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Leadership Minutes


Please click here to read an excerpt published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 10, 2020.


'What's your why?'

I was inspired by the recent five-part series by Richmond-Times Dispatch writer Wayne Epps. Mr. Epps interviewed five seniors at VCU, leading up to their Senior Day. Each player was asked, "what's your why?" The articles reflected their athletic career and journey to this point. (Each of these five articles can be found in the Sports section of, February 27 through March 2, 2020.)


I asked myself the "why" question too - why do I coach basketball? First some background. I'm an assistant coach for the Junior Varsity (JV) boys' team at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico, VA. Our record for the past three years is 41-14. The JV boys' team is composed of freshmen and sophomores, ranging from ages 15-17 years old. The team is fourth in line for gym space behind Varsity Girls, Varsity Boys, and JV Girls. That means our JV practice time is often from 6:15–8 am. Yes, 6:15 am for high school guys! 


When I think of the main reason why I coach, it comes down to the personal experiences that I had with coaches growing up. I had some excellent coaches who loved the sport and loved our team. Their work ethic and passion led me to emulate their coaching philosophies. More importantly, these coaches planted the seeds of what growing into an adult looks like, freely sharing life lessons along the way. Some of those life lessons I still carry with me today—like handling adversity, dealing with disappointments, demonstrating humility and gratitude independent of the outcome, understanding one's role on a team, and serving one another.  These lessons have long since taken root in my daily life and have guided me well, both personally and professionally. These life lessons are my "why" as I seek to pass down to others what has been given to me. 


In the basketball world, as in life, I’ve had some tough coaches—coaches that managed to squeeze the joy out of every practice and game. Shame and humiliation were used as a tactic to motivate. (Which I have found never works, by the way!) If someone didn't make the team, cuts were made with little compassion. After my experiences with these difficult coaches, I made a promise that I would never be like them. 


But the catalyst for my "why" has nothing to do with the arduous coaches and everything to do with those GREAT coaches: the childhood heroes, those who truly cared and were genuinely inspiring, the ones who instilled those invaluable lessons that I still carry with me each day. They are the reason behind my "why."


Here are a few of the life lessons to be gained from the basketball court.


 There is a price to pay for any life achievement, big or small. Whether mentally, emotionally, physically, or a combination of it all, everything meaningful in life takes time. The season is short, less than four months long, but incredibly intense. We have practices or games six days a week, lasting a few hours each day. When the alarm blasts at zero-dark-early, who hasn't had the thought to skip just this one? Our players have to turn down social invitations, not to mention the ability to sleep past 6 am, all due to their commitment to the team. I, too, willingly invest my own time to coach and mentor these boys. But the fulfillment I receive from giving back to my players is worth it.  


To demonstrate humility and gratitude requires a focus on healthy relationships. No one can achieve success in a silo. The team dynamic requires buy-in from everyone involved. Creating strong relationships between the coaches, teammates, parents, and school administration is paramount to success. Our head coach, Luchel Sylvain, is instrumental in setting an incredibly positive tone for the team. He reminds me of the excellent coaches I had growing up. The guys are fortunate to have him, and boy do they love playing for him. The parents respect him. I love coaching with him. Although I have the privilege of coaching, I have also been shaped in extraordinarily beautiful ways by our coaching staff, teammates, and parents. 


Anything transformational comes with focus and intentionality. Just before practice starts, we have a window for the coaching staff to share what's on their mind and heart. Yes, basketball tactics and techniques are part of the chatter, but often our talks lead to our "getting better every day" mindset. We remind them of one's responsibility to get better, to take pride in their work, to encourage their teammates, to represent their team and school in positive ways, and to look after each other.  Coach Tony Bennet's Five Pillars (humility, passion, unity, thankfulness, and servanthood) have been paramount in laying the foundations of our success. We also pull from the philosophies in Coach John Wooden's book "Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life." This time spent together listening to each other is my favorite time of practice.


Attention to core fundamentals is vital in achieving success. With a strong foundation, you can quickly build and improve. Each player must know core fundamentals, and with repetition, each skill becomes part of one's muscle memory. For example, we practice fundamentals like playing great defense, boxing-out, shooting, passing, bringing emotional energy, playing hard, and executing. Without core fundamentals, you can't improve. There aren't any shortcuts. After a tough loss or a mediocre practice, we always return to these fundamentals.   


I am constantly reminded of how many life lessons can be drawn from coaching basketball. When things aren't going our way, whether in life or sports, each of us should reflect on our own fundamentals. Especially today, during this COVID-19 pandemic, I'm reminded to return to life's core fundamentals: handling adversity, showing empathy, love and compassion for others, and being grateful.

What is your why?


Tom Barila

More about Tom's one on one coaching