Started From the Bottom Now We're Here-Part I

Being ranked #1 was never the goal. 

Nevertheless, less than three years removed from a 1-20 campaign, here we are. For at least this week, we find ourselves at the top of the class 3A rankings. It has been a stunning turnaround. 

It's fair to ask, how did we get here?

First and foremost, as Bill Belichick is fond of saying, "It's a players game." We’ve had an influx of talent that simply wasn’t there in previous years, and that matters as much as anything else, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Below are a few 

Year One - At our first team meeting prior to the start of my first season, we shared with the players and parents a graph of “expected wins” for the 2021-2022 season using a simple formula: Percentage of Returning Points x Wins from Last Season. We charted all the teams in our conference and plotted them on a graph.

Our purpose was to ground expectations, and to illustrate just how far we had to go to catch the teams in front of us. I was trying to communicate, this is going to take time.

At the same time, we wanted to establish goals that were not outcome dependent. What would make a successful season? Passing one, two, or five teams in our league? Was that even possible? I wasn’t sure.

What I did know was that basketball was not something that players looked forward to. In previous seasons they lost numerous talented athletes that chose to specialize in other sports. To that point, the basketball experience was a grind, and so to plug the talent drain, we focused all of our attention on improving the culture at the high school level.

An Experience to Look Forward To - When I first uttered this phrase, the kids looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. I wanted practice, games, the locker room, etc. to be something they looked forward to at the end of the day. Truth be told, I wanted basketball to be the best part of their day. How did we do that?

We made space for relationships. We worked hard to get to know each individual player. We played games at team dinners. We played games in practice. We did things with the sole purpose of having fun together. We talked about the memories we wanted to create, and our seniors ate it up. They had been in some cancerous cultures before, and were desperate for something different. Once they bought in, everyone else followed suit. 

Another aspect of our environment was how we showed up as coaches. We expected players to work hard, but we never took ourselves too seriously. Gone were the days of yelling, conditioning, and pressure to perform. In their place we tried to create a place of learning where mistakes become opportunities, and the coach’s job was to teach. If the players couldn’t get something right we assumed it was because they hadn’t done it enough yet, or we didn’t teach it well enough. In both situations, players and coaches worked together to get better. 

Chasing Reps - Another phrase that became a rallying cry for us in practice was chasing reps.” As the roster became more athletic, it became apparent that our biggest deficiency was that our players had not played as much basketball as most of our opponents. We were literally thousands of shots behind most of the players in our league, and so we emphasized finding ways to catch-up. This allowed us to practice fast. We went from one thing to the next at lightning speed. We obsessed about efficiency in our drills to maximize repetitions - using as many baskets and small-sided games as possible so that no one was ever standing and watching. We tried to minimize coaches talking, and maximize players doing. As a result, players started improving quickly which only added to their belief that our approach was working.

We Guessed Right - There are two significant areas where it feels like we got lucky. First, our systems and strategy decisions ended up being a perfect fit for our players and their abilities. We were working with players with limited ability and experience, so our approach was exceedingly simple in Year One. We played one defense exclusively, and had fewer than four actions on offense. We ran no set plays. We followed the sage advice of the late Don Meyer to be simple, sound, and solid. We believed the more they think, the slower their feet, so we gave them very little to think about. We gave players the freedom to make plays, and we placed a heavy emphasis on sharing the ball and taking great shots. You can see our statistical improvements in Year One below:

We also got lucky in guessing how to spend our time. With so many areas we could choose to work on - we had to make educated guesses on what would generate the most return on our investment. We started with the things that happen most in a game - half court offense, half court defense, press break, and shooting. There’s more to the game than this, but if we couldn’t function in these areas we had no chance. 

We started 0-4 that year, but were becoming more competitive and we started losing close games in the fourth quarter. We were terrible in late game situations, and do you know why? Because we spent zero seconds working on it until mid-December when we were finally competent enough to have a late lead. We didn’t work on rebounding until January - we completely neglected out of bounds situations for most of the year - we did nothing to improve the youth or middle school levels. We tried to be very selective on how we spent our time and energy to improve the high school program first and foremost.

Note - I think this is one of the hardest things for coaches - discerning the few things we should do from all the things we could do.

At the end of the day, nothing was more important to us in Year One than the experience the players created for each other. That led to greater athlete retention. It made the work more enjoyable, and it made the product more fun to watch because it was obvious that our players liked being around each other.

It goes without saying that we were fortunate that a confluence of factors came together that led to our current success. We will discuss a few more in Part II next week.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

Join Our Weekly Newsletter

The most practical insights on leadership and culture... 

  • 3 Minute Weekly Tools & Tips
  • Notes to the Coaching Culture Podcast
  • FREE Chapter of The Culture System

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.