The I In Team

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider what I would be like as a head coach in a team sport is…I would work hard to ensure every player got to see at least some action in every game.

That concept was forged when I was just thirteen years old. At that age, I was a 7th grade, third-string quarterback on my junior high football team, which consisted of players from 7th-9th grade.

The starting quarterback was a 9th grader, a son of one of our senior high school team’s coaches. Mind you, he did not become a starter on that pedigree alone. He was an excellent player who went on to play some college ball as well. The back-up quarterback was also older and more experienced than I…not nearly as good as our starter…but definitely better than me.

Our school enjoyed a healthy advantage when it came to student enrollment, and as such were dominant against most schools who had a lower number of students to draw from. In this particular season, our team won all six of its games. I believe the “closest” any team got to us all year may have been 21 points. We overwhelmed all of our opponents that year.

The head coach of our junior high team (who was a coach on the senior high team also) visibly enjoyed not only defeating opponents, but annihilating them. In that spirit, our starting players played almost every play of every game.

In our last game of the season, we went up by 30-0 fairly quickly and maintained that score to the final whistle. I did not play in that game.

I did not play in any of our games that year.

Even though we dominated the opposition in every one of our games, with outcomes never in doubt, I did not play one single play.

As I recall, the second-string QB did get into one game that year…but at another position. Our stellar, super-star quarterback – for whatever reason – had to take every snap from center that season. We not only had to win, but had to win by as much as possible.

Football is a challenging game to play. Practice for upcoming seasons often begins in relentless heat and humidity…and I grew up in a time when water breaks were still considered quite the luxury rather than mandatory. And then of course…there’s all those repetitive collisions with other people to consider. It’s a brutal sport at any age.

I knew I’d have a big adjustment at my new school, and I will admit things between my parents could have been better at that time, but I really wanted to play football and was determined to do so. I kept my grades up, made some new friends, and showed up for football practice every single day.

Yet, practice football was all I was accorded. I did not get to actually play football.

I was devastated.

After that season, I focused on basketball and baseball. I also played a year of soccer…but football was over for me. Yes, in those other sports there were still times when I was the guy not playing so much, and other times when others were most often watching me play. It just wasn’t as severe as that 7th grade football season.

I think back…what if I had played just one play that year…played in any of those games at all? Would I have stuck with football? I just could not reconcile returning to it after sitting on the sidelines the whole season. For sure, being better at those other sports certainly factored into the decision to step away from it as well.

Next month, the Little League Baseball International World Series will once again return to Williamsport PA. It’s not that far from where I live, and I have attended a couple of them. This season marks the 75th anniversary of the World Series, and it once again will be a late Summer ritual for fans young and old alike. Several years ago, there was a new category of rules added to Little League Baseball called Mandatory Play. It is as it sounds, making sure all players on a team actually get to play in actual games…not just practice. I think it’s a great thing.

I fully recognize the priority of a head coach, especially at “business” levels, is to win. It’s just my feeling to help ensure an entire team stays actively engaged throughout the year, what better way to do so than to have each player alert to the fact they’re going to be called upon to contribute at any moment? Seasons are long. I think a no-brainer way to keep your players motivated is to assure them they aren’t just going to practice…but play…all year.

I hear high school, college and professional head coaches lament the fact they don’t have enough depth on their teams, are lacking at certain positions, etc. These are often the same coaches who never use their benches no matter what. Maybe their substitutes would be better if they let them into competition once in a while? Who knows, they might find out one or more can contribute more than first thought? Some athletes shine brightest when the bright lights are on…and the minutes actually count for something.

If my team’s substitutes were clearly a couple notches down in ability below my starters, I would still work hard to find a way to get them onto the field, onto the court, etc. I’d be rotating them into play with the majority of starters still playing. I would find ways to not compromise the team’s chances of winning, but still making sure everyone truly felt like a part of the team’s fortunes.

I acknowledge there are team sports where getting everyone onto the playing surface each time out isn’t feasible. I also get the tremendous amount of pressure on head coaches at any level…to just win.

Still, I’d like to think even if it sounds naïve or idealistic on the surface, deep down I’d aspire for my teams to always play together…not just practice together.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

All Hands On Deck

 

Ah, it is indeed an age of sequels and reboots, isn’t it? Some are good ideas to revisit. Some…not so good. There are occasions when doing something really, really well the first time around should probably be the last time around.

In my college basketball news feed this AM:

“Gonzaga and Michigan State are now finalizing plans to play a neutral site game on an aircraft carrier in San Diego on Veterans Day.”

Back on Veterans Day 2011, a college basketball game was played aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego between Michigan State and North Carolina. Carolina won 67-55 in front of over 8,000 fans and military personnel, including President Obama. Seeing two national basketball powers play in such a majestic, inspiring setting was very cool. A second court was set up in the hangar bay just in case, but the weather held up its end. Temperatures were in the 60’s and there were calm winds. This game was absolute television eye candy, although it was not great hoops…the teams managed to miss 77 of their combined 123 shots.

It turned out to be the highest-rated November college basketball game on ESPN in 19 years.

College basketball’s next season featured four games on the national television schedule from carrier settings as part of Veterans Day ceremonies. One woman’s game was slated between Ohio State and Notre Dame, with the men’s games to be Ohio State-Marquette, Georgetown-Florida and Syracuse-San Diego State.

The sequels that Veterans Day weekend did not quite live up to the original…

Ohio State-Notre Dame: On the USS Yorktown in Charleston, temperatures were still in the 50’s when the women began their game…but the temperature dropped as soon as the sun did. It was a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 71 of 109 shots from the floor. Notre Dame won 57-51.

Ohio State-Marquette: The second game of a scheduled doubleheader aboard the now-chilly Yorktown, it found the teams’ warm-up time occupied by coaches and players staying warm working towels and squeegees to try to get condensation off the court. The game never took flight and was canceled.

Georgetown-Florida: On the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, a badly-played first half concluded with Florida up 27-23. However, similar to the situation in Charleston, condensation got to the court. During halftime, the game was canceled.

Syracuse-San Diego State: On the USS Midway in San Diego, a threat of rain pushed the game out two days. Played during the day (instead of at night as originally scheduled), there was no rain…but it was very windy. It was also a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 77 out of 119 shots. Syracuse won 62-49.

Playing basketball outdoors – on an aircraft carrier – is not like playing basketball indoors in an arena. Weather takes center stage away from the players. You are trading great optics for great basketball.

And, you are also compromising player safety.

No amount of television appearance money is worth that.

Back in late February of this past college basketball season, Xavier and Providence played a thrilling, triple-overtime game. Yet, with just under three minutes left in regulation, those in charge were talking about the possibility of having to gather up the players and coaches and bus them to Providence’s practice facility to finish the game due to a leak in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center ceiling.

You can’t play basketball on water. It might be fair to ask athletes to take aim with no background behind the basket, to shoot into the wind, and to even play with a sweatshirt underneath the jersey…but it absolutely isn’t fair to ask athletes to play when there is even the slightest chance of the court not being pristine.

Since that debacle of a weekend, television and college administrators have been successfully staging Veterans Day games – indoors – from various military facilities. They’ve done a great job with them and as you might expect, the quality of play was improved.

I think people should think long and hard about pursuing sequels, especially if the original is so perfect.

I also happen to think people should learn from their mistakes.

 

Picture Courtesy US Navy/Roza Arzola