My Coach's Guide to a Losing Season

personal development

Coaching through a Season of Valleys

Most coaches wait until they win the “big one” to write their book or start a blog.

Me… Not so.

I have waited until I was 19 games into my most losing season in 10 years of coaching to start my blog.

We are 4-15. So why would anyone care what a 4-15 coach has to say?

Most people won’t. But there are a lot of books and blogs out there on how to win, but I don’t think there is a lot out there on how to lose. Nobody wants to read about how to lose, because everyone wants to plan on winning.

Yet, typically more than half the teams in most sports leagues fail to win even half of their games. So maybe we all need to get better at losing? I know I have failed miserably at the way I have handled losing in past seasons. But this season has been a really successful losing season in that it has taught everyone in the locker room incredible life lessons, while providing more "opportunities to learn and grow” than coach or player would ever really want to have in any season.

So everyone is talking about “the process” lately in sports and business in case you have been living under a rock. Just type in “focus on process” into google and you will be showered with articles and blogs about various coaches and businessmen who are shifting their focus to the process instead of the outcome.

Over my time as a coach I have tired to model the teachings of John Wooden and not focus on winning or losing. Honestly, I sucked at it for a long time. Oh I wouldn’t talk about winning a whole lot! But the second things did not go my way, my actions seemed to be focused on only one thing: the outcome.

Well over the years I became better and better at focusing on the process and less on the outcome, but this shift was really sped up in the last year when I started to work with the mental training organization train2beclutch and benefit from the mentorship of Jamie Gilbert.

So how did we commit to the process this year as opposed to other seasons?

  1. Pre-Season Meeting to Set Standards and Expectations - We scrapped the idea of setting goals, but set controllables that we could focus on daily on and off the court. The team set these not the coaches.
  2. 15 Minute Daily Team Culture Meeting- We focus on building a culture of openness and support at every practice and game. The players have been given folders, notebooks, and a copy of “Chop Wood Carry Water.” We read, discuss, and write in an effort to commit fully to the process of become not just great basketball players, but more importantly great men.
  3. See Playing and Practicing As a Privilege- Instead of running players or the team for mistakes we try to use those as learning opportunities. When players fail to show up on time, properly dressed, give a great effort, and have a good attitude they sit out. They don’t run. Sitting out has become far worse than having to run. Our boys WANT to practice and they make sure they earn the right. It helps fight the culture of entitlement as well I think!

Are we stellar at all 3 of those things everyday? No, but we have done a pretty dang good job. We did some other really special things, but these were the big ones.

So our season starts off with some bumps in the road.


We lose some games. Yet, we ask ourselves what can we learn from this, we work to surrender the outcome and we stay focused on the controllables.


And then we lose a lot more games.

Some of the games people expected us to lose.

Some of the games people thought we might win.

And some of the games people expected us to win.

Sometimes we lose big.

Sometimes we lose small.

Sometimes we play well.

Sometimes we play really bad.

We are not happy. Nobody likes losing. This sucks. Yet, we ask ourselves what can we learn from this, we work to surrender the outcome and we stay focused on the controllables.


We come back from a small break after a tournament in Florida. We are 2-12. Our practices are some of our best all season. Attitudes are more positive and focus is more on the controllables than ever in 5 years. We win a game, but lose 3 more. 2 of them on buzzer beaters. Only to come back with even more focus and stronger practices.

Now if you had asked ANY of us over the last few months were we “happy” with how our season was going we would all tell you we were NOT happy at all. It has been definitely an arduous journey up the rough side of the mountain.

I have some moments of real doubt. The players have moments of real doubt.

Many nights you go home thinking: Am I a horrible coach? Are my players not as good as I think they are? Maybe we should just focus more on winning?

Every time we had a setback or tough loss, I would ask myself: is this going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back? At this stage I expect a 15 year old boy to stand up in a team meeting one day and say, “I think this is a bunch of crap!”.

However, they continued to come in write down 15 things that went well, 2 areas for growth, and 2 things they learned. They continued to read about the process of becoming great. They continued to support each other and look inward at what they needed to change.

The crazy part is our commitment to focusing on the controllables and seeing everything as an opportunity to learn seemed to actually GROW STRONGER as we faced even more hardship and more defeat.

It has been a truly amazing and fulfilling experience to work with these young men this season. They have handled the losing this season better than many adults and at times even better than I handled it. It has not been a lot of FUN, but it has been a fulfilling experience.

If you are anyone experiencing a lot of failure or loss, my advice to you is stick to your controllables, see everything as an opportunity to grow, and surrender the outcome. Don’t just surrender the outcome of the game, the test, the sale. Surrender it all.

What does this look like for me?

  1. Read! Read everyday. Read biographies of successful leaders and read more about how to be have a growth mindset in your life.
  2. What Went Well Journal: Everyday write a minimum of 15 things that went well and even more on the bad days. Write down 2 areas for growth and 2 things you learned that day. (Check out “Burn Your Goals” by Jamie Gilbert and Joshua Medcalf)
  3. Score your life differently. What 4 character traits do you want to be remembered for at your death? Evaluate yourself on those traits and NOT on how the rest of the world will judge you. (Check out “Chop Wood Carry Water” by Joshua Medcalf)

Oh and I write this in the middle of the season, because I believe it is important that I share the experience regardless of the outcome of this season.

We are getting better. It doesn’t always seem to show and somedays players and the team feel they may be taking steps backwards. Yet, they have grown as a team on and off the court. One of the captains has repeatedly said, “I have been on winning teams that blame, point the finger and fight with each other as soon as things don’t get their way. We are special as we are all constantly supporting each other even after our hardest losses.”

How can a coach not be excited to show up and work with a group of young men with that attitude?

- JP Nerbun

A side note for the reader: The team would later go on a huge winning streak, but still enter the district playoffs second from the bottom. In the playoffs, we blew out the number 1 team in the district (ranked 3rd in the state) and won the district championship for the second year in a row.

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