The Other Side of Failure

With 1:16 left in the game, the Stormin’ Pointers converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to stretch the lead to 35. In the state of Iowa, that triggered the Mercy Rule. The clock would run continuously to put us out of our misery.

After trading missed shots, our opponents held the ball for the final 35 seconds of the game content to let the time expire graciously. I consider the opposing coach a friend, and we have a great deal of mutual respect for one another, but still, I wasn’t pleased with him calling off the dogs. 

I confronted my friend after the game, and asked him why he didn’t let us play out the final possession. He said that even though both teams had subbed out by that point, he wanted to avoid the appearance of running up the score in a 35-point game because "a lot of coaches in the league are sensitive to that kind of thing." 

If anyone had a right to be sensitive, it was us. Coming off a 1-20 season the year before, we were off to an auspicious start as this game dropped our record to 0-4 in my first season at the helm. However, we weren’t looking for pity. We were looking to get better.

The way forward was obvious - we had to figure out how to beat the press, and the only way for us to do that was to face as many good defenses as we could. We needed the reps against good teams if we had any hope of becoming more competitive ourselves.

What we desperately wanted could only be found on the other side of failure. 

I could not know how many more times we would need to turn the ball over before we started to figure it out, but I knew that was the only way we were going to learn, and because of that we needed to seek out more opportunities to fail to accelerate our growth. What frustrated me the most about my friend holding the ball was it robbed our players of an opportunity to get better.

I shared this message with our players in the locker room after the game, and with our parents in our weekly email. We wanted to be a team that runs into failure. We were only going to get better by doing the things we needed to get better at, and we should embrace every opportunity we could get, scoreboard be damned. 

I wanted our team to be like Bruce Wayne from the movie Batman v. Superman. When the whole world is falling apart, and everyone else is running for their lives, Batman’s alter ego can be seen running directly into the fray. That’s who we needed to be.

However, I have come to realize that approach is not normal. When left to their own devices, most players and parents are like the coaches my friend described. They are more likely to take offense to them continuing to attack. Few see the opportunity before them.

Ironically, a week later we played the weakest team on our schedule, and we found ourselves leading by 40 late in the game. With a couple minutes to go in the game, our opponent slowly brought the ball up the floor, content to allow the clock to run out.

One of my players turned to me on the bench and asked, “Why are they walking the ball up?”

I said, “Because they’re not built like us.”

We want to be a team that embraces every opportunity to compete and get better, but that mentality does not happen by accident. As coaches, we have a responsibility to prepare our players to embrace challenges because that is where growth resides, on and off the court.

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

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