An Open Letter Before the Off-Season Starts

Coach Sanderson,

This is the voice of reality. Now that you are starting your off-season workouts, I thought it might be good to touch base with a few reminders.

Last season you were frustrated, and I get it. You had fewer kids at open gym than you’ve had in years. You were scrambling before every scrimmage, frantically sending text messages to see if you would have enough people to play. Worse yet, players failed to communicate leaving you to wonder what was going on. 

Did we ask for too much?

Were they quitting?

Was it something I said?

You had no idea, and the stories you told yourself to explain their absence only made you feel worse. I thought we might try things a bit differently this year.

First, I’d like to remind you of something Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy shared at a recent clinic.

“The game will never be as important to the players as it is to you. Ever.” 

You are a basketball junkie. As you have said many times, your favorite thing in life is working with kids and coaching basketball. When you build your summer schedule, basketball is always the first thing that goes on the calendar. Family vacations, work opportunities, time with friends… everything else is scheduled around summer basketball. You can count on one hand the number of off-season activities you’ve missed in your 22-year career. 

And that’s great… for you.

It’s probably not healthy for anyone else. 

You might find this hard to believe, but basketball is an important part of your players’ lives. But it’s not their life. You have a few who play softball, and others who are committed to AAU basketball. There are volleyball players who will be at club practices and tournaments, while others will work odd jobs to have a little spending money. Amidst all that, families will schedule vacations when they can. 

Everyone will want to get on the water when the weather turns hot. They will want to watch the boys play baseball, and bum around with their friends as some get their driver’s license for the first time. 

For many, it’s the only time of year when they have enough unstructured time to be bored. Truth be told, that’s good for them too.

There is another reality you need to get comfortable with.

“The game will never be as important to your coaches as it is to you. Ever.” 

Your assistants are great. You love working with them. They are well-liked and great with kids. And they also have lives outside of basketball. They will not structure their entire existence around the summer basketball calendar as you will. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they care about other things too. Some have real jobs, others have kids to chase around. They make tremendous sacrifices during the season to support the program, but summer is their time to breathe.

Let them.

Like most head coaches, you are already looking ahead. You’re wondering who’s going to play where. You’re obsessing about all the little things we need to do better. You have been doing this long enough to appreciate how special this year’s team could be, and with so many players returning from last year’s final four team, you already feel the weight of expectation resting on your shoulders.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you navigate this summer’s uncertainty. 

#1 Get Your Mind Right

Over the years, you have been burdened by assumptions that do not always serve you. 

You assume that spending time at open gym is the best way for a player to improve, but it’s likely more complex than that. Some players, like Taylor last year, will work out on their own. If you recall, she did not come to a single open gym last summer, but she still passed two upperclassmen to earn a starting spot in November. 

Sometimes a player’s improvement makes no sense at all. 

Remember when Mik had surgery and missed the entire summer before her sophomore year, yet she came back to be the Player of the Year in Class 1A the following season? Or when Chloe did not touch a basketball from the last day of the season until the first day of practice, and still became a first team all-state player? 

Whether we like it or not, the opposite is sometimes true as well. Remember when Syd spent more time in the gym than anyone else, but still couldn’t beat out the players in front of her for more minutes? Or when Rachel took more shots than any player on the team, but still couldn’t start her senior year?

Player development and team dynamics are complex. They are hard to predict. Spending time playing basketball probably makes a player better at basketball, but so does growing taller, getting stronger, and becoming more coordinated. My point is that your open gyms are not the only way for players to improve.

You also need to be aware that there have been times where you’ve spent more energy worrying about players who are not there at the expense of those who are. One of the values on the back of your shirts is “Gratitude.” Be grateful for those who do take the time to come in. Even if they are few, they allow you to do what you love. Embrace the opportunity to coach the ones you have, and be sure to thank them after the workout is over.

#2 Be More Efficient

Your job in the off-season is to feed the hungry. I understand there’s nothing more frustrating than making food and serving it to an empty table. That’s often what it feels like when only a few (or less) show up. However, I would challenge you think think about the food you are serving. You want it to taste good (kids enjoy the workout) and to be easy to digest (it doesn’t take long to consume). Can you serve quick, tasty meals that leave them both satisfied, and hungry for more? 

What can you do to make the environment more enjoyable? 

Can you shorten your workouts by 15 minutes and still find ways to get everything done? 

Can you work them effectively without exhausting them completely? 

One of the best ways to earn the respect of your players is to honor their time, and if you can do it well, it will set you apart from the other adults who are over-scheduling their lives. 

#3 Be Wary of the Story You Tell Yourself

In the absence of communication it can be easy to assume the worst. It is true that players often stop showing up in the off-season before they verbalize their actual retirement. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone who misses a workout is in danger of quitting.

A good rule of thumb is to tell yourself the most generous story that the facts will allow. 

I remember one year when a senior captain missed the first couple weeks of open gym, and you were hot. As you contemplated taking her off the captain’s council you told yourself, “It’s hard to be a leader when you’re never around.” I also remember how foolish you felt when she came to her first open gym and you learned she was working two jobs, running cross country, and going to AAU practices (sometimes all in the same day). It’s not that she didn’t want to be there, her commitments wouldn’t allow it. 

In the absence of information, give your players as much grace as the facts will allow. And by all means, when you do have a chance to talk with them, be quick to listen and slow to judge. 

#4 Get a Life

If we were being truly honest, you might actually learn something from your players busy schedules. They have other interests in this world, and that’s a good thing. It is far too easy for you to become consumed with basketball. There will be a time for that, but now is not it. Now is the time for you to use some of your excess bandwidth to explore other interests. You know, to become one of those well-rounded human beings.

What was the last book you read that had nothing to do with sports?

When was the last time you tried learning something new?

What’s a place you’ve always wanted to visit, but have always been too busy?

Who are the people you’ve lost touch with over the years? How hard would it be to reach out to reconnect?

Your kids are getting older, fast. You only have a couple more years until they become teenagers and things change forever. Take them on an adventure of their choosing. There will be a day when you will cherish those memories far more than any open gym.

Finally, remember that you are not alone. I’ve written this letter to hundreds of coaches just like you. You love the game. You love the kids you coach, and you are loved by others for far more than that. Use your summer to explore your joy on and off the court and I promise you’ll be better for it.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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