Managing Blowouts

See related article, Coaching Conduct.

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

One of the deepest rooted feelings in the American culture is the concept of fairness. It is our history. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address stated that we are "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". The virtues of equality and fairness have molded us in many ways, especially in our approach to sports. The constitutions and bylaws that govern our youth sporting institutions strive to create an environment of equal opportunity and fair play so that all participants may fully benefit.

Yet, it is the arena of sports that throws our ideals of fairness in conflict with another American ideal, our right to excel as individuals. We believe that people are entitled to the fruits of their labors. We have a right to prosper at our own expense. Hard work and ingenuity has made our country strong. Our athletes are also made strong through hard work and ingenuity. To succeed, athletes strengthen their bodies, teams seek out the best players they can acquire and coaches employ innovative tactics and training methods. The measure of success is simple. You are successful when you win.

So, where is the conflict between fairness and the right to excel? It shows, glaringly, in the gross mismatches that happen from time to time in sports resulting in lopsided scores that beg for public attention. Basketball is particularly susceptible to criticism because the potential for scoring discrepancies is so significant. Newspapers sometimes report shocking scores like 124-12. Now you might expect a lack of mercy for college and pro teams who lose badly. Their programs are intended to be extremely competitive. But when such scores are reported for high school competition and below, you can expect an outcry in public forums denigrating the winning coach for running up the score. Imagine what the scene was like at the actual event. Can you imagine the emotions of the losing players and their parents? It just isn't fair to be beaten so soundly. However, doesn't the superior team have the right to play their very best? Ah, we do have a conflict after all.

Let's lay a foundation and establish what values are most important in this issue. The winning coach may be concerned with having his team play to their potential and not care about the score. The losing coach may be most concerned about the fairness of the situation. How do we bring these two attitudes closer together? Well, here is our common ground:

  1. Blowout games are bad for both teams. The winners learn nothing and get sloppy; the losers may become so discouraged they quit the sport altogether. I think we can all agree blowout games are undesirable.
  2. Blowout games are going to happen, no matter how you try to prevent them. Why? Because the proposition that all men are created equal applies to our common value as human beings, not our individual athletic abilities. Athletic talent is God-given and not evenly distributed at all. Through training, athletic prowess can be enhanced assuming the individual is willing to work and the resources are available. Its easy to see how one team, having access to talent, facilities and qualified coaching, will run rampant over teams who lack those advantages. Even when two teams are balanced at the start of the season, outside factors like sickness, injury or ineligibility can suddenly weaken one team to the point where a fair contest is impossible.

Coaches can make a positive difference. They cannot make a blowout a good experience, but there are ways both the winning coach and the losing coach can make the best of the situation. The ways a coach can make a difference will be listed in two groups, what the winning coach can do and what the losing coach can do. Trust me, the longer you coach, the more likely you will have a chance to endure both the losing and winning coaching role.

The Winning Coach

  1. Remember to respect all players, not just your own. The other teams do not exist to be training fodder for your studs. The other kids are people, too. Your job as a coach is to provide a positive, competitive basketball environment for all players, not just your own. Sure, you try to win, but you do not try to humiliate an opponent.
  2. If you're coaching in a young, recreational league, don't stack your team with all the best players in the area just because you have the best recruiting situation. This is a reprehensible practice. The league is literally ruined when one team stomps the competition game after game. Parity offers the kids the best chance to learn and have fun. Close games are what basketball is all about. It doesn't matter how high the score is when a team has a chance to win the game in the closing seconds. That is far more fun and memorable for the kids than having a season where one team after the other is executed in a business-like fashion. Without competition, kids atrophy and lose respect for their opponents. If they move to a more competitive league next year, they will be poorly prepared to deal with the stress. Dominant teams have more internal problems because their only competition is from within (for playing time, stats, etc.).
  3. Scores can be managed to some degree. Don't tell your kids to play easy or to let the other team score on purpose. Its bad enough to be outclassed on the playing floor. Don't add insult to injury by being condescending, too.
  4. Be quiet. It looks real bad when you're screaming at your kids for more effort when they are already up by 50 points. It looks bad, too, when you try to be funny and make loud jokes. And most importantly, do not engage in conversation with the other team or their coach during the game. Let them manage the best they can.
  5. Use all your players. Its real ugly to play your top five all the way through a blowout. If you do that, you're a jerk. On the other hand, it isn't fair to your starters to sit them all the time just because of the score margin. I suggest you play everyone about equal. You can move the subs in and out 5 at a time if you want. If one of your players rarely gets in, play him or her as much as everyone else. If you are a coach that promotes the first class and second class player concept, a 20 point lead may be the time to let your bench players in the game.
  6. Choose your defense according to the score. For instance, you may adopt a policy that once you are up 20 points, you'll stop pressing. In some leagues, 30 points make more sense if big comebacks aren't unusual. We've all seen games where one team runs their full court press even when they are up 40 points or more. The coach's excuse is something like, "It's the only style we know." Well, that's pretty narrow-minded, isn't it? Learn something new. Instead of pressing, confine your m2m or zone within the three point line. You can still play tough defense, but contain it within the arc. Let the other team bring the ball up the floor.
  7. Instead of a fast break offense, practice your half court set, perhaps a new one that you're learning or having trouble with. Practice your stall. Practice some courtesy and self-respect.
  8. What if you're ahead and the other team is down to 4 players (or fewer) due to foul trouble. Do you press your advantage (what is possibly gained?) or do you have your kids take turns in staying back on defense so that your offense is 4 on 4?
  9. Be very strict with your players if they begin to ridicule the other team in any way. If they start talking trash or clowning around, the coach will be seen as weak and unprincipled, the players as arrogant and the entire league will work toward your demise. Heaven help you if your team comes to a game unprepared or undermanned for any reason. There will be no compassion for you, none at all.

The Losing Coach

If you are the losing coach, don't read into it that you are a loser coach. Remember, the game belongs to the players. One year you may be strong and the next weak if you get a new crop of players or move to a tougher league. The main difference is the quality of your players compared to the rest of the teams. You can't salvage much when your team is getting spanked, but you can do a lot to help the players get something out of the game and maintain their sense of dignity.

  1. Emphasize small victories. If the opposing team is blanketing you with a stifling press even when they are up by 40 points, try to solve one little problem at a time. In this scenario, the whole point of the game may be to successfully inbound the ball. Or if you can do that, work on getting the second pass completed. Each pass is a victory in itself. Eventually, you may set the bar higher and be happy getting the ball into the front court. If they do that one time then miss an easy shot, don't worry about the shot. Basketball scores are the result of a series of successful events. Start at the beginning of the series and work your way up. The kids will understand that kind of progression. As they win these small victories, then they will have more confidence in the early events and be able to focus on the later ones.
  2. Stay calm. Even if the other coach is being a total ass, concentrate on your team and help them succeed where they can. Praise them for every thing they try to do right. If you start getting upset and frustrated, the kids will feel even more pressure than before.
  3. If you are blessed with a good sense of humor, use it. Anything you can do to relieve the stress the better. In fact, the main thing that make a full court press work is creating a sense of extreme urgency in the other team. If your team is composed, especially after making a mistake, the press won't be nearly as effective. Your team may begin to see all the open areas of the floor rather than only the five bodies opposing them.
  4. Don't whine about the mismatch. It makes you look bad. However, of you hold your head high and bolster your team's outlook, the only person looking bad will be the other coach.
  5. Don't whine at the referees. Often in a blowout, the referees will give the disadvantaged team some breaks. But, if you're a whiner, get ready for a long night.
  6. After the game, show good sportsmanship. Shake hands, say, "good game!" and get off the floor. Don't make any excuses, like a certain player wasn't there or your team had the flu ... who cares? Get off the floor. The scoreboard will be reset to 00 in no time and the game soon forgotten. The only thing that can make a blowout memorable is if you lose your composure and do or say something regrettable.
  7. Remind your players of what went well, but don't try to convince them they played a good game. They know better. Kids are pretty realistic about how they stack up. If they have a sense of hope and realize that they can improve and do better, their interest will be maintained. Maybe the next time, instead of losing by 40 they lose by 20 - what an improvement! You can win when losing if you look at the situation positively.
  8. Remember that the sweetest wins are when you are the underdog. When nobody gives you a chance and still your players pull off a great game due their desire, courage and ability to work together, those are the games you cherish for a lifetime. So, when you get crushed, look ahead to a better day. It'll come.
  9. What goes around comes around. One day you will have the advantage. Don't forget how you and your players felt when you were slaughtered. If you can, resist the urge to humiliate a coach who embarrassed you last time around. You get better revenge by beating him/her but doing it with class. In a sense, you win twice: once the scoreboard and once off.

Why do Some Coaches Run up the Score?

  1. Some coaches justify building huge margins of victory because at some point in their past, they had a comfortable lead then lost it when the starters were pulled or tactics were changed.
  2. It seems important to pad the stats of their favorite players
  3. The winning coach will say that's the way we always play, the only style we know.
  4. In a round robin tournament, final standing may depend upon the score differential as well as the win-loss record.
  5. The other coach really doesn't like you.

The list above was made in case you just got blown out and you are shaking your head and wondering, "Why?" None of these reasons justify an intentional blowout score, but these are the reasons you'll hear sometimes.