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Review of a Championship Season – 8 Strategies for Leading a Successful Program

In 2004, Coach Ari Fisher led the most successful season his program had ever seen.

The season was like a scene set in a movie – “There was immense internal and external pressure to win the state title. We had the target on us – I felt as though the only things that could derail us would be injuries or me. Therefore, I had to find a strategy to help the kids reach their potential, and hopefully earn a championship in the process.

Over the course of eight months, he created the following guidelines for leading the program that crucial season. These strategies fit his personality and coaching style. As a coach, your coaching style may not align with these; however, feel free to modify them to fit what works best for you and your unique program:

  1. Be the best conditioned team. To avoid fatigue is to avoid mental errors. When athletes are tired, it’s a given they stop using proper body mechanics for running, cutting, sliding, diving, or jumping, tripling the chance of injury. 
  2. Know your team. A common theme in the coaching world is to “over coach for game slippage” – but for that season, I did not adhere to the maxim. The team had been together for eight years and knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The worst thing I could do was to lasso those kids to fit my “style”. Of course, I taught basic fundamentals, but I gave them the right to deviate and innovate in-game.
  3. Shorten practice, increase speed and intensity.  All fundamental drills were done full court. Practices were between 85-100 minutes depending on the level of execution and effort as a way to create a sense of urgency that would carry over to games.
  4. Know what is going on off the court. I kept notes on what was going on off the court with each player, using the information to solve any potential future issues before they could fully manifest themselves. In order to learn what would most effectively motivate them, I needed to learn more about them than their ball handling skills.
  5. Use disadvantage drills and different scoring systems. For example, one day we might have the starting five try to advance the ball against 14 or 15 kids without using the dribble. I needed to challenge their court decision-making process constantly. Plus, it kept their attention and enthusiasm during what could have been a mundane practice.
  6. Fresh legs, fresh minds. For the final two weeks of the regular season and playoffs, I allowed reserves plenty of playing time in games and made sure practices were no longer than an hour. Some days we would forego full court drills to specifically focus on special situations (overtime, clock management, etc.).  

How did Coach Fisher reach this level of coaching knowledge, expertise and strategy? It came from a long road of peaks, valleys and personal reflection:

My adult coaching career began in 1993 when I was named graduate assistant at LSU at age 22. My inability to teach with confidence, deal with losses and not demonstrating enough mental toughness resulted in my contract not being renewed.

Upon reflection of how I was ill prepared to work in a power conference, I wrote to Head Coach Brown thanking him for the opportunity to work on his staff, and also for eventually removing me from the staff. Without getting cut from the staff, I would not have grown as a coach and as a person, ultimately becoming a better version of myself.

I learned about adversity and motivation from Coach Brown, and vital coaching components from the other assistants (Bob Starkey and Johnny Jones). My primary duty as an assistant coach was advance scouting/game preparation. I watched video tape for every single opponent; the endless amount of video reviewed over five years became a primer for my coaching knowledge, as I was exposed to every scenario that could happen during a game. Additionally, Coach Starkey and Coach Jones pushed me to constantly improve my acumen by teaching and quizzing me about every nuance on how to coach effectively.

After a handful of seasons at the college level, I landed in the School of Kinesiology at LSU teaching undergraduate courses in addition to becoming the Head Coach at my high school alma mater – LSU Laboratory School. In my fifth year, we won the state title for the first time in 20 years; however, that high was short-lived. In the following season, we lost the state semifinal by a point directly related to how I handled the final 10 seconds of that game — a memory that haunts me to this day as a defining moment of my career.

That memory motivated Coach Fisher as he entered 2004, the challenging season mentioned above. Wondering how Coach’s Fisher’s strategies played out in that 2004 season?

Well, the team broke numerous school records and won every playoff game by more than 20 points. We went on to win the championship game by a state record 32 points. Two players went on to attend LSU and started in a Final Four, one player attended Air Force and became captain of the team, and one football player attended Stanford and played for Jim Harbaugh. 

The experience was beautiful, as for the only time in my career I delved as deep as I possibly could into all aspects of my job. What may have started out as guilt from the previous season, blossomed into the best season of my coaching career. I learned more about coaching in that season than in my other 25 years combined. 

What works for me might not work for you. But remember, coaching within your personality will allow your players to see you are genuine and allow you to have the best chance at a successful season.

Ari Fisher has taught Kinesiology at LSU for 22 years, and in 2014 was elevated to the rank of Senior Instructor. During his time on faculty, he has provided instruction for 17 different courses. Along with his faculty responsibilities, he served as Head Boys’ Basketball Coach and Associate Athletic Director at LSU Lab School from 1997-2008. He was selected as District Coach of the Year four times and State Coach of the Year in 2004. His 2004 team finished ranked #17 nationally, the first national ranking for any team in 100 years of athletics at LSU Lab School.

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