Expand your knowledge, expand your game!
I am going to forewarn you that there will parts of this article that could be a gut-check for you. Many of the things I talk about are things that I have fought with and have learned through my experiences. My primary reason for writing this stems from the fact that I am sick of seeing kids being bashed, while adults, coaches, trainers, and everyone else within the system take no accountability for their roles. Our kids aren’t broken but the system certainly is damaging them- and that system is led by parents, coaches, private trainers, and tournament directors. When I look on social media or talk to other coaches, the common theme in some shape or form is that kids are lazy, aren’t tough, selfish, or some other phrase along those lines. While that could be true in some instances, what’s never pointed out or analyzed is the actual root of these issues.
What are we Modeling?
I can’t help but laugh at some of the adults that are demanding that kids need to work harder. Some of those people are the same ones who have never left their own comfort zone. They’re probably some of the same people who are checking the clock at work and give half-ass effort throughout the day at their own jobs; they’re probably the same ones who haven’t went through a grueling workout themselves in years. Some of the coaches who sit with their hands in their pockets and start practice 15 minutes late and do the same boring drills every day to fill time are often the loudest in their complaints of kids.
I’m not at all saying that some kids don’t need a kick in the ass- I work with some that do- but before we have numerous adults jumping all over a generation of kids- lets make sure that we as adults are taking a hard look at ourselves in the mirror first. Modeling the behaviors in which we wish to see in other people is the strongest form of leadership. Actions speak- and you better believe that kids are watching our actions- and the words we speak are going to fall on deaf ears if the things we do each and every day don’t line up with the words we are speaking.
So before we complain, condemn, criticize, and wonder why we can’t get our kids to work hard- lets make sure we first check the mirror.
Analyzing the Training Load:
I know kids who practice five times a week and play five games on the weekend in one sport. They then proceed to practice two to three more times per week in another sport and engage in additional training on the side for each. I know the expression is, “They’re kids- they can handle it.” In most cases, this is true.. until it’s not. At some point, if it is not managed correctly, that physical stress is going to lead to injury.
What’s the solution? For coaches, it’s getting rid of the BS drills and creating better, more efficient practice designs. For parents, it’s putting away this idea of “more is always better” and killing your kids’ enthusiasm by signing them up for every activity possible. Let me explain.
I’ve never coached a team that practices more than 2-3x per week at 90 minute clips (even 90 minutes is too long sometimes IMO). Players who have the desire for more will engage in their own self-directed workouts, strength and conditioning sessions, free play, or maybe a form of group training. When a coach designs a practice or a workout, it’s crucial that they aren’t just “filling time”- everything should have a purpose. For example, the half speed, half engaged “ball-handling workout” at the beginning of practice or a training session is an absolute waste of time. So many coaches and trainers keep kids in the gym for much longer than necessary just to fill the allotted time. Cut practice short and send the kids home. If you’re ambitious, learn more about movement and engage the players in movement efficiency work- every kid on the planet needs more of this. Early in my college career, we used to practice 5-6x a week; many of the practices, especially in the pre-season, stretched for over four hours long per practice. Even if it wasn’t the most physically exhausting practice, every player was cashed out mentally or just from being on their feet for that long. A lot of coaches will rationalize longer practices by saying they are walk-throughs or “mental” practices. Whatever the rationale is, there is likely a ton of wasted time. Long, drawn-out practices take a physical toll on the body, are mentally draining, and cuts into time for school activity as well as the recovery process. Start practice on time and be efficient with the time you have- eliminate drills that have no purpose!
With the numerous programs, teams, and opportunities that are more readily available to kids, parents want to make sure their kids aren’t falling behind. I get it. Parents want their kids to have the training and coaching they never had. They want them to have every possible opportunity to be successful. I respect that and I empathize with how hard it is to decide what’s the best route for a kid. In my opinion, the key is to evaluate the necessity of certain activities. For example, I don’t think it’s necessarily helping a kid to play AAU basketball, practice with their school team, play summer league, and then attend four-hour long camps every day in the summer. Oh yeah- lets not forget they still have to go to baseball practice and go to summer school that day too.
Parents have to do an evaluation or find someone they trust to help identify where their kid is at and figure out what activities can be cut out or replaced. If your kid is spending 4 hours in the gym at summer league and playing for 15 minutes over the course of two games- that time might be better spent in the weight room for an hour and then resting so they can be more effective in other activities. Another idea might be instead of sending a kid to five four-day camps that stretch four hours long each day, send them to one or two short, intense, efficient workouts each week. The key is figuring out what the best, most efficient uses of time are. Don’t just sign a kid up for every activity under the sun because you want them to keep up with their classmates or you think they need twelve hours of activity every day to improve- they don’t! Ask tough questions about training programs and to directors-find out what benefits your kid will receive, and most importantly, have a feel for what your kid wants to do. It’s great to be “putting in the work”, but that should also be coupled with time for free play along with rest.
Honesty is the Only Policy:
I see kids jumping from AAU team to AAU team every season. For many, its not a better opportunity- it has more to do with being promised a starting position, a certain number of shots, and you guessed it….a scholarship. Before I go on- there are a very select few that may get a scholarship- but it won’t be because of any team they play for in the summer or what a program will allegedly do for them. If a player is fortunate enough to get to that point, it will be because he or she earned it through busting their tail in practice and performing to their capability in games. I’m disgusted by how many adults tell kids where they can take them without telling them about the process and the expectations they will have first. We wonder why so many kids think they are “D1 Material”- look no further than how many adults are whispering to kids that they can go “D1” without understanding it themselves or truly informing the kids what it takes to reach that elite level!
I am all in for supporting kids, giving them hope and encouragement, and telling them their dreams are possible, but it’s always coupled with telling them the truth. Every kid that will ever play for me knows that there are no guarantees- except that I’ll do whatever I can to help them, that they will always get my best effort, and that they will be challenged as a person and as a player. The rest is up to them.
Programs and trainers have tons of revenue on the line, they have shoe sponsorships, and personal agendas- they know that most kids are impressionable and sadly, most parents are too. The truth that you have to work hard, make commitments and sacrifices to EARN a scholarship (and that’s only IF you so happen to be anywhere near good enough, which is very rare), playing time, or ANYTHING for that matter isn’t nearly as appealing as shoes, videos, tweets, and guarantees.
Social media is a tremendous asset. I have learned a great deal of information, connected with unbelievable people, and found avenues to help others through it. Unfortunately for all the good that social media can be used for it can also be damaging- especially for kids, parents, and coaches who don’t know any better. Too many are using social media to say, “look at me” and validating their brands on the heels of kids’ accomplishments. Parents and kids love this recognition- it’s hard to blame them- when I was a kid I would have too.
While some programs may be trying to assist in exposure, I question the true intentions of @ mentions on Twitter, the frequent public acknowledgments by trainers, and some of the things attached to AAU programs social media platforms. Maybe I’m wrong in my assumption, but the constant “my guy did this” or “our guy did this” seems like a ploy for validation and is more of a marketing game than anything else, which, if true, is a huge problem. More people are invested and concerned with their personal brands being validated on social media than they are with anything else. I get the marketing component to business- it’s part of it- but at the end of the day, its more important to care about the service and content (some training companies produce awesome content on social media) we are providing than any promotional tactic. If your brand image desires trump the actual service and what you’re doing for the players- you’re damaging the game and harming the system.
Let Them Struggle:
I talk about this all the time. it’s okay for kids to struggle and at times, fall completely on their face. It’s so hard to see in the moment- but they’ll learn from it at some point, somehow. When parents endorse every complaint from a kid or try to take on and fight every battle for their kids- it really hurts the kid. It’s my personal opinion and policy that a kid always should be the first to approach a coach in regards to playing time. Only after I have had a truly open and honest conversation with the kid will I have a discussion with a parent regarding playing time. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to parents or think they don’t have the right to know (they have every right to know things about their kid)- I want the kid to take ownership and show me that they truly care first. Too many adults want to take challenges away from kids and then turnaround and ask, “Why isn’t this generation persistent, gritty, or resilient?” The answer is easy- they are- they all have it internally, they just never get the chance to be because their opportunity to be is taken away on the first sign of struggle!
I hope I stirred some reflection for anyone who got to this point. If you did make it this far, I truly want to thank you for reading and as always, I welcome any feedback you may have!
Some subtle reminders for players in the thick of a season:
Team is struggling?
Avoid pointing fingers at teammates, blaming coaches, or packing it in for the rest of the season. Every team goes through struggles, great teams stay connected despite them. Their focus is inward- they ask what can we do to get better? Everyone stays committed to competing at the highest level in which they are capable.
Coaches are all over you?
Good. Sometimes it’s not always easy to be pushed, but I’d rather be pushed than forgotten about. Listen to the corrections, internalize them and keep pushing forward.
Can’t catch a break with officials?
Completely out of your control. Players and coaches aren’t perfect, neither are officials. Focusing your attention on what the referees are or aren’t doing is only going to leave you frustrated. Play through calls/ non-calls to the absolute best of your ability. Don’t wait for an official to bail you out.
Things are going really well?
Don’t become complacent. It’s easy to take a breath or take a drill off in practice when things are going well- don’t succumb to that. Stay committed to the habits that have allowed you to be successful. Continue to set the example in and out of practice.
Body is sore?
Take care of it. Get 8+ hours of sleep. Focus on replenishing your body with healthy food and fluids after practice and games. Do 10-15 minutes of yoga each night.
Keep going. Keep moving forward. Stay committed to the process. Your struggles don’t define you, how you respond to them, however, does.
Bottom Line: Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. How are you going to respond today?
Almost every program and player are engaged in a program or something that will in theory help them get better. Is the work actually leading to improvement? Here are a few thoughts.
You took 500 shots, how many were truly mindful? Did they have a specific purpose? Was it a technique-based session? Did you emphasize your technique EACH rep? If it was less technical-based, did the shots you took directly relate to the shots you’re going to get in the game? How many shots do you take that incorporate some type of decision-making? The big question is were you shooting around and calling it a workout or were you intentionally, deliberately going about your business? There’s a huge difference.
During a practice or workout do the drills you do have purpose? Are you practicing to fill time or are you practicing to bolster a strength or improve a weakness? Why are you at that workout or practice? Make sure you have a clear answer- not just to “get better” or “work hard”. What are you getting better at? How does it correlate with game performance? Are you getting better at specific drills or playing the game of basketball?
You’re sweating like crazy and your arms and legs are going to be extremely sore tomorrow. At times that’s great- it gives you a mental edge. Does the exercise program feature balance between muscle groups? Is it a bodybuilding workout or an athlete-specific workout? Did it address key areas on the body that help you move better and more efficiently?
For teams and coaches, are the drills you’re doing designed to be performed perfectly or are they implemented in a progressive manner to create either a challenge, a learning experience, or improve decision-making? Evaluate what you are evaluating your progress on. As a team are you really getting better because you have perfected a bunch of on-air drills during a practice? It’ll look like it on the surface, but I question whether that will transfer to the game environment.
As a player or a coach make sure you frequently ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If you don’t know the answer, get rid of it or figure out a way to effectively add a purpose to it!
Shaquille O’ Neal was quoted in June 2016 about where he wants his son to play in college, “I need somebody that’s gonna curse him out, treat him like a man.”
While I personally don’t know Shaq and can’t say with 100% certainty exactly what he means by this- I hate this quote. Why does a coach need to curse a player out for him or her to be treated like an adult? Do coaches really need to scream and yell in a demeaning tone to help young people turn into adults? I don’t think so. On the flip side, should coaches “coddle” their players and avoid giving them tough, honest feedback? Should they have to tip-toe around every possible conflict because they are afraid of a parent complaining or a kid taking it the wrong way? Absolutely not.
In relation to this, I recently had a conversation with someone who said to me, “You just can’t coach kids hard anymore- everything has to be so positive and nice. You can’t hurt their feelings.” While I do agree that some parents have taken it upon themselves to never let their child be put in a tough situation or to be held accountable for anything, I also feel that is NOT the large majority- coaches just tend to focus extra on those certain instances.
Looking at it from a parent’s perspective, I wouldn’t want my kid playing for someone who consistently screamed at my child in a demeaning way (some coaches are just loud- but there is difference between loud and disrespectful), but I sure as heck wouldn’t want them playing for a coach who wasn’t honest with them either; that didn’t hold them accountable EVERY SINGLE day.
Lastly, for any coaches reading this, positive coaching DOES NOT automatically equate to soft!! I’ve said it a million times and I will probably say it a million more times, it is absolutely possible to demand the most out of your players and do it in a way that uplifts and inspires them to want to run through a wall for you! The great coaches figure out ways to do it every year regardless of their personnel!
Every day I get a new inquiry from my website in the contact forms regarding individual training. It can range from kids who are in third grade to kids who are in high school. I understand the desire for one on one attention and as I have talked about in previous articles, in a few instances it makes sense (i.e shooting form) and can be highly beneficial, but in most cases the player doesn’t need one on one instruction. I am going to go through a few perceived benefits of individual training and give thoughts as to why individual training may not always be the best route for these perceptions.
1.) Individual training is the best way to make my son or daughter “more aggressive”
I get this one a lot. Parents see that their kid can go do 2-ball dribbling drills in the driveway, make an open jump shot, and go through layup lines flawlessly, but when they get into the games they don’t attempt many shots or have an “aggressive mindset”. This could be the effect of numerous different things, but the main one is that they have the “action” or the physical part of the skill down, but not the “perception” or the mental part of the skill down. Skills are easy to learn, decisions and context are much more complex. A lot of players look great in an isolated workout, but have no idea where their skills come into play in a game situation or they are unable to combine the skill with a decision in a live, full-speed environment. It’s not aggressiveness that they lack- it’s understanding of context. They don’t need individual training, they need 2 v 2, 3 v 3, or sometimes more 5 v 5 to learn where their skills can be applied in game situations.
The other aspect of this myth is it could simply come down to the role that the player has on their team or the offensive system in a which a coach chooses to run. This can be a hard thing for many parents and players to accept. Not all coaches are perfect, but the bottom line is that basketball is not an equal opportunity sport- you have to earn the right to take certain shots, and you have to become a star in the role that you have before you are able to increase to another role amongst a team. Instead of focusing on how you can get more shots, focus on how you can excel with the things that you are being asked to do. No coach has ever gotten upset if a player gets rebounds, dives on the floor for loose balls, plays terrific defense, and sets great screens. Too many times players who aren’t a main option on their team are so worried about how they aren’t getting shots instead of finding little things completely within their control to excel in! You’re more likely to get increased opportunities when you learn to excel in your current role!
2.) Individual training is the best way to develop skills.
I’ve already touched on this briefly, but I can’t stress enough its importance. There are two parts to a skill- the action and the perception. A lot of players can perform the action, but struggle with the perception. I have found the best sessions for player development is when they get a mixture of both. They get the opportunity to learn the physical part of the skill (the action) and then get a chance to put it into games or some form of competitive environment (the perception). Too much work on only the action will look great- but only practicing without defense neglects the interactions amongst players in a game environment- which is ultimately where we are trying to improve!
3.) Players need to be isolated from their peers so they can feel more comfortable.
I struggle with this one. Not only does this scare me from a basketball standpoint, but a life standpoint. Players need to get used to being in front of other people. I totally understand that some players get more nervous than others, but it’s important to help them get over those fears as well- not only for basketball, but for life. If kids are constantly put in an isolated environment or only put in environments where they can’t fail- they never get used to failing in front of others- and in my opinion, failing in front of others is something that all of us have done, will do, and will continue to need to learn how to do.
4.) A player needs motivation.
The question I think that needs to come here before thinking the player needs a bunch of individual training to increase their motivation is does the player actually enjoy the game? Are they playing it for themselves or are they playing it to please the parent? Is the parent wanting the kid to excel more than the child? If so, maybe the parent needs to take a step back and let the child find their passion and motivation instead of trying to force it out of them.
5.) A player needs a plan- they are willing to put the time in but they don’t know what to do.
I definitely understand this one a little bit more, but from the same standpoint- every player has an imagination and a heart. A lot of times this is an excuse. Players who are serious should have a notebook that they can record all the drills they do in practices and all the things their coaches want them to improve on. They can then put together their own plan of things they can work on and do it on their own. I have a player who has gone through a full notebook of drills that we have done in practices and workouts and has never done an individual workout with me- ever- he’s constantly taking the things we do in our group workouts or practices and going to the gym on his own to refine those things. The key is using your imagination, taking feedback and writing out a script before you start the workout.
Ultimately, I have found through my eight-plus years of being involved in player development that the best sessions usually consist of group training, the sessions break down a skill, give players ideas of how they can improve it on their own, and then involve a heavy dose of competitive play in small-sided games via 1 v 1, 2 v 2, and 3 v 3.
If the goal is to improve a player’s shooting technique, shooting instruction is something that is individualized and many times should be treated and worked on in an individual manner.
The paradigm in the basketball training world right now is either play 5 v 5 or do “on-air skill and fundamental work”. I think as with many things, somewhere between the two extremes is often times where the most benefit will come from.
Trainers and coaches can AID in the development of a player, but no one creates a player besides the player. I work with numerous high-level players, both boys and girls; some of them multiple times a month, others off and on when schedules allow. The common theme with each? They don’t rely on me, anyone else, or any one single session to transform their game. A few sessions in the gym with a trainer isn’t going to make the next superstar. Days, months, and years worth of busting their butts on every repetition and being committed to doing the right work is what gives a player the OPPORTUNITY to take their game to high levels. Players: if you’re relying on any one person besides yourself to make you the best version of yourself you are sorely mistaken. Trainers and coaches: You can help players become a better version of themselves and lay the groundwork for them, but you and your workouts are not THE REASON a player has gotten to the level they’re at. Players make players.
I had the opportunity to give a talk on a couple of different topics last evening in a small, intimate venue. The first topic centered around my book and the messages within it. The second was centered around the culture of youth sports. Parents asked GREAT questions and brought up great points. I came away thinking that we absolutely need to have more open discussions about these topics that involve the athletes, parents, and coaches. The more understanding there is, the better it is for everyone involved.
One of the ideas that I really tried to get across was letting go of the win at all costs mentality. I think some people initially took it as that we should hand out participation trophies, pat every kid on the back, and give everyone equal playing time- which I am not promoting. What I am promoting is that we give the games back to the kids. That we stop taking away their excitement, passion, and love for sport by turning it into a quest for scholarships and championships that validate the adults involved. There is absolutely accountability from coaches and parents toward the kids, but equally, there is patience, empathy, and understanding that they are still kids. They’re maturing just like all of us were at one point. We encourage them to give maximum effort, be great teammates, and have a great attitude- to pursue their best each day. More often times than not when these standards are upheld, the results are what they should be, and they take care of themselves.
The last point I want to make and one that I talked with a fellow coach about after the presentation is this- development comes at all different ages. The coach I talked with told me that things didn’t really click with him until he was a sophomore in high school- he went on to play collegiate athletics. Things didn’t click with me until I got cut from an AAU team when I was in 8th grade. It wasn’t because I was yelled at every day to work harder or because my parents signed me up for eight hours of structured activity each day after that. The shift happened because the people around me never forced me to do anything. I was allowed to experience and carve my own path. They were patient, encouraged, and supported. Coaches and parents can help guide passion- but no one can instill into another person. Passion is innate. When we create environments where athletes understand accountability, but they also feel a sense of freedom, it brings out the best in everyone. They then have the opportunity to learn all the valuable lessons that sport teaches, perform at their highest level, and have a ton of fun doing it!
Soreness, fatigue, pain, and lack of rest does not mean that you are getting better!! Just because an athlete is in the gym, is sweating, and feels exhausted doesn’t mean that they’re improving!!
I ran into a couple of girls walking into a school that I used to coach yesterday that just completed a workout that morning- they were tired, they were sweating, and I asked them, “How’d the workout go?” They replied with, “Kind of pointless. We just did a bunch of dribbling through ladders.” Sadly, most workouts that are created in the offseason are devised with no plan, just a bunch of random stuff that is designed to make players tired and exhausted. Tired, exhausted, and fatigued may look good on the outside- but is the content in the workout actually doing anything?
ANYONE can make a kid tired, ANYONE reading this article can make me exhausted, fatigued, and sweat like a pig. If kids know that what they’re doing is pointless and designed to kill time- how do coaches not see it? What’s the real reason why they are having their kids do these activities? Ego? Control? If you’re filling time with activities that are designed to make kids tired or because you have nothing else to do- DONT DO IT! It does no one any good! Shorten the time of your session or don’t have it at all!
Take a second to think about these questions:
Who are you as a coach?
What does your program stand for?
What are your goals in coaching?
You should have a short, clear answer to all of these questions. If you don’t, I recommend some reflection so that you can become more clear with your mission as a coach. It will not only help direct your decisions, but will help you stay committed to what’s deep in your heart and the root of why you coach.
Usually when TNT is broadcasting an NBA game and shows the head coach speaking to the players I don’t typically get too much out of it. Last night, during Game 7 between the Thunder and Warriors, however, Coach Steve Kerr said this to his team, “Force doesn’t beat these guys.” Kerr said this early in the game after a slow start from the Warriors that featured multiple turnovers, missed shots, and a double-digit Thunder lead. You often hear coaches when getting off to slow starts demanding more of their players, prodding them for more effort, focus, and enthusiasm- but Kerr was consistent with his message that his team needed to do the opposite; settle down, trust each other, and enjoy the moment. In every huddle, Kerr remained calm, composed, and collected. His players followed suit. You saw the results.
The answer in coaching isn’t always in yelling, demanding, and expecting. As a coach it is crucial you are able to understand your players and their emotions so that you can communicate a vision to guide them in the right direction.
Klay Thompson said this after Game 6, “There is a fine line between playing loose and with great focus- we like to walk it.” One of the core values that the Warriors have is joy. You might be thinking, “Joy?”. Yes, joy. When you watch the Warriors play you get a different sense than when you watch other teams play. I think many teams at all levels fall victim to “the grind”, and they forget why they started playing the game they are playing to begin with- for the love of the game.
It is possible to have fun, enjoy the moment, and compete with energy and effort- the Golden State Warriors are proving it every game they play.