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Staying The Course

Anyone who has worn a head coach’s whistle for even a short period of time would likely agree: The competitive season can be overwhelming. From planning practices to preparing for competition to communicating with parents, it can often feel as if there is more to do every day than is humanly possible.

All the extra responsibilities and time spent are worth it when the wins are piling up and your athletes are improving every day. But what about those seasons that don’t go well? How do you get through a year when none of your strategies seem to work, injuries pile up, and the losses outpace the wins by a wide margin?

Jane Albright, Head Women’s Basketball Coach at the University of Nevada, who has been coaching for three decades, has molded a wonderful perspective that any coach can use in the midst of a difficult season. “There’s always a teaching opportunity in everything,” she says. “In a season where kids are working very hard but the team is still losing, you can teach them many important things.

“One is that there’s a huge difference between being a loser and losing,” Albright continues. “Just because you lose ballgames, that does not make you a loser. I’m very much into John Wooden and his definition of success—peace of mind comes from doing your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. When we lose games, we talk about what we could do better and stress that as long as the players truly did their best, they were not losers.”

Albright feels that’s a great lesson for both athletes and coaches. “In my first season as a high school coach, we finished 3-17,” she says. “That was the first losing team I’d ever been a part of, and it was an eye-opening experience. But I learned that sometimes you can do your very best and still not be good. It’s a lesson we all need to know, and there’s not that much wrong with losing as long as you’re doing your very best.”

Another part of Albright’s teaching is showing young people that real life has its ups and downs. “Our kids today live in a world where they’ve been coddled and given trophies and told they’re the best there is,” she says. “So anytime I’m in the position to gently tell them a harsh truth, I do. Sometimes the truth is that the other team or person was better. It shouldn’t be the end of their world. Being real is always a good thing. You address it and keep trying to move the player forward.”

Bruce Keith has a similar perspective. He has spent four decades in education, with 32 of them pacing the sidelines as Head Football Coach for various high schools in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. Although he has won seven state titles (one at Divide County High School in North Dakota and six at Sheridan High School in Wyoming) and been inducted into the Wyoming Coaches Association Hall of Fame, he also vividly remembers the down years. He stresses the importance of being dependable as a coach in the middle of a tough season.

“I tried to always keep how I treated the players and how I prepared consistent,” he says. “The plan pretty much remained the same whether we were 0-8 or 8-0.

“Maybe we stunk on Friday night, but the kids would come in on Monday and know how we were going to do things,” he continues. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, you played bad on Friday so I’m going to run you into the dirt.’ I didn’t do that. To me, that shows a lack of maturity.” 

It was also important to Keith to still be a great teacher of the game during down times. “We tried really hard to teach our kids how to play the game the right way,” he says. “I had a couple of teams where, because we were so young, we knew it was going to be a while before we could be competitive, so we focused on making the kids better football players as opposed to getting them ready with a particular game plan. The idea was, ‘We’re going to play football Monday through Thursday to get better and hope it shows up a little bit Friday night,’ all the while knowing that Friday night might be tough.

“We just tried to stay steady and positive,” Keith continues. “We showed the kids that what’s really important is staying upbeat, working hard, and improving both individually and as a team.”

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