Positive Coaches

Winning games and building better leaders

Ree Hart, seasoned high school boys’ and girls’ basketball coach, and former A.C. Flora boys’ basketball coach, Leon Brunson, have made a lasting impression on many young athletes in the Midlands through positive coaching practices.

Photography by Robert Clark

The coaches who seem to grab headlines most often are the ones who grab facemasks, throw chairs or intimidate their players. Some believe their intensity and emotional outbursts show passion; however, there are many coaches who don’t need to berate or show up their players in order to win. These Midlands coaches get the most out of their team and win championships while building better young men and women by coaching in a positive, constructive way. 


Expectations Never Waver

Former A.C. Flora boys’ basketball coach Leon Brunson went out on top. After winning the 2014 AAA State Championship, Leon moved into the Falcons’ administration but left a lasting imprint on Midlands basketball. He demanded a lot from his players, but his expectations were always consistent. 

After starring at Denmark-Olar High School, Leon played college basketball at Augusta State, which is now Augusta University. He was an assistant coach at his former college, and after a year away using his accounting degree, he missed influencing young lives.

Leon believes that kids desire structure, and they want to be held accountable. Building a relationship and finding out what makes a player tick is key to building a great team. While each player is held to the same standard, each player is coached differently to bring out the best in them.

“Your goal as a leader is to get all of the different personalities to work toward a common goal,” Leon says. “You have to get the kids to buy into the same message, but you have to reach each player individually in putting them on that path.”

Leon’s positive reinforcement led to championship results. “I never said anything negative without saying something positive to them first,” Leon says. “I would always tell them how smart they were, or how gifted they were.

“I set expectations high and let them know that all of the decisions they make will have ramifications. Good decisions are rewarded positively.” 

Whether on the court or in life, there are always difficult situations. “These situations set the kids up for successful leadership in the future,” Leon says. “If they learn to handle uncomfortable situations now, they’re more apt to handle that when they become adults.” 

Fundamentals and Fun 

More than just high school coaches shape the lives of young people, and Ree Hart has experienced that in different ways. Ree was an assistant basketball coach at Hammond School for eight years working with both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. He helped the girls’ team to multiple region titles, and the boys finished as runner-up twice when he was there.

Now, he’s focusing his efforts on a different platform — coaching church league basketball. For about 20 years, Ree has coached high school boys’ and girls’ teams alternately at First Presbyterian Church and Eastminster Presbyterian Church. But Ree’s principles haven’t changed, and neither has the message. 

“My philosophy isn’t much different between school ball and church ball; I try to emphasize fundamentals and having fun,” Ree says. “I want to be consistent and teach the right way, but also communicate that it’s a game as well and, at the end of the day, about enjoying the sport. I try to get this point across by being positive and encouraging.”

Ree played basketball and baseball for Al Hough at Hammond. Al and Tom Swilley, Ree’s youth baseball coach, were the men after which Ree modeled his coaching style. Ree jokes that while he’s a little old-fashioned and still carries a flip phone, he is still able to relate to his players. He believes that even though the environment has changed, kids still respond to coaching the same way. 

“It’s about knowing when to push, when to back off and when to stroke,” Ree says.

Whether it was in the intense world of high school basketball or in a more casual church league environment, Ree’s message has made for a positive experience and lasting relationships. 

“So many players and families have let me become a part of their lives, and it’s very special,” Ree says. “It’s a privilege to be around players and parents and make friendships for life through a ministry called basketball. I’ve been honored and blessed by it. It’s kept me young, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of coaching.”


Attention, Affection and Affirmation

Football is a hard-nosed game played by strong, physical, manly men regardless of the team, but White Knoll head football coach and athletics director Dean Howell has brought three fundamental principles to the player-coach relationship. In the White Knoll Football Handbook, under “Our Coaching Philosophy,” it is written, “We are here for our players. Our players are our No. 1 concern. All young people need three things: Attention, Affection and Affirmation.”

The players and coaches must trust each other, and that trust is built quickly. Dean, as highlighted in his 23-page handbook, believes that being a positive and energetic coach will foster a winning attitude. 

“You can’t ever communicate enough with kids,” Dean says. “As men, we’re less apt to communicate what our feelings are — what we’re thinking and what we believe in. It’s important to communicate with them openly and honestly.”

Dean’s ways work, as evidenced by his results on the field. After serving in the Midlands as an assistant coach since the 1990s, he got his first head coaching job at A.C. Flora where he spent four years and won three region titles. Now in his fourth year at White Knoll, Dean won the school’s first region championship in 2014. 

Another highlight in the handbook: “Excellence in all we do.” Dean and his staff demand a lot from their players on the field, and there are times when tough love is required. But because of their consistency in the three “A’s,” it’s understood that by the players that the coaches are approaching those teaching moments with love. 

“We’re not easy on them by any stretch of the imagination, but they come to the conclusion pretty quickly that our coaches will coach them out of love,” Dean says. “We have to earn their trust, but it doesn’t take long for them to see that we have a no nonsense approach, and we’re there to turn them into better men.”


Beyond the Court

Debbie Stroman won seven state championships and posted three undefeated seasons as the Lower Richland High School girls’ basketball coach, a position she held beginning in the 1992-1993 season. Not only is she now Debbie Wardlaw after her marriage on July 9, she has left the court and moved into the role of athletics director at the start of this school year. 

She’s a legend in her community, and she’s really never left. Debbie went to Lower Richland where she played volleyball for one of her coaching mentors, Debra James, and earned a scholarship to play at Columbia College for Linda Warren, another coach who shaped how she would influence young women. 

She started teaching physical education at Lower Richland in 1984 and eventually became the basketball head coach, which brought her acclaim in the Palmetto State. A South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee, Debbie has influenced more than three decades of young lives, helping  them succeed on and off the court. 

It was Debra, her high school volleyball coach at Lower Richland, who first ingrained in Debbie what women can accomplish. It’s the primary message that she wanted to instill in her players, and now each female who walks through the doors of Lower Richland.

“She helped me understand that girls could do so much,” Debbie says. “They shouldn’t settle for second place and should strive to do whatever they dreamed of doing.”

What Debbie wanted to do was serve her community and influence young women and help prepare them for life after high school.  

“I understand my roots are deep in lower Richland County. I’m very proud of those things. To have an impact like that on lives, its very significant and very humbling.” 

Debbie says the main message she wanted to impart to her players went far beyond coaching. She told them every decision they make would always impact others, and she wanted the ladies to present themselves as such, understanding that they were always representing something bigger than just themselves.

“I always told them that when they leave Lower Richland, they were going to represent their family, their community and their high school,” Debbie says. “I want them to go out in the world and be brave and strong. I want them to be able to take everything that life gives them without breaking down. I tell them, ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’” 


The Coaching “Do Not” List

While these dynamic coaches embody a positive philosophy in their tactics that have brought success for their players and for winning seasons, there are people who embrace negative approaches in coaching. After surveying local athletes, here is a list of things coaches should not to do in striving to get the best performance from players.

• Don’t yell in your player’s face or throw things to make a point. It’s hard to fathom why any coach thinks this works. Instead, pause before responding when a player messes up a play. 

• Don’t pull a player from the field or from the court right as a mistake is made. This makes  players feel ashamed and causes them to overthink their game when they go back in. They will be afraid to take the risks needed to score as players often need to play through mistakes to get into a rhythm. 

• Don’t be condescending. Make your criticism constructive and try to always accompany it with some encouragement of what the player does well. 

• Don’t play favorites. If you like some players more than others, especially one in particular, try not to make that obvious to everyone else on the team. 

• On that note, don’t determine positions and starters before the season starts. Give all the players a fair chance to prove themselves. 

• Don’t create a divisive atmosphere. Remember that your team will play better together if they are a team off the court or field as well, so foster unity and friendship among the players. 

• Honor the allotted practice time and give players at least a 24-hour advance notice if the practice is going to need to be longer one day. 

• Remember that all of your athletes are students and respect that ultimately school work will come first. 

• Be conscientious during hot, outdoor practices to give sufficient water breaks. Players passing out will not make them better athletes. 

• Make it about more than just the sport and winning. Care about the character of your players and use this time on the court or field to prepare them for life.