The surprising news this morning from the world of college basketball is the resignation of legendary coach Bob Knight. Of course, his legendary status is based on his temper, verbal abuse of players and general obnoxiousness just as much as it is for his winning career (902 games -- more than any men's coach in a major college program). The news got me to thinking about my own brief coaching career, and the lessons on winning that I learned.
I've been a sports fan from an early age, with a particular fondness for basketball. My uncle Neil was a star center for the Philadelphia Warriors during the 1950's. And when I say star, I mean it. He was leading scorer in the NBA for 3 years, and was posthumously elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990. He coached Wilt Chamberlain. He was a natural athlete.
I am tall, and relatively well coordinated. So I played basketball as a kid, because it was the only sport around for girls in pre-Title IX Virginia. I was by no means a star, but I enjoyed it. To this day, I still enjoy shooting hoops to relax.
My own coaching career was thankfully brief. For 2 years I coached an 8th grade girls basketball team while working as a special education teacher. I never ever appreciated coaches or phys ed. teachers the way I have since those 2 years.
On the face of it, I was a good fit to coach this team. The first year, most of the girls had only dribbled a basketball in P.E. class and had never played a sport competitively. There was, however, a core of 3 players who had played either on an organized team or with the boys at the outdoor courts. So they had good basic skills and were fairly confident. (They were also the ones who gave me a heart attack before my first game, all starters, missing in action just 3 minutes before tip-off because they were shaving their legs in the bathroom.)
Most of my coaching consisted of teaching fundamental skills -- no fancy plays. I had a wonderful high school student as an assistant, and by mid season we were able to play a zone defense and have a couple of very simple plays to execute. The girls felt really good about that, and worked really hard in practice. However, we only won 1 game. We came close to winning several other times, and we "won the half" a lot of times. But we played teams that were more experienced, and it showed.
I constantly asked myself, "How can I inspire my players? How many times can I gather this team in the locker room and tell them that losing makes them stronger players?"
My next season was even worse. A new teacher and I decided to co-coach, because it really is time-consuming to do it as an extra duty, and she was actually a really good basketball player. She had actually played in college. (Only later did she tell me she partied herself out of her scholarship.) I do not recommend coaching with another person.
To make matters worse, this team had no talent. If we had had the players from the year before, we could have been really good. I wished halfway through the season that I had videotaped the very first practice so that I could watch it and see how far the girls had come. "Look -- they know how to dribble with one hand now! Ha ha! Remember when they used to run with the ball? Remember when their shots couldn't even hit the backboard?" My co-coach became frustrated at the knack of athleticism of most of the girl son the team.
We won no games that season. I don't even think we won a half. The girls really got down on themselves. They started to question why they should work hard in practice. I tried everything I could to spin the positive. I wrote thrilling game summaries to be read over the morning announcements ("In a hard fought contest, the Lady Eagles came up just short. Leading scorers were ...." I stopped giving their points because the leading scorers usually only had 2 points.)
At halftime of one particularly humiliating game, my co-coach told the team she was disgusted with them, and didn't want to talk to them. She walked away. (Note to self: Apparently we're doing good cop - bad cop now.) But the team was devastated by what she said. Try as I might to say, "Look, it's a brand new game now, 0 - 0. You're as good as any of those other girls. Go out there and play the way you do in practice. Let's have fun!" They looked at me like I had two heads.
We went out for the second half, and were crushed. We lost by something like 40 points.
The bus ride home was silent. I kept second-guessing myself, wondering what I could have done differently. A couple of the girls cried. I thought, "I am the world's worst coach."
But the next morning, I saw a couple of the girls in the hallway. They were wearing their jerseys, and they were laughing and holding their heads up high. They were proud to be on a team, with a sense of belonging (not a small thing in middle school.) They asked me could we have practice before school, too. They told me they had an idea for a cool play we should try.
They had moved on from the loss the night before, much more so than I had. I realized that --trite as it sounds -- it really isn't about winning, and that losing really does make you a stronger person. I don't know if any of those girls remember how to set a pick, but they taught me the lesson of a lifetime.