Many times I talk to high school coaches in the fall and ask them, “How does the upcoming season look?” Their response often is, “Doesn’t look good. We are really small.” These coaches have already convinced themselves that the season will be a disaster before the first official practice. How is this possible?
A high percentage of coaches fall in love way too much with physical talent. They convince themselves that success is predicated on the physical and not skills, attitude and hard work. Here’s something to consider–If success of a basketball teams is based solely on athletic talent and nothing else (like some believe), then why do we coach? If basketball is just about who is quicker, faster and has more height, then we should all retire at this very moment. Basically these “pessimistic” coaches are saying coaching really doesn’t matter for a team’s success when it actually really DOES matter.
One year I was coaching at Fountain Valley High School in Orange County, California and had a group of VERY undersized players that were scrappy and could shoot the lights out. Needless to say, we were very unimposing as we walked into each gym. Twice that season we were laughed at by our much more athletic competition-Inglewood and Compton High School teams-as we walked in their gyms. I told my players “Make sure you remember the entire game how they laughed at us.” We would beat Inglewood by 55 and would beat Compton by 67 while putting up 106 on the scoreboard.
I believe coaching is all about finding a way to succeed. Roger Holmes is a high school coach with an open mind. In 2007 while coaching at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, CA, he lost his 6-9 sophomore center to a prep school in Massachusetts that September. Left with literally no size in a dominant and large high school league (most schools are 3,000 plus in attendance), he found a way to win-SHOOT! He could have easily “mailed in” the season, but the competitive nature in him took over. That season Marina would set a national record of 437 three pointers made in a season. They would make the playoffs and a year later would make the Southern California Finals.
Lack of size doesn’t destroy a team. It’s lack of imagination from the coach that ultimately becomes the downfall. If you lack size, strength or speed, you need to come up with a way to succeed. You owe it to your players AND I truly believe there is always a way to compete and win.
The two ways that I discovered that gives the “underdog” a fighting chance is shooting and playing your butt off as a team. Shooting is truly the great equalizer in basketball. Every year in the NCAA Tournament we see upsets galore. One large reason this is happening is that the Mid-Major schools (Butler, Gonzaga etc) often times shoot better than the famed High Major powers.
You give me a group of shooters and I’m going to win a bunch of games. There were two studies done last year regarding what basketball component determined high school victories and high school loses. Both studies agreed that the largest reason teams succeeded was because of shooting percentages.
Another way for “David” to compete against “Goliath” is by playing harder. I always told my teams, “We are going to play AND practice harder than anyone in our league, our County and our State.” That became our mantra each day that we stepped on the basketball court. It disgusts me to see a team with more physical talent that actually competes harder than the smaller and weaker opponent.
With the exception of my two years at Mater Dei High School (a national powerhouse), my teams never seemed to have a great deal of size and athleticism so WE PRESSED. I told my players, “We are going to press if we are up by 20, down by 20 or if the game is tied.” It was how we played. Our goal was to tire out our opponents.
When I was in College at Long Beach State University I saw John Robinson, former Rams and USC coach speak. He talked that his goal every game was for his offensive line to wear down the defensive line of the opponents. He said, “By the 4th quarter fatigue would set in and the game would be ours.” I borrowed that football mindset and adapted it to pressing my opponents. I would tell my players, “We will wear down our competition. The 4th quarter will be ours.”
The smaller a team is–the more risks they need to take and this starts at the defensive end with constant pressure. We had a goal that we wanted 15 steals a game and many times we would reach this goal. I believe next to great shooting, nothing beats a steal because it ignites your break. The more steals, the more easy points. Teams that score in the 30’s and low 40’s often get little if any scores from their defense because they don’t get many steals.
We denied everything-guard to guard, guard to wing, wing to post. We trapped everything as well. We basically wanted to cause chaos. I told my players, “On defense let’s make this thing into a circus.” My belief is if we could get 15 steals a game, we would probably force them into another 10 turnovers a game. If we couldn’t win by having our opponents turnover the ball 25 times, we really didn’t deserve to win then.
Teams with little size need to have a plan-a plan for success. I ask coaches, “Coach, why do you have a post?” The response is always, “It’s part of the offense.” Let’s focus on this for a second. There are really two reasons why you would have a post player-a size or height advantage OR to hide the big kid that you need on defense and rebounding (we know it’s easier to hide a player down low more than on the perimeter). If you have a 6-1 center and the average size of a post in your league is 6-5, then it’s time to find another offense. Your opponents will actually mentally thank you for posting up your undersized player.
Hopefully this helps teams that are undersized. At some point in a coach’s career (through injury or that’s the hand that you have been dealt with) you will have a team look more like a jockey group photo at Churchill Downs than the Miami Heat. It’s basically how you overcome your team’s lack of size that truly shows how good of a coach you are.