Building Team Chemistry

On a warm evening last August, the USD men’s basketball squad sat quietly in a large room, not quite sure of what to expect next. Some sat stoically with arms folded, intently waiting for instruction. Others whispered and laughed nervously in the uncomfortable silence. Head Coach Lamont Smith smiles broadly when recalling the memory, knowing that the seeds of a culture-changing shift in team identity were being sown right before his eyes.

“We wanted to start this season off with an exercise that challenged our guys to really look deeply within themselves,” Smith says. “We sat in a big room in a big circle, everyone looking at everyone else. No one separate, all equal. Then, we each told the story of how we got here to USD, and the challenges we faced along the way.”

Smith and the coaching staff went first, each revealing how their respective paths to Alcala Park were laden with episodes of adversity, struggle and perseverance. The goal was to be open. To be honest. To be vulnerable. Heady stuff to be sure, but the truths shared that night formed the foundation of a team connected by something much deeper than a mutual love for the game.

“It was a tremendous experience for everyone,” Smith says. “They probably didn’t realize it at the time — maybe I didn’t either — but a lot changed after that night. Guys looked at each other differently. Guys looked at me and the coaches differently. Connections were made that extended beyond the court, and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Smith noticed a palpable difference in how the team performed in practice. During his first two years at the helm of USD basketball, Smith had trouble getting his players to communicate on the court, resulting in missed assignments, easy baskets for the other team, and growing frustrations. The effort was good, but the results weren’t. It was obvious something needed fixing, and fast.

“Our guys have talent. Our guys have desire and they enjoy playing the game,” Smith says. “But we needed some mental toughness. That toughness that allows you to grind through the tough times in a game when things aren’t going the way you want them to. To stop pointing fingers, and start doing your job consistently enough where your teammates trust you.”

This year’s early practices were a revelation: Players were actually talking. Constantly. Starters had their arms around bench players walking them through plays and court positioning. Veterans were working with first-year youngsters on shooting technique. Something just felt different — or in this particular case, sounded different — and all the chatter was music to Smith’s ears.

“From day one, guys were holding each other accountable. Practices were much more intense than they’d been before. Lots more trash-talking, but in a good way. You could tell these guys wanted to challenge each other, to make each other better. That doesn’t happen with teams who don’t connect.”

One of the most important components of Smith’s plan was making sure players kept those connections steadfast after they’d left the gym. To do that, he wanted to provide them with perspective; expose them to real-world experiences to help them truly appreciate their present positions as student-athletes.

All that took was a 21-mile bus ride to the Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway, Calif., home of the Poway Youth Basketball League’s Challenged Division. That’s where Smith and the USD squad spent a memorable and impactful evening in the company of some of the most inspirational athletes around. Comprised of almost 100 individuals, the challenged division group has issues that range from autism, Down Syndrome and Williams Syndrome to delayed development and non-verbal communication.

While the partnership is now in its eighth year, Smith was pleased to see how quickly this team responded to the challenged athletes, and embraced the experience. “We’ve done this for a few years now as a program, but this particular group jumped right in and got really involved, and the Poway group absolutely loved it. They see through their challenges, they see the kind of hearts they have, the kindness they show, and the guys really respond to it.”

Connection and communication are buzzwords for just about every team sports program out there, but not every squad takes those words to heart, on-and-off the court. These Toreros have already surpassed their season win total from last year, and while the schedule ahead is formidable, Smith knows they’ve got the right stuff to succeed.

“The level of improvement these guys have shown, and continue to show, is impressive and exciting, and a lot of that has to do with their belief and trust in each other.”

— Mike Sauer

Video provided by USD Athletics