All coaches play favorites because all coaches have favorite types of players. As a player, ultimately, you must please the coach because the coach decides who he thinks should play in order to give the team the best chance to win. Consequently, when a coach has to give one player the benefit of the doubt over another player, I believe most likely the nod will go to the player that he trusts the most and, usually, that will be the type of player he is most comfortable with. When asked by other coaches for advice, one thing that I always mention is “play the guys you trust”.
Now, hopefully, when coaches say, “I don’t play favorites”, they are referring to not showing partiality to a player based on factors off the court/field because I don’t know any coaches that don’t prefer certain traits from their players. Some may prefer things related to physical talent such as size or speed while others prefer skill sets such as throwing, catching, hitting, or shooting. Many coaches favor work ethic, intelligence, and strong character traits while others prefer players who may not have the best character or work ethic but they can help the team win. Obviously, all coaches would prefer to have players with great physical talent and great intangibles but that player rarely ever comes along so coaches have to make decisions about personnel and I believe coaches, naturally, lean toward players that exhibit the traits they admire most…they play who they trust.
For me, my favorite type of player was the one who was tough, physically and mentally, as well as competitive and there were two main reasons for this. First of all, above all things, we were going to play defense at White Oak and, in my book, tough/competitive players make the best defenders. If you were a poor defender, then you for sure better bring some other outstanding trait to the table or the chances of you getting to play were slim.
Secondly, I always believed a tough/competitive kid could develop skills if he was willing to work hard enough at it. I believed I was much more likely to teach a tough/competitive kid to shoot than to teach a soft kid that could shoot, how to be tough/competitive.
Can you teach a player to get tougher and more competitive? To a certain degree, I believe toughness can be improved, especially mentally, but it takes a conscientious effort by the player, it must be demanded by the coach, and there has to be evidence that the formula works. If these factors are not present, and even when they are, it will always be a challenge to make players that tend to play soft learn to be tougher. I do believe the players that finished our program all got tougher throughout their 4 years at WOHS.
Though many believe competitiveness is something you either have or don’t, I think competitiveness can improve when the amount of investment increases. I do believe the saying, “The more you invest, the harder it is to surrender”, is accurate so to a degree, players can become more competitive. I also believe when players are placed in a more competitive environment, they often times show themselves that they can compete at a higher level.
To me, the bottom line is this…when the talent level is close to equal, the toughest and most competitive team is going to win. A talented team that is soft rarely defeats a team that has more talent than them. A tough and competitive team is capable of winning beyond its talent level. So, if I had to pick between player A who had a better skill set but played soft or player B who had a slightly lesser skill level and was tough/competitive, I was going to choose player B. Again, if a player was an exceptional shooter, my best ball handler and passer, or possessed some other higher level skill, then this could influence my decision because you have to play to win at the varsity level. However, if my team was going to go down, I would always prefer to go down with tough/competitive kids. That’s why when I was determining if a player could compete at the varsity level, the first question I would ask myself was, “Can he hold up on the defensive end?”.
One of the best examples I can give of one of my players who learned to play tougher in order to become a better player and to do what was necessary for our team to win was Skylar Sutton. Skylar loved basketball and it showed in his skill level. He worked tirelessly on becoming an outstanding shooter, ball handler, and passer but for the early part of his career at White Oak, though he was very competitive, he was mainly a finesse, offensive player who liked to play with a lot of flair in his game.
As a sophomore, Skylar was a varsity prospect. Offensively, he had the skill set to be a varsity player and that is what most people saw when they watched him play. My concern was his lack of strength and whether or not he could hold up on the defensive end of the court. Fortunately, Skylar was a great competitor and when I explained to him during our post season conference that he hadn’t proven to me that he should be a varsity player as a sophomore, he was determined to change his game. I know deep inside, Skylar felt he should have been on the varsity and he used this disappointment to drive him….that’s what great competitors do.
Skylar made a concerted effort to get stronger and dedicated himself to the defensive end of the court. He valued efficiency over flair and began to take a lot more pride in his defense. In fact, by his senior year, Skylar was our best wing defender. Many loyal patrons to the State Tournament at the Frank Erwin Special Events Center in Austin will remember the shooting display that Skylar put on during our championship game with Brock in 2013. However, what will always stand out to me is the toughness that he played with on the defensive end of the court while guarding one of the best guards in Class 2A (now 3A), Tre Ewell of Brock.
During the postgame interview, the announcers wanted to talk about Skylar’s offense but I was determined to highlight his defense because that was the difference in his game. Fortunately, Skylar didn’t want to just be a shooter, he wanted to be a champion and in order for this to happen, he had to get tougher….and he did.
Though I know he was disappointed and frustrated at times as a sophomore, Skylar Sutton would end up being a 2 year starter on teams that went 74-2 over that span with back to back State Championships and he never knew what it felt like to lose his last game of the season.
So what does tough and competitive look like? To me, those elements could be identified in the following manner:
Traits of a Roughneck Basketball Player
Always exhibits TOUGHNESS:
*Hard nosed defender
*First on the floor for loose balls
*Plays through contact
*Looks to take charges
*Refuses to give in to fatigue
*Always looks for ways to separate himself from opponents
*Fully engaged during workouts and games
*Has great concentration and focus
*Fights through inconvenient or uncomfortable circumstances
*Distinguishes between pain/soreness & injury..always tries to get up.
*Embraces the moment – believes in himself and the process
*Plays with great effort and intensity
*Hard nosed defender
*Blocks out aggressively and relentlessly pursues the ball
*First on the floor for loose balls
*Looks to take charges
*Finishes the play
*Plays with desire
*Aggressive and confident
*Does his part and a little bit more
*Fights to the end
*Hates to lose and loves to win
White Oak basketball was built by TOUGH & COMPETITIVE players that played on TOUGH & COMPETITIVE teams. The pride and tradition of the White Oak basketball program will not be entrusted to “soft” players or “soft” teams. One way or another we will put a TOUGH & COMPETITIVE team on the court that is made up of TOUGH & COMPETITIVE players.
Without a doubt, I know the players that had the hardest time playing for me were the players that were not tough and competitive by nature. Some responded better than others to improving in these areas and because of this it was always important to me that I convey to them as they left our program, that what took place on the court was never personal. Though all coaches have players that fit their mold for the type of player they trust to play the most, this is never a reflection on the person. Some of my players never got to the point of being as tough or competitive as I wanted them to be. However, I have no doubt, for those that are not already, they will go on to be fine husbands and fathers. Finally, when the time comes that life punches them in the face, I’ll know it’s not the first time they’ve been asked to be tough and to compete.
Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!