Ask the Coach: "How Do I Convince Myself I'm Good?"
A young hooper on a hot streak is feeling like an imposter. Good thing UNC's Courtney Banghart is ready with a quick assist.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
Growing up, I spent more time on the bench than I did on the court. Now I'm on my high school's varsity team, and after our forward got injured in our first game, I'm in the starting line-up. Not only that, halfway through the season, I'm also our leading scorer. Even though my coach and teammates are amped on my game, I'm not. I worry I haven't earned my spot. And every basket I make feels like added pressure, no matter how much we're up by. If we lose, I blame myself and sometimes spiral for days. I wish I could enjoy my streak, but all I can think about is how if I blow it, I might go back to warming the bench. How can I convince myself that I really am good and not just someone who got lucky?
Labelled Incorrectly Excellent
16-year-old basketball player
You might not be enjoying your emotions right about now, LIE. But as a coach with 20-plus years of experience dealing with players' emotions and my own, I'm here to tell you: Yours are valid—and valuable. They're proof that you're dedicated and driven.
You're an athlete, so you are going to lose. And you'll feel fear, anger and agony. But you'll also win, and then you'll feel joy, triumph and exhilaration. You can't know the "good" without the "bad".
I've been tough on myself too. In high school, I made the state tennis tournament. I remember missing a double fault in one match. I yelled at the sky and banged my racket on the ground.
I knew that wasn't the best way to channel my feelings, but in that moment, I truly could not help it. All that mattered was that point. Looking back, I'm so impressed with my parents, who were in the stands, for not calling me out. They understood that I was going all John McEnroe because I cared.
So feel your feels.
That said, when a particular emotion is constantly turned up to an 11, you might not have the headspace to soak in positive feedback. So let's look at some ways to balance things out.
It's possible you've been doing what I call "selective listening". And that isn't really listening at all. Someone says, "I love the way you run the floor. We just need to improve the way you shoot the three". And all you hear is, "I need to improve my three. So I'm terrible at shooting. So I'm a terrible player. So I'm a terrible person".
That escalated quickly! This kind of thinking is all too common even with top-tier athletes. One of my best players used to get so down on herself when she missed shots. One day, when she was fuming after a poor shooting game, I pulled her aside.
"What do you think you shoot from the field?" I asked.
"I really have no idea," she said.
"Well then", I said, "you don't get to be upset about missing! If you're going to give all that power to a stat, you better know the stat".
The truth was, that player had the highest percentage on the whole team. But she wasn't actually seeing the shots that went in. It's another version of selective listening.
"Coaches don't expect you to always win. We don't even expect you to always perform at your highest level. We just expect you to give it your all".
Stats don't lie. If you can open your eyes to yours, you might start to understand that this is the player you are now. Your coaches can objectively see how good you are—that's their job. And as they know what you're capable of, they're probably going to ask you to continue to grow towards a new ceiling.
I'm guessing you're thinking, "That's the thing! How am I supposed to live up to their expectations!?" Well, I'm not sure you understand what those expectations are. Coaches don't expect you to always win. We don't even expect you to always perform at your highest level. We just expect you to give it your all.
Any experienced coach knows that losing is part of the job. The reason you're so scared of it might be that you don't have enough "job experience" yet.
I once coached this Rhodes Scholar finalist—so a bit of an overachiever—who was overwhelmed by her fear of failure. She'd been successful in pretty much everything she'd done, so losing was a complete unknown to her. She was like a diver looking down into dark water, but she didn't know how deep it was, or how cold, or whether there were piranhas in there.
Your situation is a little different; success is still new to you. You're not used to being this high up, and you don't know how far you can fall. But the constant in both situations is still fear of the unknown. So I'm going to tell you what I told my Rhodes Scholar: Failing is totally fine. Take it from someone who's failed plenty of times. I'm still standing! In fact, I'm stronger for it.
That's only one of the reasons I think athletes are so courageous. I mean, failing in front of a crowd is part of your everyday life! You commit most of your time to something that might not go well. You keep showing up every day, even when you know that a lot of those days are going to be hard. That's courage.
Your teammates and coaches are on the same journey with you. And chances are, they carry a lot of the same fears around with them. So you're not alone out there, and you never will be. Keep that in mind the next time you're spiralling. You might just feel that anxiety start to fade away.
Courtney Banghart is the Head Women's Basketball Coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously Head Coach at Princeton, she was named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year and served as an assistant coach for the 2017 USA Basketball Women's U23 National Team. A leading player at Dartmouth, Banghart set the as-yet-unbroken Ivy League record for career three-pointers. She serves on the board of directors for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and on the NCAA Women's Basketball Oversight Committee.
Photography: Jayson Palacio