Building Blocks for a Successful Program

Aaron Thompson, Head Coach at Evansville Christian High School, Evansville, IN

Fundamentals.  Growth Mindset.  Culture.  These are common words used by coaches and leaders across the count, especially in the sports world.  Without meaning…an understanding by the team of what they mean…”words” are all they will ever be.  Successful coaches are the ones that can not only provide the meaning of these words, they can make them live day in and day out within their program and produce uncommon results.

I took over the head coaching job at Evansville Christian High School in mid-October of 2018…three weeks before our FIRST season as a high school basketball program.  While I had been involved in the planning of the program for a year, it wasn’t until October 15th that the baton was passed.  The school has been in existence, from K-8, since 1975.  In 2016, ECHS began offering high school classes for Freshmen.  This month, those Freshmen will be graduating.  

Our first campaign…albeit a 1-16 record…was a success.  The success was not in the number of wins we achieved (obviously), but rather in getting the program off the ground and creating a path for future teams to follow.  Evansville Christian joined the newly formed Southern Roads Conference and its lone win was against the eventual conference champions.  Furthermore, five other contests were decided by 5 points or less.  Not too bad for a team that only had eight players, two of which had less than two years of playing experience.  This past season, we experienced huge growth in our program as we nearly doubled our number of players, added four assistant coaches, and had a JV team.  ECHS posted a 12-12 record, won the Southern Roads Conference with an undefeated conference record, and made it to the Indiana Christian Schools Athletic Association State Finals. 

There were many conversations about where we needed to focus our efforts when starting a program.  There really isn’t a blueprint on how to do it at the high school level.  On the court, I knew we had to drill the team on fundamentals.  When you walk into a gym and don’t have enough players to scrimmage, there aren’t a ton of options.  When those numbers doubled, our staff continued to focus on those fundamentals.  Collectively we don’t have the highest basketball IQ.  Individually, we do not have a “star” that can get us a bucket when we need it.  So every practice, we work on the same fundamentals: being ready to shoot, stepping into the shot, stepping when making a pass, finding the right angle to pass, pass fakes, Mikan drill, etc.  I have listed the fundamentals under, “points of emphasis” each year in our team notebook each player receives.  Each time we run the drills, we find it important to give the “why” for doing it.  The kids need to understand why the repetition of each drill is necessary.  When they see it, hear it, and do it, progress can be seen.

One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new job, a new position, a new program is changing the mindset of individuals.  How often do we hear things like, “…this is the way we have always done it…”?  It is difficult to get a 16-year old to believe things and see things differently.  However, it is sometimes nearly impossible to get parents to think differently.  With a K-8th grade school that had been in existence for over 40 years, Evansville Christian had an established youth sports program.  Each year, the 8th graders would play in their last year of sports at ECS before going to one of the many high schools in the area.  The emphasis was always put on that 8th grade year as the “final” year to play at ECS.  That is not so anymore with a high school program that now has Varsity and JV teams.  

We are in the process of changing the grade school and middle school programs to operate more like a feeder program as opposed to individual teams that compete at different age groups.  We have pulled a couple of our teams away from leagues they have competed in for years to play school teams.  We have held multiple meetings to provide updates to the families as to the progress of the program.  We also have changed the coaches at various age groups so kids can be introduced to different styles of coaches.  All of this is done in an effort to get away from the fixed mindset of doing things out of a historical perspective.  We want kids to learn and flourish with the growth mindset that will develop more skills and confidence in themselves.  We aren’t out to win games at all costs in the 4th grade…we are out to capture the hearts of the kids and invest time in them so they have the opportunity to perform at their best.  Ultimately, we want everyone associated with our program to not just see the present, but have a vision of what the future can be.

During our first season, we spent the majority of the time focusing on building a foundation for the basketball program.  I instilled the concept that a house is only as good as its foundation.  The core of that foundation is the culture that is created.  In order to cultivate a positive culture for our team, I created a mission statement for our program.  It isn’t anything fancy or even original, but it is something we strive to follow every day.  It’s a combination of our school’s mission, the athletic code of conduct, and my vision of the program.  It reads: 

“Building a successful tradition of basketball by using the talents God has given each of us and prepare our players for life beyond high school and basketball.  Through our talents…and as a team…our goal is to improve as Christians, compete as Christians, and win as Christians.”  

This is also placed as the first page of our basketball notebook.  We try to hold ourselves accountable to our mission weekly.  We constantly teach the boys what it means to compete, and how to respect your opponents, but also play to win.  We pray after practices and with our opponents after games.  Our weekly practice plans are accompanied by Scripture that we discuss.  Finally, our culture is unique as we are a private Christian School, so we openly discuss how we can use our talents to spread the word of God.  

The implementation of fundamentals, a growth mindset, and a positive culture is how we are building at Evansville Christian.  Of course we fail to hit the mark every day.  And that is okay.  We tell our kids that it is okay to make a mistake as long as you are giving 100%.  That’s what we are striving for from everyone involved…coaches included.  100% effort.  If we do that…and live our Mission…we will be a successful program.

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