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Talkin' with Trav: The difference between a good coach and a great one

By Travis Hansen

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 9:53 a.m. MST

Duda Ivkovic coached Travis Hansen during Hansen's professional career. Ivkovic, a legendary coach, made an immediate impression on Hansen and got Hansen to play great for him.

Travis Hansen

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These last few months have been one of the most rewarding times of my life.

My record to date is 1-6. Yes folks, that’s right, one win and six losses.

I am not playing for a team. I am coaching a team. Great record? No. But I am having fun. The biggest reward is watching the kids improve each practice and every game. From ball handling, passing, shooting and learning the fundamentals each child is improving. And that in itself is so exciting.

I wanted to coach my son, Ryder’s, third-grade team and give him and his teammates a head start learning the fundamentals of basketball. Our competition is fourth-graders due to the absence of a third-grade league. We have lost almost every game but I have seen tremendous improvement that comes from hard work and practice.

Recently, we lost by 30 points to a team from Mapleton. As my wife and I drove home to Orem we spoke about the game. We exchanged thoughts and ideas to improve my coaching and our team's play. I expressed my feelings about how upset I felt. With the determination I had I could have stayed up all night watching film and preparing a game plan that would help us improve.

A little crazy I know, because it is only third-grade basketball. But I hate losing. I hate it even more than I like winning.

That night as I laid in bed trying to fall asleep the question, “What is the difference between a good coach and great coach?” kept entering my mind. I began to reminisce about the coaches I have had in my life.

I have had many good coaches and a few great coaches throughout the 22 years I played organized basketball. I have played for a high school team that went 22-3, college teams that had great success and won conference championships, several European teams that have won cups and titles and even an NBA team that couldn’t make it to the playoffs.

In 2006, I signed with Dynamo Moscow in Russia. I played for a legendary coach named Duda Ivkovic. He was an old, wise man who had won many European championships. He was quiet, strong and looked like someone that could lead an army to battle. He was a natural leader.

I still remember the first words out of his mouth and more importantly the way he made me feel when he said them. He slowly walked up to me, put both hands on my face and told me, “I am so happy you signed with us. I love watching you play, you remind me of Drazen Petrovic." In that moment I felt important, that I had a big role to play and that he needed me. I felt instant loyalty and respect for the man and knew that I couldn’t let him down.

He gave off so much positive energy and got you to believe in yourself and think that you were better than you were. After winning the Eurocup, he hugged me, kissed me on my cheek and whispered, “I am happy because I believed you would win this old man a lot of games.” His kindness didn’t stop on the court but extended to travel from bus to planes, to his home for dinner and to every film session we ever had. He was a great coach and an even better person.

In 2008, I tore my Achilles tendon. I was playing a game against our arch-rival CSKA in Moscow, for whom former Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko is currently playing. During the second quarter I was guarding former Duke star Trajan Langdon, when I jumped up to contest a shot and felt like someone had kicked me in the right calf. I fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes and knew it was bad.

After a trip to the hospital and an ultrasound I found out that I tore my Achilles tendon. I immediately flew back to Utah and had surgery. I began the rehab process and thanks to my physical therapist, Brett Mortensen, I was able to come back in less than six months.

While I was home in Utah recovering from my Achilles injury, I got word that Duda had retired and Dynamo had signed another famous coach named Pesic. He went by one name because he is the kind of guy that only needs one name. He was also a legendary coach, but unlike Duda he was legendary for being tough, hard-nosed and for demanding perfection from his players.

The first day I met him he walked up to me at our first practice in Dynamo’s gym and said, “You should fire your doctors and coaches in Utah because your face is fat and you look out of shape.” I instantly thought this guy was a piece of work. That was not the greeting I expected after recovering in record time from a serious injury.

Pesic gave off negative energy, was always tense, was demeaning to the players and other coaches, and wasn’t the kind of guy you would invite over for dinner.

All coaches are different. Some are good and a few are great. Pesic was good, Duda was great.

So what is the difference between good coaches and great coaches?

A great coach looks at you and sees not your failings, liabilities, weaknesses but rather what you were born to be and what you are capable of achieving. Great coaches are people who have cultivated that posture of believing in and seeing the best in others — because when someone believes in us, we find ourselves doing things even we didn’t believe we could.

Coaching is the art of drawing things out of people; and it’s hard to draw out of others if you haven’t dug your own well and learned to draw deeply from it.

Great coaches are people who help others live life at a higher level.

Former NFL coach Tom Landry once said, “A great coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”

I have been fortunate to play for some good coaches and a few great ones.

My high school coach Rob Cuff, a phenomenal coach, said, “A great coach is able to distinguish important from unimportant issues, they respond using less rational thought and more instinct and intuition, and finally, they feel a strong responsibility for the successes and failures of their players.”

The difference between a good coach and a great coach can be delicately complex.

A screamer and yeller can be a good coach, or the worst kind in the world. Ego is a two-edged sword.

Great coaches know that players have to trust that the coaches care about them, their career, their families, and their life.

BYU basketball coach Dave Rose is a great coach. He has all the characteristics and intangibles of someone who can make you believe in yourself.

Last week I asked coach Rose, while we sat in his office in the Marriott Center, "What makes a great coach?"

He responded, “The involvement of your players in your life. Do your players just help you win and lose games? Or are your players people that you are 100 percent invested in? Great coaches really believe and care about seeing improvement in their players on the court, in the classroom, and in life. Great coaches really care about their players and the players know it.”

Rose continued, “I believe it is my job as a coach to get every player to believe that they think they are better than they think they are. They deserve that their coach believes in them and then the player has to live up to it and respond.”

Many coaches believe being the best of the best means having the best sports science, the most equipment, the best facilities and the most talented staff.

Others believe it is simply a matter of good luck, good timing and being able to buy the best athletes.

For the great ones, coaching is who they are — not what they do. It is their personality, their character, their ambition, their drive, their passion, their values and their soul. It is the air they breathe and it is every beat of their heart.

For a good coach, the task is a job, for a great coach, it is their life.

Coaching. Is it any different for a parent or a teacher?

The blueprint is the same, so is the treasure you try to mine.

Travis Hansen is a former BYU, NBA (Atlanta Hawks) and Euroleague basketball player. He co-founded the Little Heroes Foundation and is married with three children.

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