Mary Coyle Klinger: Focus On Work Ethic, Character, Leadership
Not every practice can be perfect. Even the best basketball programs suffer an off day every once in a while. That was the case when Mary Coyle Klinger’s team at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey returned to the court after a couple of days off. Practice was scheduled to end at 11 a.m. last Friday. But the coach felt compelled to keep them going just a little longer.
“We’re coming off two days rest, which in January I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best thing to give them a break,” said Klinger, who is in her 31st season at Rutgers Prep. Klinger has been involved with USA Basketball even longer than that – first as a player in 1979 when she competed at the U.S. Olympic Festival. Most recently, she served as an assistant coach for the 2014 USA Basketball U17 World Championship Team that won gold at the FIBA U17 World Championship in the Czech Republic last summer.
Between the holidays and having some players injured, Klinger felt the time off for her team was necessary. But that time off definitely showed when the team was back together.
“So we’re struggling right now,” Klinger said after that Friday practice. “Just trying to get back to where we were prior to the injuries, fighting the two-day-off break. It was a little tough with the kids. We had to get them back running, and catching the ball and shooting the ball.”
For a coach, Klinger said, the biggest challenge is just understanding that this sort of slippage is going to happen. The key is to stay the course.
“Being in this business for so long, you just stick with the game plan and build from there,” she said. “You know they’re going to get it back. The kids are resilient – they’ll bounce back a lot quicker than the coaches. We just stick with the game plan and we make it work. And we understand that some things will be better than others. You just have to be patient and coach ‘em up.”
Klinger has enjoyed much success at Rutgers Prep, having won more than 400 games and 10 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Prep B state titles. So, she’s comfortable being surrounded by the kind of talented players who come together through USA Basketball. The dedication that she’s seen both as a player and coach with USA Basketball have helped reinforce her own basketball philosophy.
“Being involved with the coaching of USA Basketball is just an absolutely awesome experience,” she said. “To understand that the team is greater than every individual… The work ethic that you must have to be on that team. The character involved. Understanding that you’re going to have great players but you also need role players and for everybody to do their part. That’s probably what’s stuck with me the most.”
Klinger’s focus on work ethic, character and leadership has served her teams well, regardless of talent level.
“We have some great kids that work hard,” she said. “I’m sure some of them would love to represent the U.S. but the talent level is just not there. However, what they can give me in terms of their work ethic – just trying to get better for our own team to be successful. Trying to get them from point A to point B is probably the daily challenge. With USA Basketball, you didn’t have to worry about anybody putting pressure on you, because you had people who could just handle it... At my level, it’s about teaching them how to do that when the athleticism doesn’t match the skill. Trying to get them to be better is the daily challenge.”
In addition to being a coach, Klinger has been a proud basketball mom – her son, Mike, is a junior at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where he was feted last week for becoming the 18th player in school history to reach the 1,000-point plateau.
“There’s no greater joy than watching your child play and be successful,” she said. “I was very fortunate, because I was one of eight siblings and all of us played athletics. Our parents, when they got to the games, I appreciated them being there. My parents never screamed and yelled.”
Klinger’s best advice for parents of youth basketball players is something she learned from her own parents – and something she and her husband, who is also a coach, have always practiced.
“Being in a car after a game with the parents is usually the worst place for kids. We had a rule – we still have the rule to this day. When we get in the car, the first thing I say to my son is, ‘I love watching you play. Any day I can watch you is a great day for me.’ I don’t talk about the game, and our rule is if he wants to talk about it, we’ll talk about it, but he has to bring it up. That’s really kept our relationship as wonderful as it is. He still has a passion and a love for the game, because we don’t beat him up.
“I don’t think a lot of kids have that, and I think it’s so unfortunate. Growing up, how I grew up and my husband, too, we understand there’s a time and place. Once my son has calmed down and wants to talk about it – he knows that if he asks, he’s going to get the truth.”
Being honest, Klinger said, means not blaming others for their own child’s shortcomings. She has seen plenty of that. She has also seen too many parents push their kids too hard.
“If he wants to go and work out, he has to ask,” Klinger said of her son. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hey let’s go, we have to get to the gym. You haven’t done this, you haven’t done that.’ It’s not going to happen. We tell him, ‘You’re going to go as far as you want to go, but it has to come from you.’ I think that’s why he’s been pretty successful, because it’s based on what he wants to do, not any of us pushing.”
Klinger thinks her son might be interested in getting into coaching himself, a byproduct of his love for the game. That passion for basketball, she said, is something coaches must develop in their players to get the best out of them.
“Keep it positive,” she said. “I don’t think the kids today really respond to the negative – that hardcore yelling and screaming. Once the kids trust you they’re willing to do anything. I think being fair, doing what you say and saying what you do, is extremely important. The biggest thing is that they have to learn to trust you. And that comes with being consistent.”
Have a question for Coach Klinger? Submit your question in the Comments section below, or go to Facebook or Twitter now to submit your questions and she’ll answer them in a feature that will run on USAB.com. Be sure to use #AskCoachMary.