Helping Players Transition Into and Out of College: Dean Lockwood

Dean Lockwood, an assistant coach at Tennessee, is entering his 14th year on staff with the Lady Vols. Throughout his time at Tennessee, the Lady Vols have accumulated a record of 374-87 while capturing seven SEC Tournament crowns and five SEC regular season championships, appeared in three NCAA Final Fours and won back-to-back national championships. He has helped develop countless student-athletes into professional players, including five first-round picks in the WNBA draft. For this “Transitioning Into and Out of College Basketball” mini series, Lockwood shared many experiences from his perspective throughout 36 years of coaching that we are now excited to share with our readers!

Confidence: It’s Finding a Balance

For most first year players, the tempo and physicality of the game are the hardest adjustments to make within college basketball. Most incoming players simply haven’t been through consistently high-tempo practices, moving from drill to drill quickly, all while staying mentally sharp. Especially in a conference like the SEC, filled with a tremendous amount of athletes, newcomers may face more of an initial struggle. When the freshmen begin to hit that wall, Lockwood aims to help them understand the situation more clearly. “For them, the past 3-4 years of their athletic careers have been ‘relatively’ easily conquered. Now they’re faced with a bigger mountain in which they must start over as a small fish in a big pond. It tests their resolve, perseverance, and the players who have the grit and resilience will continue on to be successful.”

When adjusting to the college game, and college itself, freshmen might find themselves struggling with confidence early on. Lockwood states, “it’s a delicate balance between wanting to feed them confidence and then feeding them a false confidence.” He wants his players to know that they were recruited there and they didn’t just “land” there. At the same time, coaches must beware to not give out lofty compliments, making them feel that they have done something perfectly, when they simply are not there yet.

“When they attempt something with a really aggressive mindset, we praise that mindset.” – Dean Lockwood

Lockwood is a firm believer that early on, it’s the mindset and the approach of the student-athlete that needs to be focused on. If a player brings great energy, attempts a drill with an aggressive mentality, but still fails… praise that effort! Lockwood assures that this mindset will help them become victorious down the road.

Veterans Mentor Rookies

Tennessee is big on upperclassmen taking the reigns and mentoring the incoming freshmen. From the second they step on campus, freshmen are assigned an upperclassmen “big sister” who helps them get acclimated. They help them get their campus ID, show them where to get books, and provide them with tips for the best breakfast spots. In a basketball sense, the veterans are expected to take the lead on being assertive and communicative. “This does not exempt the freshmen from talking,” Lockwood reinforced, “but we want the veterans to take the lead, be connectors, monitor things.”

The staff makes sure to intentionally look for moments to allow veterans to lead. For example, they might pair a junior with two freshmen at a station during camp and explain that they expect the junior to show the rookies how to interact and how to teach. They might pair them up during community service, or explain to a senior “nobody is to leave for this activity until you make sure everyone has a ride.”

On the court, Lockwood explained how they put players in position to lead on the fly. “In the middle of a drill, we may pull one player aside, so she is the only one who hears, and say ‘okay, when the clock hits zero, we are doing five-star passing. You are responsible for getting the team into that drill quickly when the buzzer goes off!” When the clock hits 0, it’s her time to shine and the rest of the team’s success depends on her willingness and energy in getting them organized.

Know Your Resources

When it comes to helping your student-athletes transition into the college community as a whole, knowing your resources across campus is key. New departments, committees, and people are springing up all the time! Lockwood recommends reaching out and finding people who are able to best help your players. This might mean getting to know the staff in the center for student life, or listening to your players’ interests and then connecting them with mentors in that area. At Tennessee, Lockwood is thankful to have The Thornton Center, which plays a critical role in preparing students for life after college. The Student Athlete Development program helps connect athletes to community service, internships, on-campus organizations, part-time employment, and networking opportunities, to contribute to a “well-roundedness that will allow student-athletes to stand out as potential employees and/or graduate school applicants.”

By having a relationship with resources like the Thornton Center, Lockwood and the Tennessee staff are able to better serve their student-athletes. Especially in their junior and senior years, the staff makes sure they have working resumes and are meeting with an advisor within their major as well as a mentor. Mentors in their case are typically campus people, paired with help from The Thornton Center.

What It Takes to Turn Pro

The passion was evident in Lockwood’s voice when he spoke of helping student-athletes meet their aspirations through the game of basketball. Almost every player on his roster is asked, “What do you want from basketball? What do you want from this game? What aspirations do you have through the game? Those answers in turn help the staff and player work in partnership to create a plan towards those goals. “People will commit to something much more if they have helped create it,” assures Lockwood.

To become pro, Lockwood cites five key components:

  1. Phenomenal work habits: You can’t just go to practice. Pros do the unrequired work, making their skills razor sharp while honing in on their weaknesses as well. “Pro aspirations require pro work habits.” At Tennessee, there is no shortage of athletes to point to as prime examples of the work ethic needed to take the game to the next level.
  2. Conditioning: Athletes must learn how to take care of their bodies. To become pro, they must become educated in terms of diet, nutrition, and other areas of performance. When a player has pro aspirations, Lockwood and the staff are sure to provide the student-athlete with resources to help with particular areas of their development.
  3. Mental development: A professional player studies to better understand the game. Lockwood often points to Peyton Manning as a prime example of how he separated himself from others by devoting time to the mental aspect of the game.
  4. Be a competitor and thrive in adversity: In practice, the Tennessee caching staff will occasionally stack the deck against players. They might not get many, or any, calls, the practice squad might be extra aggressive and the player must not only deal with it, but also try to thrive in it. Lockwood explains “this is what it will feel like at times at that professional level. We want to show them how strong they need to be in order to withstand, endure, and still thrive in it.”
  5. Character: Although it is listed fifth, character is certainly not diminished in value. Character is a key piece to succeeding at the next level. “At some point in your career, someone is going to inquire about you. Every day you are building your portfolio as a player and as a person…this is going to follow you.”

Words to Remember:

“As coaches, we put our heart and soul into coaching to help people and programs be successful. But when you look back, it’s the relationships that make this thing so rewarding. Helping someone through the commitment that you take together, for the team and the individual is so special. It’s what bonds you with people and develops relationships that are so significant. Do we have to and want to win, yes, but there has to be an overriding purpose to what we’re doing. If we’re trying to serve people and love them, we must also hold them accountable and be tough on them at times. At the end of all of it, it’s the relationships that are formed in those processes of striving to succeed and failing and continuing to strive that makes this a magical profession.”

Follow Coach Lockwood on Twitter: @Coach_Lockwood

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