The lesson of winning: it’s better than losing
At some point in every season and sport I coach, there is a moment when I can feel my emotions really well up. What I mean is, I’m fighting back tears. Those are the moments when the team is playing as a team, scrapping and fighting hard, loving being around each other, and making me feel good that maybe I taught them something about a sport, and making a commitment to it and your teammates.
Saturday was that moment with my fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team.
I mentioned earlier that team had gone Detroit Lions for the season. The last two games we lost something like 34-3 and 29-6. It was disheartening for me as a coach, mainly because I have a group of players mostly new to organized ball, and I wondered if the results on the court were a large part because I wasn’t doing my job teaching them how to play and enjoy the game. It didn’t help that I was letting my frustration show. I wasn’t all screamy, but I was getting a little yelly, at least in barking constant instructions on the court. As a player’s dad said to me before this most recent game, the hardest thing about this team is that they’re all nice kids, so many of them were tentative about the idea of mixing it up on the court to the point they were bumping people around.
Apparently my team had built a reputation as an easy mark. The coach of my opponent Saturday — a person whom I like and respect — told me before the game that he treating this game as kind of a practice, trying some new things on defense and concentrating on letting players who rarely scored have a chance to do so. He asked me whether I might do the same on offense. I said, “Yes, because all of my players are struggling to score.” I applauded his effort to give some of his kids a shot at glory. But I felt kind of insulted he figured he could do that against my team and win.
He instincts looked correct in the first quarter. We scored the first basket, then gave up six in a row to go down 12-2 at the end of the first quarter. Even though I was trying a few twists to ensure we didn’t turn over the ball near the midcourt line, we turned it over. We weren’t blocking out or aggressively going after loose balls. As usual, we were getting open shots but couldn’t hit them. Or we turned the ball over trying to go one-on-three in the lane. This time, I sat back and didn’t shout instructions so much. Clearly, whatever I was doing was not going to take with a group still trying to get comfortable with the basics of the game.
Or so I thought.
We only scored one basket the next quarter, but they scored none. That was good. The defensive lockdown kept coming. Our guards (including my 11-year-old) were cutting off every drive attempt. Our inside players were putting their arms up, blocking out and getting rebounds on both sides of the court. We stopped turning the ball over. Shots were missed, but at least it looked like we settled down. Seeing we were down by so much early, my opposing coach rested his best player most of the quarter and tried to get the ball to kids who hadn’t scored, but it didn’t seem to hurt him much.
I told the kids at halftime to keep playing hard, keep passing the ball around, keep attacking the basket. The same things I said all year. I wasn’t sure whether they believed me.
They believed me.
The third quarter was another defensive lockdown — zero points. Meanwhile, one of our players hit shots on consecutive possessions to cut the score to 12-8. The kids on the bench noticed the score. “Only two more shots to tie!” “We’re coming back!” I could feel them getting antsy and excited. I could hear our parents across the court come to life as they never had. The opposing coach put his best player back in. The kids on the court had an extra hop in their step, and were chasing down and taking away balls like they were trying to protect their favorite Christmas gift. Players who once had to stop and think what to do on transition were sprinting the other direction as soon as the ball changed hands.
We hit another shot to cut the score to 12-10 at quarter’s end. With three minutes left in the fourth, we hit a jumper to take a 14-12 lead. Our parents were going crazy. The opposing coach called timeout. When the kids gathered around me, the ones who used to complain they were tired or sore by this time in the game, who were begging to come out, were now steely-eyed and ready to attack. I told them what a great job they were doing, and to keep doing it. One player asked if they should slow the ball down. I said, nope — don’t change a thing.
The last three minutes were interminable. That’s in part to the opposing coach using all four of his timeouts in that period. It was worse than a college game, though, hey, it was his right. I ran out of things to say to my team by the time the second timeout was over.
Nobody on either team could get a clean shot off. This level of play might be mostly about teaching the game, but the kids always know the score, and my kids knew they didn’t want to go through the whole season without one victory. Their kids didn’t want to lose to the team that had gotten smacked around all season.
With about 30 seconds left, it looked like possible disaster for our team. Their best player got a steal and began sprinting upcourt, with teammates on either side. Our kids sprinted hard to keep up, including my son. LAKEVIEW DRIVE RULES* IN EFFECT: He spun around at the top of the key, right in front of the opponent’s best player, stuck an arm out — and poked the ball away. Game saved. When the final buzzer went off, my kids reacted like they had just won a championship.
I did, too. When my team in this league won a title last year, I was fighting back tears because I was so proud of what the kids accomplished. Especially because that team was down by 6 entering the final quarter. I remember telling them to play hard and have fun, because there were only eight minutes left in the season. And they played hard enough to score nine straight point to win. With this year’s team, I was glad for them that they won, but in awe at how they fought back, at how they decided individually and as a team that they were tired of getting sand kicked in their faces, and that they were going to kick a little sand themselves. (Strangely enough, both games were against the same coach.)
After every game, like most teams we gather in a circle and put our hands in the middle, yelling something in unison like “team” or “hustle” before we break. As we put our hands in Saturday, one boy on the team said, “Let’s say, ‘Winners!'”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s say it.”
*Note: Lakeview Drive Rules dates back to me teen years. As a friend and I would walk up and down <a href=”“>his street talking about our tortured adolescent lives, and we would invoke Lakeview Drive Rules to allow ourselves a little bragging, as long as it was in the context of the conversation and absolutely truthful. So if I ever brag in the context of a post, I will invoke Lakeview Drive Rules. You are welcome to do the same.