Without a doubt, the most exciting part of high school athletics is the playoffs…. Tournament Time! For all the pre-season preparation, summer workouts, offseason workouts, non district games and invitational tournaments, and the grind of the district race, the reward for some is a birth in the State Playoffs.
Obviously, as the number of playoff teams has increased over the years, some of the luster of making the playoffs has been diminished but nonetheless, it’s still the playoffs and the gateway to the State Championship. Football now crowns 12 State Champions and baseball has gone to a best 2 of 3 format in many cases but basketball has stayed the course…1 State Champion per classification in a single elimination tournament. Play’em all and win or go home! It’s the pursuit of this goal that has driven thousands of coaches and players for decades and provided lifelong memories for many communities and schools along the way. There’s nothing like it.
In this entry of Coach With A Purpose, I’ll be giving my thoughts for coaching during the playoffs in order to give your team the best chance for success. Hopefully, these ideas will give you some things to consider as you prepare your team to reach their potential.
1) Warm Up Game
When scheduling, my general rule was to leave room for a warm up game. However, we did not always choose to play one. If we had been in a very competitive district race, I would often choose not to play a warm up game. The rationale was to give our team a break from the grind, usually mentally more than physically. In other years, if we had not had many competitive games in district, we would play a warm up game in order to sharpen us heading into the playoffs.
If I was coaching a team that had not been to the playoffs recently or had much success I would strongly consider playing a warm up game in order to simulate the atmosphere and format of a playoff game. This allows for a trial run on pregame, warmup, and game conditions which I believe is very beneficial especially if several players have been moved up from the sub-varsity teams. Many times this can be a distraction if not handled correctly so a warmup game gives the opportunity for a trial run.
2) Playoff Practices
How long to practice and the format of practice during the playoffs is constantly debated amongst coaches and there are strong opinions on each side of the argument. Personally, I am more concerned about mental fatigue during this time of the season than I am physical fatigue. Granted, we start to shorten our workouts during the 2nd round of district and during the playoffs but, again, this is as much for mental reasons as physical. One thing I have learned over the years about the playoffs is no matter how far you advance there is one constant…kids love to play during this time of the year but they don’t necessarily look forward to practice. For this reason, I always wanted us to get our work done then get off the court. We would still do most of our drill work but we would reduce the number of reps and use the move ups to do all the training for the varsity.
Early in my career, one of the mistakes that I felt I made during workouts was neglecting to continue to do our normal drill work in order to reduce our time on the court. Looking back, I think this led to slippage in our games. So, my best advice now is to continue the basic drills but limit the reps…get your work done and get off the court. Often times, on our best teams, the kids would stay on their own to do some individual work or play some on their own. These were the kids who loved the game and these were the teams who excelled the most. There’s no substitute for love.
3) Game Mentality
I believe this is the most important concept to winning in the playoffs…the mental approach. Throughout our non-district schedule, I would constantly remind our teams how these games were preparing us for our district schedule. Throughout district play, we would attempt to play each game with the same mentality regardless of our opponent. Many times during our best years, this would lead to very lopsided victories and its fair share of criticism. We didn’t press inferior teams but we would pick them up ¾ court to not allow them to walk the ball up the court during the first half. During the first round of district, we would play our entire bench roughly half the game in lopsided contests. In the 2nd round, we would play the starters 2/3 of the time in order to prepare them for the extended minutes they would get in the playoffs.
As the coach, my job was to do what I felt was necessary to give our team the best chance to win regardless of how others felt it should be done. If other coaches, players, or fans were offended, then I just had to take the criticism. During our run to the State Championship in 2012 and 2013, I know our mentality was one of our greatest strengths and this was developed throughout the season. Regardless of the circumstances or opponent, we were going to prepare and play with the same mentality. By following this process, we were always in our comfort zone and that’s when teams play their best.
Consequently, during our playoff runs, we kept our routine and procedures as close to the same as possible. We prepared the same (except for less time on court), we kept our pregame and warmup the same, we dressed the same, and we attempted to play the same. Our approach was that we prepared every game to play our best and for this reason we didn’t need to change this mentality as we advanced in the playoffs…we trusted the process.
Part of maintaining this consistency was to make sure that, as the head coach, I stayed consistent with my approach. I wore the same maroon shirt and khaki pants during the state championship games that I did in our district games. I made a conscious effort to keep everything as close to the same as I could. If I started changing things because of our opponent or the circumstances then I would be sending a message…what we had been doing wasn’t good enough. I wanted to make sure I sent just the opposite message…what we had been doing was good enough, just go play.
I particularly paid attention to my body language and my words to the team. I always wanted them to know that I believed in them and trusted our system. That wasn’t hard to do because I did believe those things but I wanted to make sure I didn’t appear nervous or in awe of the circumstances. As the coach, your team will take their cues from you…verbal and non-verbal, tangible and intangible. Particularly on game day, I wanted them to see me as steady and confident. I believe getting caught up in the hoopla of the playoffs leads to the downfall of many teams and it’s very easy to do. As the head coach, one of the biggest challenges during the playoffs is to keep your team in the moment and the best way to do this, is to block out the temptation to concentrate on the results and to trust the process. Like many things, this is much easier to say than to do. For those who can, half the battle is already won.
The beauty of the playoffs is that you have to bring it that night, under the given set of circumstances with no second chances. It’s competition in its purest form. In a society that teaches “everyone gets a trophy”, the playoffs are the truth…there is a winner and a loser. But more than that, there are competitors…those who dare to step into the arena to determine who is the best.
In summary, during my 25 year tenure as a head coach, I coached 7 seasons before ever having the opportunity to coach a playoff team so I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in and wondering whether or not our teams would ever get over the hump. Once getting there, I’ve suffered painful losses along the way that stuck with me for years and made me question whether the pain was worth it. Finally, I’ve been blessed to experience what only a few coaches have the opportunity to experience…winning a state championship. As I reflect back, I know that every step along the way helped to shape me and I hope sharing these experiences will help to shape you to be your best.
Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!