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Advice for Small-School Programs from a Championship Coach

The track record for the Malone (Fla.) High School basketball program speaks for itself.

Now entering his 14th year at Malone, veteran coach Steven Welch has led the Tigers to a state championship, two regional championships and six district championships. Though the school’s total enrollment is only about 500 students, Welch has found success. But as he and others know, there are challenges that come with coaching at a school with a small student population.

For Welch, the most difficult aspect of coaching at a small school involves personnel challenges.  

“We have to have a system in place and focus on development and retention for sure,” Welch said. “If we lose one kid for the season it really hurts. We have a small school, therefore a limited pool of athletes.”

As part of having a limited pool, Welch's roster often lacks a typical big man who can play in the post. That means his team tries to play fast offensively and be disruptive on defense. This system has worked in recent years for Malone, but it did take some time.

“My biggest mistake early on was worrying about winning too much instead of coaching and also finding an identity as a coach,” Welch said “Focus on improving players every day and let the results and the identity show themselves.”

For Welch, that improvement comes on and off the court. The coach focuses on improving players’ character and helping them become productive members in the community. He has seen how players’ lives have improved because of their time spent with the Tigers.

“I have had some great interactions through the years,” Welch said. “I had a guy tell me

I was the only reason he was not in prison, because I talked him into playing ball. He is now a small-business owner.”

This is a result of Welch’s commitment to building a strong relationship with each player, an effort that he said usually has great results. The players not only become better people but also want to play for something larger than themselves when they are on the court. They are playing for the community they are immersed in.

“I have read this somewhere, it takes trust, talent and time,” Welch said. “I really try to build the trust through investing in them individually, help them find their talents, and then just try and be consistent over time to help them see that I am on their side.”

And though Welch has garnered a reputation for winning at Malone, he focuses on teaching life lessons and providing an escape for players. In the end, that’s what matters most.

“Our motto is: Play hard, play smart, be together, have fun,” Welch said. “Life is tough. We want them to learn life skills here, but also have a little fun during this special time in their lives. We want to change lives through basketball and thankfully we have been able to.”

From GameChanger and Rolando Rosa

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coaching inspiration, coaching advice, Youth sports, coaches, high school sports, coaching tips, championship culture