“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”

I just returned home from coaching the Costa Bassmaster High School Championship tournament. One hundred and thirty six teams, each consisting of two high school students and a coach, qualified for this derby and they made the trip to Kentucky Lake – one of tournament bassing’s most revered venues – with visions of glory. Our team, qualified by way of winning the Colorado state championship on Pueblo Reservoir, had that vision too. In fact, one of the members had a strong showing on Kentucky Lake during last year’s national championship and therefore had tremendous confidence heading into this year’s event…and confidence catches fish. We tied 18 others teams for last place, failing to catch a single legal keeper to weigh. We lost, but we learned…

“Confidence is a very fragile thing.”

As the coach, it is my job to put together the winning plan. It is the players’ job to execute said plan. Any good coach considers the players’ strengths in coming up with the plan, and the players’ confidence in the plan has a lot to do with the plan fitting their skill set and experience. If the plan instills confidence in the players, it has a high probability of success…assuming said plan also fits the conditions under which the game is being held. That’s a major caveat.

“You can’t win fishing memories.”

Tournament fishing is a game of decisions, and those decisions need to be based on the conditions leading up to and during the tournament, not memories of glory holes past or even popular opinion. Reservoir ecosystems are dynamic, people are often slow to change, and bass are usually not. Doesn’t matter how great the fishing was on Spot X last week; this is a new day and bass will happily move to Spot Y if it better suits their needs. If you want to win, you’d better be able to forget Spot X in favor of committing to Spot Y when the bass do.

“Commitment is what transforms promise into reality.”

Having a solid plan based on the current conditions is great. Having players with confidence in that plan is even better. Not fully committing to that plan…well, that’s a recipe for failure. By failing to commit, the door is open for doubt. Doubt leads to poor decisions, and ultimately drains confidence. It is a downward spiral and it is tough to pull out of mid-tournament once the team is behind.

“Decide. Commit. Succeed.”

It’s so simple. I had great players. I researched and prepared, using it to come up with a great plan, and then did not follow through and commit to it. Therefore, we did not succeed. How then do I know it was a great plan, you ask? Hindsight; each of the 12 teams that survived to fish the final round utilized the same plan I came up with…shallow cover. I’m not saying our plan would have won it all, but we would have been in the hunt. Instead, I did not commit my team’s practice to fine tuning the plan. We divided our practice time between two fundamentally different strategies and therefore never really got screwed in to either one. As a result, our tournament came apart at the seams.

“When you chase many rabbits, you catch none.”

There is always more than one pattern to catch bass. But to be really strong in most competitions, you need to dial in on one of them, figure out the nuances, and then extrapolate over the course of a multi-day event. Trying to catch them with minimal-to-no success utilizing fundamentally different patterns is no way to win, but please don’t ask me how I know…

Before we arrived at the tournament and based on my research of conditions, I had instructed my team to prepare tackle for shallow hydrilla grass, docks, and perhaps some shoreline cover, mostly cypress and willow. When we arrived at the lake, reports of falling water levels, memories of heavy weigh-in bags filled with ledge dwelling largemouths from years passed and as recent as last month, and the sheer abundance of shallow grass and the puzzle it presents in-and-of-itself allowed fear of minimal success shallow to creep into my head. Fear causes hesitation and hesitation allows fears to become reality. I feared that my shallow theory was maybe a little more overwhelming to develop than I first thought, that maybe the years of tournament history involving deep main lake ledges was still true even with the newish hydrilla and in the high water conditions, and I subsequently divided our practice time, thereby never truly figuring out either one. In reality, I needed to commit to the shallow bite dictated by the conditions and decipher the details there of. With a full practice of shallow focus, I’m confident we would have dialed it in. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20.

“Fishful Thinker is a state of mind, pure and simple. Not a person or genre, rather a mindset that besets those who think fishy thoughts. Primal yet sophisticated, it’s knowledge skillfully applied in a wave of success and failure. It’s youthful exuberance and ageless wisdom, respect for the quarry and environment, the sharing amongst peers, and the understanding of an angler’s place in the grand scheme, however humbling that may be.”

That quote is the definition of Fishful Thinker, written 14 years ago. In my mind, it is an excellent summary of our tough week on Kentucky Lake. Again, we lost but we learned. The kids handled it admirably and made me proud to be their coach. Would I do it again? Absolutely, for it is better to have tried and failed – especially when you learn from the failure – than to have not tried at all. And to be even a small part of something as great as organized high school bass fishing and the lives of the kids that compete…well, it is an honor regardless of the outcome. Yes, I’ll be back…only a little wiser next time.