CHAPEL HILL - Many basketball wins are started long before the players ever step onto a court.
At Chapel Hill, much of the girls’ varsity lineup first learns about winning the Tiger way through team-bonding and life-lesson activities, taught by Sandy Rasnake.
A physical education teacher at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, Rasnake has been assisting Chapel Hill High School’s Sherry Norris for 26 years, 25 as coach of the CHHS junior varsity.
Norris notes that Rasnake’s long tenure has provided continuity for the Chapel Hill program that few schools enjoy.
“It does wonders for us,” Norris aid. “It teaches them our offensive and defensive philosophy, and it prepares the girls to be varsity players. Not every player is ready for varsity ball; this helps them prepare.”
In his career, Rasnake has learned a lot about teaching — not just basketball but also life skills that teenagers find useful. He’s adopted much of what he’s learned into his coaching techniques.
And done it well.
Chapel Hill just completed its first back-to-back undefeated seasons in girls junior varsity basketball.
Both last year’s team and this year’s finished 20-0. The ’91 JVs almost did it, and the 1992 team followed that with an undefeated season.
“It like what Sherry said at the Winter Sports Awards Banquet; this group had a lot of team skills,” Rasnake said. “When you have a lot of players with skills, coaching is pretty easy.”
While all high school programs are affected by the vagaries of re-districting and enrollment, there’s more to getting good players onto a roster than just accepting an attendance role.
Rasnake incorporates some of the techniques he learned while working several summers for an academic summer camp in California — what he called “A Learning To Learn Camp” that taught SAT preparation, accelerated reading and other valuable skills.
“It was the sort of place where every one said it was their parents’ idea to bring them, and 10 days later they wouldn’t want to leave.”
One of the first things Rasnake does with his players is simply pair them off and let them talk, interviewing each other about personal histories and goals.
“Listening is a life skill like any other,” he said. “This is not just walking into a locker room and chatting.”
One of the advantages of this has been “no drama.”
“This year’s team had great chemistry,” Rasnake said. “It was fantastic.”
Later, Rasnake guides the young players through more sophisticated exercises, like silently navigating an imaginary maze.
Actually, it’s the teammates who guide each other with hand signals and gestures through the grid laid out on the floor, trying to avoid missteps that bring a penalty of 60 seconds added to their total time.
The maze teaches multiple lessons, like learning from mistakes and not repeating them, and learning to think “outside the box.”
One of the subtle lessons it often takes players a while to learn, Rasnake’s maze never includes penalties for moving forward.
“They have to stay focused,” he notes. “If they get distracted, it shows up in how they do. And if it shows up there, it often shows up on the court.”
The life lessons culminate with a traditional favorite: board breaking.
Like karate experts, the girls learn to compose themselves mentally and physically to drive a fist through a wooden plank, literally breaking through an obstacle to a goal. Beneath the board lies a piece of paper inscribed with the player’s personal goal.
“It’s just a physical metaphor for how to break through a barrier to reach your goal,” Rasnake said.
“It involves breathing correctly, an internal dialogue — that little voice in your head — and getting yourself into a proper mental state. It’s no different than what you need to do when shooting a free throw, or talking with a teacher or your parents about something important.”
The players learn and Rasnake learns.
“I like looking at the reactions of their teammates when they break the board,” he said. “There’s always this ‘A-ha … cool’ moment.”
All of these activities are conducted away from the gym, freeing the floor for use by other teams. But the real advantage lies in the life lessons that players can use on or off the court.
“Not every player will make the varsity team,” Rasnake observes.
“But if they play JV ball, they’re going t get a true basketball experience, and they’re also going to get some life skills they can carry with them. I always tell them: these lessons are for you to use in any way you wish.”