For example, in 2013, we worked press break every Wednesday during the district portion of our schedule even though Tatum would be our only district opponent that would press us.  However, if we wanted to get out of our region, we knew we would have to go through Tatum, Kountze, or both and that meant facing relentless full court pressure. Consequently, we did our best to prepare for this situation long before we faced it. Wednesday was also one of our weight lifting days and was usually our shortest workout of the week since we had a game the night before.  

Finally, at the conclusion of workout each day, we would break our huddle with “I Believe” and each player was required to say something encouraging to every teammate before leaving the huddle area.  I believe this was a good way to remind each other that we all have a role in our success and everyone and every role needed to be respected…different roles, same status, shared result!

In summary, there is no doubt in my mind that much of the success we had at White Oak could be attributed to our preparation.  Once we entered district play, we prepared for each opponent specifically, kept working to improve ourselves, and went into each game knowing we had a plan.  No doubt, I was a much bigger fan of practice than my players (which is understandable) and was probably the one guy in the gym that enjoyed practice as much as the games.  I think the words of 2013 alum Levi Yancy summed up the feelings of most of my players when he would say, “The best thing about game day is not having to practice!” For me, the best part about game day was knowing we were prepared.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!