Behind every team’s success is a great leader who can bring the best out of their players and foster a genuine sense of camaraderie within the locker room. For Villanova Men’s Basketball, this leader was Jay Wright, who coached the team for 21 seasons (2001-2022). During his time, Wright led the Wildcats to six Big East Conference championships and 16 NCAA tournament appearances, including four Final Fours (2009, 2016, 2018, 2022) and two national championships (2016, 2018). However, Wright has gained recognition for his team’s success and unique coaching approach. While many coaches focus primarily on statistics and outcomes, Wright recognizes the importance of shaping his players’ attitudes and character.
After leading Villanova to its first National Championship in 2016, Wright stated the following in a Sports Illustrated article:
“Villanova basketball is mostly the little things that aren’t in the stat sheet that make a difference.” (Sports Illustrated, 2016).
What are the “Little Things” that make a difference?
In an article published by the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), insight is gained into Wright’s emphasis on attitude and its impact on his coaching philosophy. He believes a player’s attitude directly impacts their ability to contribute to the team’s success. He values players with a strong work ethic, humility, and a team-first mindset. In the article, Wright gives an example of actions that would display a Villanova player’s level of attitude during a game:
On Offense: extra passes, assists, screen assists, offensive rebounds, tap backs, paint passes, paint catches, and quick outlets.
On Defense: defensive boards, contested shots, blocked shots, charges, dives, steals, and deflections.
These types of plays in the game aren’t always flashy. However, they can help to indicate the amount of effort a player demonstrates on the floor. To Wright, this is more important than the outcome of the game. In mental performance coaching, we emphasize a focus on the controllable aspects of performance, three main psychological factors being: attitude, preparation and effort. Wright’s demonstrated focus on attitude and effort creates a psychologically balanced culture where players are driven to improve both their skills and character.
Attitude > Outcome
Wright values what’s known as effort goals over outcome goals. Of course, winning a championship is the ultimate team goal, but the result doesn’t always convey the level of effort and dedication a player puts into a sport. Wright’s coaching style encourages players to view setbacks as stepping stones to growth rather than roadblocks to success. For example, losing in the Finals of an NCAA championship or getting upset in an early round are opportunities for players to develop resilience, perseverance, and mental toughness. A focus on the “little things” (are they willing to make that extra pass, dive for that loose ball, or take that charge for the team?) lead to enhanced player development and team success.
At the end of a season, championship title or not, Jay Wright evaluates his team's success by using the following criteria:
How did we play from start to finish– did we get better?
How hard did our guys play night in and night out?
How hard did we practice?
How close did we get our players to their potential?
In a sport often dominated by statistics and individual accolades, Jay Wright’s coaching philosophy stands out for its emphasis on attitude, character development, and team unity. He has achieved remarkable success on and off the basketball court by valuing these elements over mere numbers. Almost ironically, his emphasis on effort goals over outcome goals led to two championships in 3 years. Overall, Wright’s ability to shape skilled athletes and well-rounded individuals has solidified his legacy as one of the most respected coaches in college basketball history.