Game Change Nation

A Coach’s Guide to Creating Courageous Players

It is practically impossible to develop elite players without the courage to be vulnerable. In the GameChange podcast, Thru the Tunnel, USC women’s basketball head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb says, “I think emotionally if you’re not willing to show up as your whole self to be vulnerable at times, particularly as a coach, you’re just never going to reach the level of achievement that you need to.”

A team filled with courageous players is a coach’s dream. Although many coaches might likely believe that having this type of squad is just the luck of the draw, players’ courage is actually something they can cultivate. Gottlieb explains how she does it. “You have to create a relationship in which it’s safe to be striving to be better.” She adds, “We play a game and then I break down the film and I teach them with it the next day. I want that to be a really positive experience. I’ve had players literally tell me it’s traumatizing with the coach…so I’m conscious of not having any teaching moment be punitive in that way, or negative.”

The need to create a positive experience for players is what first drove Gottlieb to become a coach. As she was exiting Brown University, where she played college basketball, she noticed that half her college athlete peers loved the experience and the other half were miserable. The common denominator was the type of relationship that players had with their coach.

Gottlieb vowed to be a positive coach. It has served her well. In her first head coaching season at UC Santa Barbara, she led the Gauchos to a 15-1 conference record, capturing the Big West title and qualifying for the NCAA tournament. She later moved on to become the head coach at Cal where she guided the Golden Bears to their first NCAA Final Four appearance in school history.

Gottlieb is the first NCAA women’s head coach to be hired as an NBA coach. Gottlieb joined the Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant in 2019. She acknowledges being terrified when she got the job. “I was scared as heck,” She tells the story of coaching at an NBA camp before the Cavs season began when self-doubt began to creep in. “I remember in the first three or four minutes when I stepped onto the court and these guys are warming up that first three minutes, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not going to be able to do this. This isn’t for me.’ I was nervous.” She recalls what got her through it. “I leaned into it a little bit, and I got to write on the board, and coach guys, and it was basketball, and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I love doing.’”

It is precisely Gottlieb’s ability to acknowledge her own vulnerability that gives her players the courage to do the same. She is very well aware of this, especially in the film room when players’ mistakes on the court are exposed for the entire team to see and so she holds herself to the same standard of accountability. Gottlieb explains, “Sometimes when I break down the film, I’m more than willing to say to them, ‘Guys, I’m watching the film. I messed this up.’”

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