Rivalry Games

How do you handle rivalry games?

Rivalry Games- Coach Hal Wilson

When I was a young coach I was too focused on the X’s and O’s thinking that my players would automatically be fired up and ready to go for rivalry games. In fact, early in my career I worried that they might be too fired up for a rivalry game and would waste all of their energy early or lose focus. Sadly, my experience, and that of the countless coaches who share their stories with me, is that getting players fired up- even for a rivalry game- is a major challenge in today’s coaching!

Like most, I’ve been firmly on both sides of rivalry results with both long losing streaks and long winning streaks. Here are a few stories:

  • One team I was an assistant coach on went 23-5 for the season, but 3 of our losses were to our arch-rival, who went on to win the state championship.
  • At another school our win over our arch-rival was our school’s first varsity win over them in any sport ever. They commemorated the game with a custom painted ball in the school trophy case.

 Four Rivalry Game Tips:

  • 1. Talk about it early.

Don’t be afraid to bring up your rival- but focus on the process to get to them, not the end result! I put beating our arch rival on my list of goals when I went in for job interviews- that usually went over very well! Do not wait until the week of the game or the day before the game to address playing your rival- try to establish a culture that values the present. My college coach/mentor, Jerry Wainwright always said, “This is the most important game of the year, because it’s the next one. It’s all we have.” Our focus was on controlling our own excellence, not focusing on our opponents- no matter who they were.

  • 2. Routines matter.

Most coaches know the value of a free throw line routine for consistent performance. Without being a slave to routine, try to keep things as normal as possible. If you obsess over your routine it can backfire when there is a change to it- be flexible and model the calm, cool, collected, and confident demeanor you want from your players.

  • 3. Use special jerseys, etc. with caution.

After a year where my team was not up for a rivalry game I decided to pull out all the stops- I ordered special jerseys that we would unveil at our rivalry game. Here’s how special they were- our school split off from our rival and in an attempt to show unity my school’s third color was their main color (blue). So I ordered blue jerseys (our third color and their main color) that we would unveil in their gym. not only that, but we made sure to wear the full warmups so it was a total surprise until right before tip-off. To make a long story shorter- the jerseys scored no points for us and we lost. In retrospect I think the different jerseys were more of a distraction than a help.

  •  4. Keep your perspective.

I was very lucky to attend the Army-Navy football game a few years ago and was moved by the experience. I told my players about how at Army they have Beat Navy stamped on their plates in the weight room and vice versa and about how intense the rivalry was (even in student made films shown on the jumbo tron during breaks), yet how there was a sense of respect for the opponent. As an assistant football coach at a school with two high schools in the county, they had a banquet for both teams the week of the rivalry game to emphasize the unity in the county (despite the fierce competition that drew c.10,000 fans in a rural county). I was able to pull off a similar lunch with our rival in basketball once and wish I had done it more.


Here is a link to an article that was written about one rivalry game from my career (of course I chose one where we won) but you can see in the quotes how I had to challenge our team at halftime.

Let me know if you’d like to share your thoughts via hal@coachingbasketballwisely.com or @coachhalwilson on Twitter.

Until next time, Coach ’em up!

Hal Wilson

About the author: After coaching and working with basketball teams at the college, high school, and youth level in a variety of roles for 18 years, I have returned to finish my Ph.D. in Kinesiology & Sport Studies.  This www.CoachingBasketballWisely.com website is a way to share the coaching tips, strategies, and techniques gathered in a career in coaching.  See more info on me here.

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