Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 6, 2018
What does a college basketball coach say to his players at halftime when his team is down by a significant margin? How does he inspire his team to come back and win the game?
As a business leader, when faced with adversity, what is the source of your inspiration, and how do you inspire your team?
An NCAA record was set on Feb. 22 when Drexel University’s men’s basketball team, down by 34 points late in the first half by a score 53-19, defeated University of Delaware 85-83. It was the largest comeback in NCAA Division 1 history.
I interviewed Drexel coach Zach Spiker to get his perspective on the game and to learn what he told the team in the locker room at halftime.
Inspiring a turn-around
I asked Spiker: “In a game like the one against Delaware, or any game in which your opponent has a significant lead, what goes through your mind? How do you inspire your players to turn the game around?”
Spiker responded: “As we do in every game, the coaching staff met for a few minutes at the start of halftime to formulate our message. We talked about what was going well and what needed improvement. For this game, we wanted to boost our team’s belief that they could play a strong second half by improving offensive and defensive execution and by playing with a higher energy level.
“It certainly wasn’t a normal halftime locker room, but we didn’t need to ‘peel the paint off the walls,’ which could hurt the team’s confidence. We needed to build their confidence so that they could get back into the game.
“Delaware played a near-perfect first half and at the same time, we didn’t play well. We told the team, ‘Let’s play our best in the second half and see what happens.’”
Sticking with the system
A sign of discipline of any team is the ability to stick with the system they have learned, practiced and played for months, even when behind, rather than change the game plan to something new. The team, however, can certainly improve its execution.
Spiker referred to a Feb. 19 ESPN article by staff writer Jeff Borzello in which Villanova University basketball coach Jay Wright described a game against NC State University in which Villanova was losing. Wright said, “… two seniors … kept saying, ‘Keep playing Villanova basketball, just keep doing what we do.’”
Wright continued: “They went out dying on their own sword, like Samurai warriors. If you’re going to go out, you’re going to out our way. They’re legends for how they handled adversity.”
Spiker and his coaching staff inspired their team, saying: “Let’s play Drexel Basketball. Let’s play as hard as we can for the name on the front and on the back of your jersey. Play for Drexel, play for the fans, play for your families – play for everything and everyone you represent. Let’s play for what Drexel is and what we want Drexel to become.”
Spiker said: “We told the team not to look at the scoreboard and not to worry about what occurred in the first half. The score now starts at 0-0. Let’s see how we do in each of the four-minute media segments during the second half.” Slowly but surely, the gap in the score narrowed until Drexel achieved its two-point victory.
Never give up
All business leaders have been in similar situations where they needed to inspire their team to win in a tough competitive environment.
“This is what all races are about. This is what life is about,” are the inspirational words flashed across the screen at the end of a YouTube video I shared in my article last week. Runner Heather Dorniden of University of Minnesota fell in the March 2008 Big Ten 600-meter final with 200 meters to go. Rather than quit the race, she got up, caught the other runners and won the race in a close photo-finish.
Drexel’s second half comeback victory in their basketball game against Delaware and Dorniden’s photo-finish after falling during her race are inspirational lessons for all of us. Sports provides a great metaphor for life. Never quit, never give up. This is what life is about.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.