2016-17 Championship winning Assistant Coach of Sydney Uni Flames WNBL, Mark Alabakov, reveals how setbacks can set you up for success in sport and life.
In sport, they say that if you hang around long enough you’ll win the championship, finish last, and have a number of years in between.
After our memorable and triumphant WNBL Championship season in 2016-17, we had an upper-middle finish in 2017-18, losing in the Semi Finals to eventual Champions, the Townsville Fire. This 2018-19 season was the one remaining in the theory – the one where you finish last
Judging solely by results, it would appear as though we’ve had a ‘bad’ season, winning minimal games and beginning with 12 straight losses before our breakthrough first win. But this is where sport and life are similar. Many circumstances beyond our control have impacted the journey and forced the goalposts to shift. We’ve had to divorce our minds from measuring success in quantitative measures, like wins and losses, and anchor to qualitative driven ones like diligence of preparation, engagement/enthusiasm and relationships. It was important to be a beacon of those things every day. Be visibly the most prepared, present with a smile and consistently and consciously spend even 30 seconds of quality time engaging with each person, each day.
The net result? You could walk in to any of our practices, from the pre-season til the last round, and you wouldn’t be able to tell if we had won 10 games in a row, or lost 10 in a row. Even as the injuries, losses and pressure mounted, we never fractured, trainings and games never became a chore and we never let our commitment or professionalism slip.
Observing and working with highly successful people over many years, I’ve distilled down 4 traits that I believe can underpin consistency and longevity of high performance: concentration, effort, connection and grit. Throughout our season I referred back and reflected on if I and we were living each of those habitually.
WMI – What’s most important? Right now, what is the one ‘big rock’ I can move that will garner the most positive outcome? Concentrate on one input, for one output – THEN move to the next thing. Too many inputs at once creates confusion, hesitation and overwhelms. I borrowed from the Philadelphia 76ers
Head Coach, Brett Brown’s playbook and began writing ‘WMI’ on the top of my practice plans and opposition scouts as a reminder to myself.
The notion of concentration alone narrows your focus. It cuts with depth, rather than breadth. Like a Stoic, it encourages presence to the circumstance, void of emotion or narrative. Is our intended action congruent with being a master or victim? Are we fostering a solution-oriented team and environment, or are we opening an escape hatch and enabling excuse makers and defeatists?
A number of times this season we shelved grand plans and acted on what we SAW, not what we WANTED. We met the learners where they were at and simplified our strategy offensively and defensively to achieve deeper understanding within our team and create more successful repetitions and proficiency, which builds confidence, self-belief and self-efficacy. Almost instantly, margins decreased and we were able to stay competitive on the scoreboard for longer stretches against good teams.
In round four we played Canberra in Canberra, who beat us soundly by 30-40 points in round one and, after applying this narrowed focus with strategy, we lead for most of the game and only lost by a single 3 point basket against a championship contender. Our only responsibility was to assess where we actually are, and take the team on only the very next step.
With clarity on a singular area of focus – give your honest, best effort in making it work. As injuries, and returnees from injury forced continual shifts in our identity and style of play this became ever so important. We needed to continue to take pride in our work ethic being the great equaliser as we faced every opposition team’s full, healthy roster each week.
I often think of the ‘Mirror and the Window effect’ – your athletes are a like a mirror; a direct reflection of you and what you embody and stand for. The window element relates to the idea of ‘how would you act if a person you idolised or looked up to, was looking through a window at you right now?’.
Kevin Durant popularised the quote, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ and this described our season high point – beating the Melbourne Boomers, complete with 4 Australian Opals and a WNBA starting point guard, in Melbourne in front of 3000 people and live on National TV. We out-worked, out-competed and outplayed players with more notoriety and a team with a price tag over double ours.
With concentration on an intent and my best effort, how can I connect my actions and words with others to magnify output? Who can help me? Who can I help? None of us is as good as all of us and our style of play, what we praised and rewarded had to reflect that and provide a garden for genuine, transparent connection to organically grow.
In a year where injury necessitated opportunity for role players to become starters, and young, emerging players to become minutes players off the bench, our room for error became smaller and smaller, and our successful possessions, quarters and games were always relative to the sum of our parts and a lifeblood of connection.
The essence of ‘team’ is many hands making light work and true fulfillment is found in helping others; contributing to something bigger than just yourself.
How bulletproof can we be to circumstances outside our control, physically and mentally, and still present a purposeful, high effort, aligned team to compete each week? Seattle Storm legend, Sue Bird says, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do’.
At the completion of our season, we identified that we had 1.5 total games with a full, healthy roster out of a possible 22. Many key players suffered long-term injuries. That’s really difficult for a team to deal with logistically, but for a team as ‘together’ as we were it was much harder mentally because that’s your trusted, beloved teammate and friend.
Our resolve was challenged, heading to play reigning WNBL champions, the Townsville Fire in Townsville on National TV, missing 3 starters and grinding out a tough 3 point loss where the Fire only took the lead for the first time in the game in the last minute. Or when we travelled to Perth to play the Perth Lynx, after being soundly beaten by Adelaide the night before in Adelaide and having 2 starters out injured and 2 others hurt the week before and unable to train all week in the lead up, then showing incredible grit to lose that game by a single basket, having to fight back from a 20-point deficit.
Adversity visits the strong, but stays with the weak. Principles such as concentration, effort, connection and grit can allow you, as it allowed us, to find order in the chaos and keep the boat on an even keel during stormy conditions.
Always in our control is to do the best we can, with what we have, where we are. Delays to success aren’t denials and nothing is ever a zero-sum game. You can always be putting bricks in the wall of your development and turning what appears on the surface to be losses, into wins.
‘A stonecutter hammers away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it splits in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” – Jacob Riis