We Talkin' Bout Practice?!?

Yes, I’m going to talk about practice for a moment. Not about skipping practice as Allen Iverson famously did in 2002, but rather the importance of maximizing our time while in practice. As is the case with many things, there are parallels between the sports arena and the classroom. Whether you are a coach, classroom teacher, or administrator, my hope is that this post prompts reflection as we consider how to best utilize the short amount of time we actually have with our athletes, students, or staff. 

I was blessed to coach some extremely talented players and teams during my time as a head basketball coach. We experienced a great deal of success but had to do so in unconventional fashion. The year we won a state championship we only had seven players. That made it extremely challenging to practice in true, game-like conditions. But, we found a way to make it work. 

One of the reasons we were so successful during our two Final Four trips in 2004 and 2005 was due to free throw shooting. As a team, we shot over 75% both years during the Final Four. This was truly amazing! 

We must have made free throws a priority in practice, right? 

Not exactly.

Before I share a story I’ve never shared publicly before now, I must preface by saying this post is in no way intended to diminish the quality of individuals and players on the teams I coached. They were incredible young ladies who were very talented at basketball. They were tremendous kids, from tremendous families, and are all very successful in their own right today. I was extremely proud of them then and even more proud today. They are fine people and wonderful spouses and parents. 

This post is about acknowledging a weakness and then guiding a team through that known weakness. It’s also about having the courage to steer away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. 

We were terrible free throw shooters. Our opponent in the state 3rd place game in 2004 knew that. Midway through the 4th quarter, I made the decision to hold the ball at halfcourt while on offense to force Mound City to get out of their suffocating 2-3 zone. Our 4-5 point lead seemed like much more, but I wanted to generate a larger lead to close out the game. I felt they couldn’t guard us man-to-man. Knowing we were 50% as a team shooting free throws, the opposing coach instructed his players to foul us rather than change their defense. We went to the free throw line and made both shots. 

Thinking he wouldn’t foul us again, we held the ball the next trip down the court. I was wrong. They fouled us to force more free throws.

Again, we made them both.

After this happened for a 3rd time, my mind was off to the races. What should I do? Everybody in the arena on the University of Missouri campus was watching and critiquing my coaching decisions in one of the biggest games in school history. Not much pressure!

Here’s a rundown of some of those thoughts…
  • We only had one senior, a non-starter, on our team. I knew we’d be favorites to win the state championship the following year. 
  • We were terrible free throw shooters, and I didn’t want free throws to keep us from winning a state championship next season.
  • I had been hounding our team about spending extra time before and after practice to address their weakness. Doing so was a rare occurrence, and I had grown frustrated during the season.

So, what adjustment did I make after being fouled on three consecutive trips down the court?


In that moment, I was thinking about next year. Crazy, I know! We were in the 3rd place game in the state, and next year had no guarantees.

I leaned over to my assistant coach and said, “If we can’t make our free throws we don’t deserve to win.” I can’t believe I actually said that in the biggest game of my life. In my first season as a head coach. In a huge game for our school and community. That moment presented what I felt at the time was a win-win scenario. Either we win the 3rd place game in the Final Four, or our girls learn the hard lesson that they need to put in extra time shooting free throws. My efforts to convince them had fallen on deaf ears, so maybe the pain of losing and the hunger to return to the Final Four would motivate them. I still cannot believe I was okay with using that game as a teachable moment.

The game ended with us shooting a perfect 12/12 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter, and we won the game.

How in the world did that happen?

I was asked about that in the post-game press conference. How could we go 12-12 in the 4th quarter when we had been 50% as a team the entire season? It was a great question, and my answer revealed publicly that we had quit shooting free throws earlier in the season “because it wasn’t working.” 

Yes, I quit spending (wasting) practice time on free throws. If it wasn’t going to help us, our time needed to be spent on something which would have a greater impact. 

This is where I believe the lesson lies for teachers and coaches. As world-renowned educational researcher John Hattie likes to say, “It’s not about what works...it’s about what works best.”

Just as a teacher has limited time in a classroom with students, coaches have limited time with their players. We must maximize that brief amount of time with instruction, practice, and learning which will yield the greatest results.

For our team, there were more impactful drills we could be running than shooting free throws. The goal was to be as good of a team at the end of the season as we could be, and our practices needed to be designed for that purpose. I failed at inspiring them to put in the extra work on their own, but I could control the practice schedule.

Studies indicate that we grow more from focusing on our strengths than focusing on our weaknesses. I believe our teams were a true reflection of this. We used the time that would have been spent shooting free throws on things which would help us become better at what we were already good at - defense, rebounding, offensive efficiency, passing, and layups. 

There was still the occasional time in practice to shoot free throws in pressure situations, and this may have helped us during our state playoff runs. However, there was no longer time allotted for the mass shooting of free throws. This was difficult for me because I thought that is what coaches had their teams do. I played and learned under multiple hall-of-fame coaches and tried to mimic as much of what they did as possible. But, as is the case with every new team or class of students, we must adapt and evolve with the individuals and groups we lead. Their talents and needs are different, and we must be able to meet them where they are - not necessarily follow a prescribed recipe that may have worked with a previous group. 

There are times when that recipe should be replicated, but it’s important to recognize when it should be aborted. 

I began coaching stuck in tradition. That tradition was simply mimicking the way I had been taught. We frequently see this in sports and in the classroom. Coaches and teachers often do things for no other purpose than that’s how they were taught. Mass free throws? Piles of worksheets? Whatever the case, there are often better ways to utilize the time we have with others and maximize the growth of those we lead. The same is true for administrators leading teachers.

Tradition doesn’t always make you better. Oftentimes, it’s a roadblock to excellence. As administrators, coaches, and teachers, it is imperative that we do not allow our stubbornness to become a roadblock for others.

Choosing to not focus on something doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Free throws are definitely important. However, we should focus our time and energy on those things which are most important at that moment. Those things which could make us even better. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We know there’s no silver bullet in education or coaching. This worked for our team, but it may be something totally different for your team (or classroom). 

The key is knowing where your team is and being able to take them from where they are to someplace greater. The methods and strategies may differ for each group, but the common theme is the pursuit of excellence. There is no particular step-by-step roadmap for excellence. It’s all about starting from where you are and finding a way to maximize the talents of those you serve.

I was privileged to coach an incredible group of champions. Yes, they did win the 2005 state championship - the only state championship in the history of Chadwick High School. They became champions because they pursued excellence. Their path may not have been the same as other teams, and that’s okay. They pursued excellence through their effort, teamwork, vision, commorardarie, and hunger to understand the game of basketball at a deeper level.

Their pursuit of excellence has carried them well through life. They’ve become leaders in their homes and communities. Earned advanced degrees. Become published authors. I am extremely proud to have played a small part of their lives.

As educators, we hope to prepare our students for life. Oftentimes, it is our students who end up doing the teaching. Those Chadwick teams taught me a great deal about leadership and life. And for that, I’ll be forever thankful that I got to be their coach. 

One lesson I learned is to not be afraid to step away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. Making the decision to quit shooting free throws wasn't easy, but it ended up helping our already good team become an even better team. That particular group needed something different, and it worked.

I'm not sure we would have become state champions had we continued with the status quo and tradition. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.