Georgios Bartzokas, Khimki: ‘Keep your head down and stay humble’


In his sixth season as a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague head coach, Georgios Bartzokas won the continental title once, with Olympiacos Piraeus in 2013, and brought a newcomer, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, to the Final Four three years later. Now he is trying to lead Khimki Moscow Region to a first-time playoffs appearance. But Bartzokas has also had his disappointments along the way, and in the latest Coaches Corner, he talks about dealing with the inevitability of losing games.

One difficult aspect of sport which nobody can avoid, however good they are, is losing.

Losing can drive you crazy. Defeats are very painful, especially for a coach. When you are a player, sometimes when you lose you might have played well personally and so you still have something to be positive about. But for a coach, a defeat can be like a funeral. For a while after the game you can’t talk to anyone, and you can become unbearable to the people around you.

But then something important happens: you move on. You have to move on because there is always the next game, so you don’t have time to sit around crying. In fact, one important thing about losses is that they are very motivational – because you want to avoid that feeling of defeat. You don’t want to have that feeling ever again, even though you know you are going to have it sooner or later. And when that feeling comes you just have to accept it, because it will come.

This is a very difficult part of sport, and in the modern world is getting harder because it seems to be impossible for a lot of people to accept that you can lose a game – fans, the media, team owners – all can struggle to accept losing. It’s win or nothing. This has always been the case, but right now, with the amount of publicity given to the game and the chance for people to share their opinions on social media, it’s getting worse, with players and coaches facing even more pressure all the time.

For example, I had a bad experience last year in Barcelona. We had a lot of ambitions and expectations, as they always are at a club like that, but we had some problems and some bad luck, and I don’t want to hide from the truth: it was a very difficult season for me and a difficult situation to handle.

When you are in a tough situation like that, you are alone. You have to think a lot, and if you’re a positive person you can use this process to get better and be more ready for your next challenge. This is how I try to face it. I have to accept and admit that Barcelona was a very difficult season for me, but fortunately I am still in basketball and I have another chance. For a coach sometimes one bad year can destroy everything, but I still have a chance to work at the highest level with Khimki and I am so happy for this opportunity.

Really, this is a lesson for life – not only sport. I have a young daughter and I try to teach her in the same way: losing is a part of life, in everything. But you can use defeat in a positive way because next time you know what mistakes you made and how you can improve. By losing, you can get better. If you want to be a winner, first you have to know how to lose.

For a coach, it’s always very important to see how a team reacts when they lose a game. It’s the coach’s responsibility to make the team think in the right way, to have the right mentality. No matter whether you are winning or losing, you have to keep your head down and stay humble. You can’t start walking around with your nose up in the air just because you won a couple of games. Even if you win something important like a EuroLeague title, sport is a daily process and it is always testing you. Of course, it’s very important how you act during the game, but it’s just as important how you act afterward. You have to give your best at all times, not only during the game but also during the preparation.

Some players react better to losses than others. Of the players I have worked with, an obvious example of someone who uses defeats in the right way is Vassilis Spanoulis, who is so focused on basketball. When you concentrate on the game like that, you can understand what you need to do to become a winner.

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of players with this attitude. Other examples are Kyle Hines and Acie Law at Olympiacos, when we won the EuroLeague in 2013. Also Malcolm Delaney and Chris Singleton at Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, Juan Carlos Navarro at Barcelona, and there are others here at Khimki. But it’s not always the players who are the “big names”. There are many players who are successful in basketball because they know what they need to do to become a winner.

People often think that young and inexperienced players are the most vulnerable to psychological damage from defeats, but I believe it’s sometimes easier for young players because they don’t have the same levels of responsibility. I remember when I was a young player myself – it was just a game. Then, when you get older, you have more responsibilities both within the team and outside the court. More is expected from you, and you start thinking about your next contract, your family’s life. For a young player, it’s easy: you just go out, play, enjoy the game, fight hard, and that’s it. But when you get older, it can become a lot more difficult.

A little earlier I mentioned social media, and this can be a big problem for players nowadays. Anyone can write anything they want, often without really knowing the truth about a situation, so you are facing big criticism every day. As a player, you need to reject this and focus on your job. This is a big part of sports now. I try to tell players to ignore social media, but it’s difficult to do that in the modern world where everybody is on their mobile phone all the time. Players also have their own environments – families, agents, friends – and it’s not easy for coaches to influence a player’s personal life too much. But I do try to tell players not to pay attention to what people write on social media – either good things or bad things – because that can stop you from focusing on what you need to do.

As a coach, you always have to support your players all the time, because all of them – even the toughest – sometimes need help to handle the pressure they face and the disappointment of losing a game or losing a title. And the most important thing, for any team, is to share our ideas and feelings, and stick together as a group. But you also need to remember that every player and coach has his own personality and his own way of dealing with the disappointment of defeats. Some people don’t like to externalize their feelings or share how they feel, while others need to talk about it and express themselves.

However you do it, though, every day you need to be able to handle difficulties because winning and losing are both fundamental parts of sport.

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