I’ve been coaching basketball for over 30 years. And each player that I’ve had the pleasure of coming in contact with, has had a talent and a skill, however some have been missing a component that would complete them as a player, and more importantly as a person.
Today, I’d like to share how one player found his missing component. I have watched EK search to find his confidence for the past three years. Week after week, he has attended our weekly basketball clinics. Always working hard, while always looking for affirmation. Even when it’s obvious that he’s done something tremendously well, he would always look at me and ask if he did a good job. I always confirm what he already knew, that he had indeed done a good job and reminded him that he does not need me to confirm what he already knows.
As a 7th grader last year, EK did not make the varsity basketball team and was placed on the B team. Obviously, he was disappointed that he did not make the varsity team, as was I when I had to make the call to inform him of this decision. It was not his confidence which prevented him from making the team, it was more so about the competition. Had he made the varsity team, his opportunities for quality minutes on the court would have been minimal at best.
There was, however, a silver lining to this decision as I would be coaching both the varsity team and the B team. This would allow EK and I to work together weekly and continue work on his skills and his confidence. His positioning on the B team would put him in a position of leadership, something I knew would be a challenge for him and one that he needed. As a coach, knowing a player’s personality is more important than knowing their physical abilities. A leadership role would force EK to face his biggest fear and address his lack of confidence. I made it a point to share these thoughts with him once the decisions were made for who would make each team.
As the season started for the B team, it was evident that EK was pushing to prove his leadership capabilities and show a new level of confidence. Unfortunately, his lack of confidence once again came to the forefront. Things that he would typically do well, he was now not doing well. He was taking bad shots, making bad decisions and would look over at me after each mishap.
I would pull him aside and reassure him that he did not need to try so hard. I asked him to allow the process to take its course. He would always nod in agreement with eyes wide open and was determined to improve. I knew he had something in him that he could not see … confidence.
After a few weeks and for the remainder of the year, EK seemed to be more relaxed and composed in his approach to being a leader. He became more vocal with his teammates, providing direction when he deemed it necessary, and although he was more hesitant offensively, he was taking positive steps in the right direction. I could see that the path to confidence was becoming clear, and I think EK did as well. His 7th grade year ended with him receiving ‘the most improved player’ award for the B team.
This season, with the pandemic affecting everyone, it was uncertain if we would even have a season. I say that because as a coach, you begin planning a season ahead when you receive your player roster. You can see which players are returning and begin to form the team(s) and how each player will contribute for the next season. This young man was one of those that I had anticipated would make the varsity team and have the potential of being a huge contributor. We were in fact able to schedule a season, albeit an abbreviated one. As the tryouts concluded, EK did make the varsity team and I planned on him being one of the top seven players on the team. It goes without saying that he was more than excited to get the news that he made the varsity team. So was this coach!
As the season began, we rolled up win after win, with all 12 players contributing to each win. The best part was that it was apparent that EK had matured as a player, but more importantly, as a person. He had become more focused and determined to make a positive impact on the team and showed it in all phases of his game. He was still the third player off the bench in the rotation, and was more than satisfied with that, as he could evaluate how the game was going and how he could contribute to the success of the team.
We were poised at this point to run the table for our 3rd consecutive championship, but two unexpected challenges arose. Firstly, one of our starting guards had to finish the season watching the games being streamed on Instagram and YouTube because he had to be quarantined. A bigger setback was that our best shooter broke his wrist and was also finished for the season. That meant that the number six and seven players were catapulted into the starting lineup. Enter EK into the starting line up.
Based on previous experiences, the search for affirmation, I was expecting EK to approach me and ask if he would be a starter now, since we had lost the two starters. He never asked and I never confirmed that he would be put into the starting lineup. But he knew, and as I anticipated some nervousness in his play, it never came to fruition. He calmly accepted his new role, played within himself and that was my first glimpse of seeing EK take his first steps down the path of confidence.
We finished the regular season and were now entering the post season games. With the new lineup and the post season games approached as “as a new season”, I made adjustments to our offensive strategies, as we would be playing some teams for the second time. As part of the new strategy, EK would need to step up his offense contribution and create the balance that we needed. After sharing this with him, he nodded in agreement with eyes wide open and had that same look of determination. But somehow, the look was different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
Well, we breezed through to the finals of the conference championship. We jumped out early and were very efficient offensively and defensively, making their offensive possessions very difficult with our height advantage. After the first quarter, as they started to gain momentum on both ends of the floor and our best player picked up his 3rd foul in the second quarter, our team had to now play more cautiously. I chose to take the calculated risk and leave the best player in the game, because after all, this was the championship game. This meant that others like EK would need to step up offensively and to help more defensively to keep him from getting into further foul trouble. EK, who had missed his first few shots, made his presence known initially on hustle plays. He was out hustling our opponents for loose balls, fighting for rebounds and looking to set his teammates up for shots.
As the first half was coming to an end, the score was tied with 10 seconds left. EK was on the bench at this time, and there had been a foul called and it was going to be our ball. Just as the official was about to hand the ball to us to inbound it, I reached for EK and told him to sprint to the scorers table to enter the game. I shouted “sub!”, to get him into the game. In case you are wondering, yes, I wanted EK to take the last shot of the half. I motioned to our point guard that I wanted him to drive to the basket and then pass out to EK for the last second shot. He drove, he passed … and EK made a 3 pointer as the horn sounded to end the first half.
As the second half started, our opponents missed a shot, we rebounded it, pushed it up the floor and guess who was wide open in the corner for another 3-point shot? You guessed it, EK! He makes a second consecutive 3 pointer to put us up by six. The game went back and forth and we eventually pulled out a hard fought 3 point victory to secure our 3rd consecutive championship. After each tournament, there are awards given out for best players. Our star player with the 3 fouls was awarded the MVP and EK was selected as an all around player.
As I watched the replay of the game, I was amazed at the number of times that EK’s name was mentioned during the broadcast. Remember the hustle plays? Well, I must have missed some during the game because he was everywhere. Someone found the confidence that I knew he always had in him. He revealed his confidence just in time to take advantage of this big moment.
After the game, I shared with him how proud I was of him for showing that level of confidence in such a big game. His response to me was, “You’ve been on the only coach that believed in me and gave me a chance”. My reply was “No my man, YOU finally believed in yourself and gave yourself a chance”.
It is my hope that this story inspires you to believe in yourself and give yourself the chance to shine every day.
About the Author
Antwaun Thompson is the founder and Executive Director of JLT Fieldhouse, Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit youth coaching and mentoring organization as well as owner of Coach T’s Corner, an online mentoring academy, designed to educate, motivate and support teens, parents and teachers.