Coaches Corner: Mike Thibault
Mike Thibault has been the head coach and general manager of the Washington Mystics since December 2012, and he is the winningest coach in WNBA history. He led the Mystics to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and to a WNBA championship in 2019.
Thibault was an assistant coach for the gold-medal-winning USA Basketball Women’s National Team at the 2008 Olympic Games and 2007 FIBA Americas Championship and the bronze-medal-winning 2006 FIBA World Cup. He also coached two USA Basketball men’s teams, including the gold-medal winning 1993 FIBA World Cup Qualifying Team and silver medalist U.S. team at the 1995 Pan American Games.
He was named the WNBA Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2008 when he was head coach of the Connecticut Sun, and he earned the honor again in 2013 as the Mystics head coach.
He has a long history working in basketball, including as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1978-1980 and as a director of player personnel and assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls from 1982-1986. He was the head coach and general manager of the Omaha Racers of the Continental Basketball Association and won a CBA title in 1993. Prior to joining the Connecticut Sun in 2003, he also coached the Calgary 88’s of the World Basketball League, was a scout for the Seattle SuperSonics and an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks for four seasons.
How are you preparing for this upcoming season?
The first thing I'm doing is keeping an open mind about everything. We learned so much last year – that you have to be flexible, and you have to be able to make adjustments on the fly as to how you go about things. And, we've probably learned how to do our offseason a little bit better. Right now, we have players overseas, and we have players in the States. We have done so many Zoom calls with them now that we are starting to gear up, with our strength coach and our trainer, trying to prepare by doing weekly Zoom fitness workouts with our players. We know we need to do that, because we don't know what training camp is going to look like. We hope it's normal, but we need to make sure that our players are prepared. We have always done a lot of film work with players, but we're doing more of that in advance right now. So that when they come, whenever we start, there's maybe a little more preparation.
I don't know what the season will look like as far as travel and those things, but we’re already figuring out and trying to learn from the NBA, what they're going through about meal planning, and what travel looks like and what kind of restrictions and protocols are going to be, so that we are prepared for it. There are a lot of unknowns. We're lucky in the WNBA to kind of watch what's going on in the NBA and the NHL, to see if we can learn from anything they encounter, or problems they have, mistakes they make, or things they do right that would help us.
When you first started, what made you want to be a coach?
That's a great question. I was a mediocre player. I got hurt my senior year of high school and was going to miss most of the season. I was kind of moping around, and the varsity coach at my high school asked me if I wanted to help coach one of the freshman teams. He was probably tired of me moping around. And so I did that, and I enjoyed it. But I went to college thinking I wasn't going to do that – I was going to be a professional musician, and basketball was just going to kind of be something on the side. And about two years in, I got asked to coach at another high school, and I kind of fell in love with it and switched majors to be an English major and be a high school coach. When I was younger, I was going to be happy to just do high school coaching and teaching, and the rest of it just kind of came – the college stuff, the WNBA, all that kind of came from just doing my homework and being in the right place when the opportunity presented itself. But, I didn't start out thinking coaching was going to be my career. I kind of just fell in love with helping out and doing it.
In your experience, what's the most critical thing or factors when you're developing relationships with athletes?
I think it goes not just to the relationship with them but how you approach the whole team – I think you have to be honest with them. Sometimes the truth is hard to take, but I think players also don’t want to be BS’d, so to speak. I think the players want you to, at the end of the day, to be honest with them. I think that's one of the first things. If you do that and they see that you stay true to that and things kind of work out along that way, then trust starts getting built up. They know coach is always giving them the straight truth. They may not want to hear it all the time, but it's not sugar coated in the sense that it's fake. It's real.
The second thing is you have to develop your own personality as a coach. I tell young coaches that you can't try to be somebody else. It's just unauthentic. You have to be who you are, and it takes some time sometimes to figure out who you are. Some of it is trial and error, but you have to fit your own personality into what you do. That's an important thing.
And I think the third thing is, you’ve got to listen to your players. A lot of coaches like to talk to players, talk down to players. We try, and I've tried most of my career, to try to incorporate particularly the leaders of my team, the older players, or the ones that have been there, into the decision-making process. I think that's how you build trust also, is that they have a vested interest. They know you're allowing them to be part of the process. At the pro level, sometimes that's just as simple as a travel situation, or practice times, or going to my core group of leaders and saying, ‘Hey, we look tired. What can we do to change it up?’ Those kinds of things. I think that's important to your players.
Is there a lesson for you, as a coach, that's been most important?
Along with being who you are and being honest with your players, you have to be able to refresh yourself and renew yourself. You can't be in the same rut every day. You have to do things that energize yourself, and your team and your staff. Do something new. A lot of coaches have a hard time getting away from the game, and I think you have to give yourself time away from the game, too. You can't let it envelop your whole life. Take time, whether it's for your family, or for exercise, or for some other hobby, whatever it is, to take the stress part out of it.
One of the rules we kind of have, it's not a formula, but we try to do it, is you have to have something you can laugh about every day. If there's not fun or humor in it, then it's not worth doing. That's made it easier for me to coach as long as I have, because I love being around young people. They keep me young. I allow my staff to have a lot of input, which I think takes the stress off sometimes. And then, we just try to do things that are kind of updated, change it up. It could be as simple as changing the practice routine. We've come in some days and just played volleyball for 20 minutes to start practice. Or kickball, or something else, just to let the competitive part come out of players, but it also gives you something different. Basketball is a game we play. We're lucky enough to coach and play a kid’s game. It should still stay that way, even though it's a business for us. There's a reason we all started in the game in the first place – just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I think that that gets easily lost sometimes.