Roger Grossman
Roger Grossman
Winning ugly is a tight rope

The drive home from Northridge Saturday night is a little over 45 minutes long.

After pouring myself out in the broadcast of the girls basketball game between Warsaw and Northridge with my good friend and broadcast partner Rob Reneker, I just didn’t have the energy to say a whole lot.

That doesn’t mean my brain wasn’t still spinning.

I found myself driving across the Northern Indiana Plains contemplating the “ugly win” that Warsaw had just put together against the Lady Raiders, who have had the better of the Lady Tigers in recent years.

It was admittedly “ugly” because the shooting was not very good from either side, the scoring was low and there was very little rhythm or flow to the game.

Which should not lead anyone to believe that these teams are not skilled.

No, they are quality teams with talented players who care about both ends of the floor.

So where am I going with this?

Two things: the first being that ugly wins lead to beautiful trophies. Winning is winning, and in a results-oriented business like sports, winning matters most.

However, coaches don’t (and can’t) look at it that way, and they really can’t let their team look at it that way either.

The game Saturday is just an example of what I want to talk about here. It’s not a criticism of anyone. It’s just a general conversation about a situation a lot of teams can find themselves in.

For a coach, the concept of “winning ugly” is, without a doubt, a two-sided coin.

On the good side of it, it's a mark of a good team to win games even when you don’t have a great game. Just like a baseball pitcher who gets people out without having command of his pitches (or her pitches for softball), a team that finds ways to win when things aren’t going well is a team is a team with special qualities. Add to that the value of a team that wins close games when the pressure is greatest and who will find themselves in close games again. They will find themselves in more close games, and will relish them rather than wilt in them.

A coach who is leading a team in that situation finds himself or herself in a really tough spot.

Because the other side of that coin is that a coach’s job is to demand excellence from their players, individually and collectively, and then put them through a process to mold them into a form to achieve that excellence.

Note: If your coach isn’t doing that, they are derrilict in their duties.

So a coach whose team is not operating as smoothly as planned but still winning games can be very dangerous—to themselves as much as their opponents.

When a team is not playing well but still winning, the players can fall into an emotion trap. They are winning games, and when you are winning games things are happy. The fans come up and hug you after the game. The bus ride home is fun (or at least more tolerable).

But sometimes there is a satisfaction in the winning that can dull the edge of a team.

Winning can cover up flaws that have been exposed during these games. And sometimes—my sense is more times than not—a team can lack motivation to fix those things. Think about it, a team that loses a close game or a series of close games is highly engaged in identifying the problems and fixing them.

A team that does enough to win may not have players that feel that same passion.

Coaches are speaking often about “the process”. This, what we have been talking about, is what they mean by that.

The goal is to make your players, and collectively the team, want to get better at playing the game. In that, they are attempting to make the players measure themselves against their maximum potential, not another team.

Teams could fill their schedule up with weak opponents and run up a 20-2 record, but be completely unprepared for postseason tournament games.

So coaches whose teams are winning games this way are challenged to find a balance in their approach to dealing with their players. If they pound on teams that are winning close, exciting games, they run the risk of creating conflict where there may not be any. If they don’t prod their team to get better, they probably won’t get better.

In the end, it really comes down to the players. The best teams understand what they do well, and what they don’t. They know who they should beat by 20, where the toss-up games are and who they are playing where their margin of error will be very small.

Coaches don’t have to motivate or police those teams. The players do that on their own.

And that is a beautiful thing.