After my last game, several players looked dejected. We have no shot clock, and games fly. I play 14 players per game while remaining somewhat competitive. It is hard. I know players are not playing as much as they want. They are not playing as much as I want them to play. But when a team holds the ball for 90 seconds running the Flex and refusing to shoot anything but a lay-up, the time moves pretty quickly.
After the game, I gave them a Jim Valvano line: “Greatness is finding a void and filling it.” When I have players ask about playing time, whether on my team or players who I train, I ask them why they deserve to play.
Most players have no real answer. They usually compare themselves to another player, which is a no-no for me. They use generic responses such as “I play hard” or “I am always at practice.” Showing up for practice is a minimum requirement for participation on the team, not a reason for increased playing time, and I hope, and expect, all players to play hard; if not, I am not doing my job.
It is a simple question that proves difficult to answer. Why should you play? You look upset or question your playing time, whether verbally or through body language. Give me a reason to play you more. Do you get every loose ball? Do you spread the court with your shooting? Are you a beast on the boards? Do you ask for and shut down the opponent’s best player? Do you run the team? Do you settle down the team when the game gets chaotic? Do you add energy when the game hits a lull? What do you do?
It is a simple question that is difficult to answer. It generally causes players to think and stops any complaints. It forces players to think about their game, their effort, and their skills, and commit to finding a void to fill.
When I coached a professional women’s team, I inherited two young players who had combined for 37 minutes in the previous season. They lacked confidence and ambition because they believed that the previous coach would never play them, regardless of how they played in practice. They were excited when the coach stepped down, but disheartened when he was named as my assistant (not my hire).
I used the Valvano quote. I promised that if they earned playing time, they would play. I told them to stop guarding each other in practice and to defend the players ahead of them in the rotation (at the time, I stuck to an 8-9 player rotation). I gave them goals: one had the potential to be a defensive stopper, but she travelled a lot and could not shoot. I told her that once she could look like an offensive threat, she would play. The other was a better shooter with a tendency to be soft. I told her that she needed to be tougher and more assertive.
They were hesitant to put forth more effort, as they were unaccustomed to having a fair shot at playing time. However, they started to work out on their own. I had a special deal where I trained an 18-year-old male player for a talent identification program, and the younger player – the defender – showed up and worked out with him (a friend from school).
They earned their chance. The one girl became the best defensive player on the team; the other outplayed the previous season’s starting shooting guard and displaced her as the primary back-up shooting guard behind a new starter. They did not play a lot of minutes, but in certain situations, they played 10 or more minutes in a game.
Rather than feel sorry for themselves, they found a void. They changed their practice approach and proved that they deserved playing time. When they got an opportunity, they performed and earned additional opportunities.