Lessons on what it takes to win when it matters most – the postseason – from a coach with a track record of success.
Every year, we prepare and plan to play on the last possible day in March. At Varina High School, where I spent six years building a program from the ground up, we made that an expectation, and it was stated daily throughout our program. Over the past five years we have won two conference titles, back to back regional championships, a Final Four finish, and a state title. I truly believe this success is an outcome of how open we are about our program goals.
Players may think a team can flip a switch in March, and boom – you have a championship-caliber team. Us coaches know it doesn’t work like that. It takes months of preparation, whereby winning a championship is a byproduct of several factors. Some of those factors are a team’s work ethic, standards of accountability, efficiency, team chemistry, and ability to adjust. In our program at Varina, it is about doing things in a way that they cannot be done any better. That is our expectation, every single day. This is crucial to building a championship team. Accountability in December creates efficiency in March.
After the season, I was lucky enough to follow my dream to become a college head coach when I accepted the position at Richard Bland College. The success of our program at Varina, particularly in the postseason, was a huge part of why I have been given this next opportunity. I’d like to share some insights on how we were able to achieve so much postseason success deep into March at Varina, and why I know the program is in good shape for the future.
Understanding the Moment
Approaching the playoffs starts at the beginning of the season. I believe the best teams have been prepping for it from the first day of tryouts. By developing a consistent and competitive environment in your practices early on, and continuing that same approach throughout the season regardless of results in games, your team is developing a certain mindset on how to approach situations.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build your philosophy to help your team understand the moment:
- Mental Preparation/Mindset – As stated, this must be created from day one and the that expectation must be lived daily.
- Coach/Player/Team Focus – Everyone must be working at the same high standards in order for the program to reach its potential. Kevin Eastman has a quote: “Keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is a very important thought for postseason play.
- Sense of Urgency – Everyone in the organization must know that procrastination is the thief of success. Championship teams must be in the moment and work to win every moment.
- Priority/Time Management – Make sure you are doing the top five things daily that will give your team the best chance to win in March. This will come up again as we talk about practice preparation and scouting.
Both adversity and success will inevitably occur during the season, but when you have a routine in place, your team will not get too low or too high as there is a bigger goal ahead. Once the playoffs come around, stick with the routine, and emphasize to your team that this is what they have been training for since day one of practice. When the games get tough, they already know how to handle themselves under pressure because the practices each day leading up to the postseason have prepared them for the moment. This allows them to focus on solely raising their intensity level because the in-game routine and muscle memory are already in place.
Scouting and Preparation
The postseason is not a time to change your philosophy or style – it is too late for that. You know who you are at this point. We usually put in a couple wrinkles or counters to concepts we have been running to keep teams off balance, but the biggest focus for us is the mental preparation. Understanding the urgency of the moment but being able to play free and not feel the pressure is key. If the mentality is there first, it’s easier for players’ physical skills to take over.
Here are a couple things we do to help us prepare during the postseason:
- Self Team Scout – Just as we scout our opponents we take time throughout the season and especially before post-season to reflect on ourselves. We create a detailed self scouting report just as we would for any team, however it is for our own team to understand our strengths and weaknesses, tendencies, and more.
- Opponent Scout– With all the technology today, we make sure we have as much information on the possible opponents that we can find. Film review is huge in our program. We tape everything, and we try to get video on opponents well in advance of playing them.
- Offensive/Defensive Scripts – Prepare the sets and concepts you feel gives your team the best chance to win. Consider having a couple counters and late game situation sets.
The key during the playoffs: practice times will shorten, but intensity level will rise. To the best of our ability, as a coaching staff, we try to simulate what the game atmosphere will be like on game day. We prepare our players by watching our opponent’s film and breaking down each opponent’s player with our team. As a team, we discuss our strategies and overall game plan. After our team film study, we will take this knowledge to our practice and fine-tune our master plan.
No matter what stage your program is in, I hope coaches find these tips valuable as you work to build a championship mindset and culture – one that allows players to embrace the moment of the postseason for ultimate success.