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Sunday, December 16, 2012

What the heck?

Yesterday at 6:07pm, I got a text from an unkown number that simply said, "What the heck?" I had no idea who it was from and I guessed what they were asking about. I did not respond. A little later the person identified themselves a reporter who I am also friends with. They were asking what had happened at Manual.

We had lost our 4th straight game. We knew we had a tough week when we played Rocky and Maine South- state rated teams. So when we dropped both, we were disappointed but probably not shocked. But this week we had UT a .500 team and Manual a below .500 team on the schedule. It seemed like time to get back on track and time to get the bounce back in our step. Time to get that feel of being a state ranked team. Time to get that feel of a team ready to get back in the conference championship race.

To the surprise of not only the reporter, to the surprise of our players and our team- we did not get the bounce back in our step. We lost both games. Both games were similar in some ways. We started slow but seemed to have things in decent shape at half, and then in both games actually took 5+ point leads in the third quarter. But in both games the wheels came off in the fourth quarter. Some of it was foul trouble, some of it was poor choices on offense, some of it was ineffective pressing.

In my experience the 3 toughest losses in a season are:

1st loss of the season- everyone has high hopes of what the team is going to be. Players have worked hard and you have the thought, "Could we be a state power?" So like this year, when we lost to Springfield, it stings. The message is- maybe we aren't who we thought we would be.

Last loss of the season- You work hard all year and the last loss ends it all. It is like an outside force- the IHSA or the other team- come in and tell you that your team can no longer exist. It is probably how people at a company feel when their is a hostile takeover and they are kicked out. It is so sudden and so complete.

Any back to back losses- The more you are focused on outcome and the less you are focused on the process, the more stressed you become and the less successful you become. When you lose two in a row, it makes that third game seem huge. If you lose that third game, you begin to wonder if you will ever win again.

Since 1988 and before our present 4 game losing streak, we had 5 different times experienced 3 game or longer losing streaks.
1988- 4 game losing streaks
1966- 3 game losing streak
2006- 3 game losing streak
2009- 5 game losing streak
2010- 4 game losing streak

So over the last 26 years since in 20 of the years our longest losing streaks were either 1 or 2 games. In each of the five previous 3+ game losing streaks, the teams have been tested. And this year our girls are certainly being tested.

How does it effect players and coaches when you go through a losing streak?

Were we wrong about ourselves? It really tests players and coaches in regards to are we who we think we are. Most of the players on our '96 team were regulars on our '95 team that went to the Supers and lost. But we lost all-state guard Stef Mitchell and all-state, Illini recruit Bonny Apsey off that team. So when the '96 team lost three in a row the voices they had heard all off season and early in the season seemed louder and seemed believable. They had classmates and fans who told them- "You are really going to miss Apsey and Mitchell."  "Do you think you will be any good?" "You aren't going to be good." Once the losing streak started, they heard this more and they listened to it more. For various reasons, that team shut out the sound and had a resolve that they were who they believed they were- the streak did not change it.

For our team, we had high goals for ourselves and had what I would describe as a high team self-esteem. In other words, we believed in ourselves and had a vision of achieving some good things. Now we are tested to see if we maintain those goals and those feelings about ourselves. I am sure our players hear voices of doubt.

Who Do We Blame? In terms of species survival, the natural mechanism for survival is selfishness. When confronted with physical threat, we take care of ourselves. Me first mentality is natural. When teams lose, it is natural to become self-centered in our thoughts. Players and coaches need to resist the instinct and stick together. The old saying- the strength of wolf is in the pack.

But with a losing team, it is so easy to point fingers. For guards it is easy to say the posts are not rebounding. For the posts it is easy to say the guards are shooting too much. It becomes the time when players become more focused on their minutes. And it is easy for the players to blame the coach. The coach is playing the wrong people, or the coach is not calling "their play" enough.

And selfishness and self-pity is not reserved just for players. Coaches can fall into that. Coaches can begin to try to blame the outcome completely on 1 or 2 players. Or a classic is to just focus on, "the players don't play hard."

Whether it is the players or the coaches, both must not selfishly spend time focused on others, to get out of the losing streak, they need to focus on themselves. Self-examination is the best way to change the direction of the team.

Our 1996 team and our 1988 team were teams with players who really respected each other. Some were best friends but even the players who were not "best friends", seemed to have the ability to get along and work together. They moved on from their losing streaks and were actually better. On the other hand, our 2009 team became torn apart with selfishness. Some of them openly badmouthed each other, some of them formed little cliques, and some of them  quit listening to coaching. Eventually that team had to be blown up- players kicked off and players benched.

Change vs. Execution- The major issue for a coach is to look at x/o strategy. What have the losses taught the coach about the team and about their strategy? A coach has to decide do you change the basic offensive and defensive strategy and start over from scratch? Do you look at some areas and just modify the basic approach? Or do you say it is not about x/o's, it is about the execution of the x/o's?

For us in 1988, it was all about better execution on defense. In 1988, it was all about us modifying on offense to get the ball inside more. In 96 it was about modifying our press scheme and working on better execution of our fastbreak. For us in 2009 it was about blowing up what we were doing.

Whatever a coach decides to do in the area of strategy or personnel, whether it works or does not work usually it is dependent upon whether the players have maintained a belief in the coach and in the their team.

Toughness- Losing is not for sissies. An adage is that losing does not build character, losing reveals character. Sometimes we find things out about each other that disappoint us. But an exciting thing can be when the losing shows us our teammates are really tough, are people we can really rely on. The team can leave the losing streak with a stronger bond they ever would have had before.

The '96 team had as captain Sara Wood. Sara is the toughest kid I have ever coached in boys or girls sports. It is not close. Today she is an officer in the U.S. Marines- you don't mess with Sara. In '96 if someone dared to be selfish or dared to feel poor-poor me, Sara was all over it. After they lost 3 in a row, Sara had them all stay over night at her house, and from what I understand let them all know how this was to be handled. She definitely set the tone.

Is it time to become more realistic in your goals?
Of the 5 previous teams who have gone through a losing streak- 

3 of them went on to win 20+ games that season.
2 of them went on to win the Regional.
1 of them went on to take Third Place at State. 

It is up to players and coaches how they are going to handle losing. For some teams it can turn into a positive thing because they use it to strengthen their team bound and improve their skills and refine their strategy.

The bottom line is as painful as a losing streak can be, it can turn out to be a positive if a coach and if players use it as an opportunity to identify problems and commit to change and solutions. 

1 comment:

  1. I am confident that this team will be fine. One of the reasons we enjoy the games so much is that the girls almost always work hard. Sometimes the shots don't fall, or the calls or the breaks don't seem to go Galesburgs way, but I haven't seen any quit in this years team. Looking forward to seeing the Streaks soon. Best of luck in Charleston, we'll be listening.