Sep 8, 2017
Developing Today’s Athletes

Brian Roper, Head Boys’ Basketball Coach at Lynden (Wash.) High School, has led his teams to two state titles and won nearly 400 games. He has also been selected to the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.

However, his focus is not on wins and losses. It’s on developing players, creating bonds, and teaching life lessons. In the following interview, he explains how he builds relationships with players, maximizes their potential, and teaches them the skill of being competitive.

In your first year of coaching at North Mason High School, you lost every game. What have you learned since then?

That the difference between winning a state title and going 0-20 is not so great. It’s really about the journey and the relationships — about shared experiences. The kids on that first 0-20 team are some of my favorite guys, and we stay in touch. While I would never want to go through it again, the struggles of that year created bonds that are very meaningful.

Recalling that first team also reminds me never to be too full of myself. Here at Lynden, I have the talent to win state titles, but I’m really not that different than the coach I was at North Mason. Hopefully I’m a little bit wiser and better at what I do each year, but if I start thinking that it’s my Xs and Os and not the players’ efforts and ability that makes us successful, then I’m just fooling myself.

How do you get the most out of your players?

It starts with building relationships based on trust. Next is having a work ethic second to none. I want to know that for each season and each game, as a coaching staff, we’ve not been outworked. The third thing is teaching kids to be competitive, which I think is a skill. For some it comes more naturally, but it still needs to be taught as a process.

How do you teach the skill of being competitive?

Players will not play hard unless they feel good about their effort. We work on this every day in practice — we keep score in drills and praise guys who do the little things to help win. Those come together over time and players learn that there’s a high value to want to win.

Learning how to win, learning how to prepare to win, caring enough to win — those are more important than winning itself. It’s about the value of competition. One of my favorite quotes is from Vince Lombardi, who said, “The greatest feeling in sports is lying exhausted in victory. And the second greatest feeling is lying exhausted in defeat.” Teaching players to value the effort it takes to be a great competitor is essential in winning.

What else goes into creating state title teams?

There are a lot of factors in winning, including a little luck. Skill and talent are the most important ingredients, and team chemistry cannot be underestimated. Winning over time involves a commitment to fundamentals and player development. Then, some years you have the magic, while other years you don’t.

The overall record at the end of the year can be somewhat of a façade. Maybe you have 2-18 talent, but you go 10-10 because you maximize your players’ potential — they have great team chemistry and commitment to competition — and that’s an achievement. I always enjoy watching teams where a coach gets a level of performance out of players that maybe other people don’t appreciate.

Can a team be successful if it loses every game?

We’re often judged by wins and losses. That’s part of the deal. But over time, I’ve come to value the individual relationships and the lessons that players learn playing high school basketball more than the trophies. It’s important to try to win because it teaches life lessons, but coaching success can be empty if it’s not about more than basketball. For me, it’s about loving kids and helping them grow up. Goals should be higher than the 10-foot basket.

How do you keep the focus on teaching and developing relationships?

It takes a lot of self-reflection. Every year there are times I get so caught up in winning the next game, watching film, and improving that I have to remind myself to take a step back. I ask myself, “Am I doing a good job taking care of our 12th man? Am I making sure I’m touching base with a player who has lost a family member?”

Do you think that approach ultimately helps players perform better, by putting less pressure on them?

Absolutely. Their identity is not in the team’s record or in how many points they score. It’s in who they are. When young people are accepted and appreciated by their coaches and family, they’re going to be much freer to play well. They will also have a better experience.

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