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Coaches Network: How Do You Approach The Postseason?

  • Date:
    Feb 12, 2019

With high school playoffs on the horizon, got to thinking about how coaches approach the postseason at all levels. Since all the members of USA Basketball’s Coaches Network have experienced postseason success, we posed this question to them:

What, if anything, do you do differently in the postseason? How can coaches help their players "take it to another level" in the playoffs?


Scott Fitch, head coach, Fairport High School (N.Y.)

The approach I take depends on how we are entering the postseason. I feel it is not a time to change your philosophy or style – it is too late for that. You know who you are at this point. We usually put in a couple wrinkles or counters to plays we have been running to keep teams off balance, but the biggest focus for me is the mental preparation. Understanding the urgency of the moment but being able to play free and not feel the pressure.

We are careful with our verbiage – using phrases like, “This is fun” and “This is why we have worked so hard, to be in moments like this.” We want our kids to embrace the opportunity, not be overwhelmed by it.  We try to not be stagnant at any point during the season – constantly evolving with our team and individuals so we keep improving. This is what allows you to peak at the right time. 

One year we were struggling entering the postseason. We had five practices before our first game. I decided to run the first two days of practice like tryouts – highly intense and highly competitive. They understood they were competing for playing time all over again. It allowed us to enter the postseason with a fresh attitude and a toughness we had been lacking. It was a way to really treat it like a new season.

The postseason is the best time of year. I believe the best teams have been prepping for it from the first day of tryouts.


Dori Oldaker, head coach, Mt. Lebanon High School (Pa.)

We make a huge deal out of making the playoffs! Our coaching staff gets extremely fired up for the playoffs. We stress to our team that “making the playoffs” is not a given, so we treat the playoffs quite differently than the regular season. At the beginning of the first practice for the playoffs, I tend to use my terrible singing voice by singing the tune “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” This seems to get the players excited and lightens the mood for the playoff stretch. Then we get down to an intense practice where we try to take it to the next level.


As a staff, we stress to our players that we only focus on the next opponent. We never take a team lightly or look past our opponent. My assistant coach puts the playoff bracket on each player’s locker with only one game on the bracket -- our game versus our opponent. We believe in the old cliché “one game at a time.”


During the playoffs, our practice times will shorten, but our intensity level will rise. To the best of our ability, as a coaching staff, we try to simulate what the game atmosphere will be like on game day. We prepare our players by watching our opponent’s film and breaking down each opponent’s player with our team. As a team, we discuss our team and individual strategies. After our team film study, we will take this knowledge to our practice and fine-tune our master plan.


As a coaching staff, we preach to our players that stars show up on game day but superstars show up every day in practice, so that on the biggest stage, that superstar or superstars will shine the brightest because they have prepared themselves every day in practice!


Brian Robinson, head coach, Bishop McGuinness High School (N.C.)

Approaching the playoffs starts at the beginning of the season. By developing a consistent and competitive environment in your practices early on and continuing that same approach throughout the season regardless of results in games, your team is developing a certain mindset on how to approach situations.

Adversity and success are going to happen during the year and when you have a routine in place, your team will not get too low or too high as there is a bigger goal ahead. Once the playoffs come around, stick with the routine, and emphasize to your team that this is what they have been working on since day one of practice. When the games get tough, they already know how to handle themselves under pressure because the practices each day leading up to the postseason have prepared them for the moment. This allows them to focus on solely raising their intensity level because their in-game routine and muscle memory are already in place.


John Olive, head coach, Torrey Pines High School (Calif.)

I focus on quick practices, keeping the players physically and mentally rested. We do a lot of shooting and film work of our games as well.


Sue Phillips, head coach, Archbishop Mitty High School (Calif.)

It is our goal and objective to be playing our best basketball in March. In 23 years of coaching high school basketball, 11 times our teams have played for a California state championship. Every year, we prepare and plan to play on the last Saturday in March. It is a misconception that a coach can flip a switch in March, and – presto -- you have a championship-caliber team. It takes months of preparation, whereby winning a championship is a byproduct of several factors.

Some of those factors are a team’s work ethic, standards of accountability, efficiency, team chemistry, and ability to adjust.

You must be willing to lose games in December or January to reinforce your value system and standard of play. This is crucial to building a championship team. Accountability in December creates efficiency in March.

We work to develop a balanced offensive attack whereby our team is not held hostage by the productivity of a particular scheme or riding the wave of a “star-centered system.” We believe that a balanced offensive attack increases our chances of playing deep into the tournament. Sharing the basketball maximized our options, fostered team morale, and highlighted the strengths of as many players on our roster as possible. (Note: defense that created offense was also a part of our balanced offensive attack).

That being said, should your team have the talent and body of work to compete in the state tournament, you might consider the following suggestions to peak in the playoffs: visual imagery, executing the scouting report, less is more, work smarter not harder, and strive to empower/foster confidence.  The state tournament is the time to reap, not sow.


Don Showalter, former head coach, Iowa City High School (Iowa) and USA Basketball Men's Junior National Team head coach

The main thing to do for players going into the playoffs is to keep them fresh both physically and mentally after a long season.

If there is a significant break between the last game and the playoffs, I always think it's advantageous to put in one new set of out of bounds plays or sets to keep their attention. Practices are definitely cut shorter -- maybe to an hour or less with very little five-on-five competition. This is also a good time to put in more film work and attention to details.

I think it is still important to work on fundamentals and skills at the end of the season just like you would at the beginning of the season.

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