R.A.L.F. It

It’s the second guessing that eats away at me the most.

Last night we found ourselves in another one-possession game against a top-10 opponent, this time losing to the second ranked team in our class by a single point after a potential game-winning shot rolled off the rim in the final seconds. 

In the 12 hours since there has been little sleep as I worked back through the film, analyzing every decision, substitution, and play call. I spent nearly an hour on just the last five seconds of the game, wondering what we should have run, who should have been on the floor, and what didn’t I see that could have helped me put our players in a better position to be successful. All the while, wrestling with feelings of disappointment, regret, and self-doubt. 

There must be a better way.

Legendary men’s basketball coach Dean Smith encouraged his players to respond to their mistakes in this way: Recognize It - Admit It - Learn from It - Forget It.

In other words, R.A.L.F. it.

Recognize It - Sometimes as coaches we are unwilling to focus a spotlight on our role in a team’s collective failure. We can blame the players, or paint ourselves as victims of circumstance (or bad officiating). When we are unwilling to examine our own performance, we forfeit the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

That being said, especially after painful losses, we may find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum internalizing every mistake which can cause crippling self-doubt. There must be more to the process to engineer a healthy recovery.

Admit It - One of the things we commonly do in our film sessions is acknowledge where the coaches made a bad decision. For example, last week we had a one-point lead with eight seconds to play. After a timeout, we inbounded the ball from the baseline in the backcourt. Trying to be clever, I drew a play for all five of our players to start out of bounds before running onto the court as the inbounder received the ball from the official. The only problem? That’s only legal if it follows a made basket. In our situation, it did not, and should have been a violation which would have given our opponent the ball under their basket with a chance to win the game. 

Fortunately for us, the officials missed it and we eventually won the game. It would have been easy to keep that fact a secret, but we wanted to model what it looks like to accept responsibility for our errors for coaches and players alike. We own it so we can move to the next phase…

Learn From It - We constantly emphasize the importance of embracing our failures as opportunities to learn. As David Goggins says, “Failure is just more information to help me be successful.” I want to improve as a coach - that means asking lots of questions, reviewing our decisions, and asking for feedback. We know that failure is a necessary catalyst for growth, and once again, we try to model that for our players. 

We often chart our possessions during the final four minutes of close games, and there is a column labeled “mistake” on the spreadsheet where an individual’s name is listed if there was a breakdown. We don’t always share these with the team, but when we do, we do not spare the coaching staff from the report. For example, in another close game I failed to call a timeout in a critical moment late in a close game. On the report, my name was listed under the “mistake” column for that possession. In our film review, I shared what I learned.

As an aside, the biggest area of learning for me this season has been trying to find areas where I can glean more information to help my in-game decisions. When I go back through the film, I’m searching for what I didn’t see in real time. Many times that involves an adjustment our opponent has made, or a substitution I should have recognized. These are obvious when watching the film, but I’m trying to train my in-game eye to be more perceptive.

Forget It - Perhaps the hardest part of the process is letting go. According to legend, Michael Jordan would spend the first 15 minutes after every game rehashing his mistakes, but when he left the training room, he took the lessons with him and left the memory behind. It’s critical that our reflection process has closure, that we don’t spend too much time beating ourselves up so that we can move on to what’s next. 

I love the imagery of RALF’ing our mistakes. There’s a purging of what has transpired - something we must deal with, but we can be thankful for when it’s over. The more we demonstrate this process with our players, the more likely they will be to RALF after their mistakes as well.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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