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Challenging Individual Training Narratives

I recently saw a tweet from a coach stating that they loved coaching individual workouts. The tweet then hit on the commonly accepted notion that playing AAU games over a weekend won’t get you better but getting in the gym and working on fundamentals will. Embedded in the tweet was a video of a player doing stationary two-ball dribbling. The player was dribbling below their knees while looking at the ground. The tweet was “liked” and “re-tweeted” by many. As I have mentioned before, I don’t disagree with the overall sentiment here. There are plenty of kids traveling all over the country paying thousands of dollars right now that would benefit from other options, one of them being working on the fundamentals of the game at a local gym. Where my disagreement comes into play is what’s considered fundamental practice. This argument has numerous layers to it, but take two high school players with average ability, in an actual game would you rather have a player who has faced a zone press multiple times in the summer, played in a game where there is a relentless defender guarding them full court, or instead want the player who’s been “grinding” in the gym doing 2-ball drills? I know my answer. We are doing a disservice to players and parents by giving them this belief that the best way to improve a skill-set is performing frequent isolated drill work.

Have we done 2-ball drills with players in workouts? Yes. Do we use them often? No. Occasionally we’ll use them as a quick 2-3 minute warm-up, or we’ll give players a drill they can do on their own at the very end of a workout that is challenging with the hope that maybe we spark some intrinsic motivation to practice on their own. However, 95% of our ball handling practice includes dribbling and passing games, live disadvantage scenarios to attack traps, and then some technical refinement or concept introduction based on what we observed in the live situations. When players get in an actual game they can’t fall back on stationary dribbling drills- they have to be able to create space, read a defense and make decisions based on interactions with their own teammates and the opponents.

Many view being a point guard or a great ball handler as the ability to dribble so they think the prescription of more dribbling drills is the answer. I have parents frequently tell me that their kids need more dribbling drills because they turn the ball over in games. Many of those same kids could put on a half-time show and are wizards with the ball. The problem isn’t that they can’t dribble- the problem is that they don’t know how to handle the ball. They are adept at a technical skill (dribbling in place, in straight lines, or through cones), but they lack the perceptual ability of a skill, i.e., handle pressure, see the floor to pass, beat a trap, or get to spots efficiently (in other cases, they just need to get physically stronger or quicker- it has nothing to do with skill). There is a HUGE difference between being a good dribbler and being a ball-handler. The two are not mutually exclusive, you can be a great dribbler and not be any good when it comes to handling the basketball in a game. As a basketball community, we have to differentiate these items!!

While dribbling is the most commonly posted individual workout item, the same thing can be said for many items. Players and coaches often talk about “getting shots up”, which overall, I don’t have an issue with. Shooting is the most technical skill in the game of basketball and outside of technique, a large part of shooting is confidence. By getting consistent repetitions and honing in technique, a player can certainly improve his or her shooting- but it has to be intentional, focused practice- it can’t be about just getting a certain number of shots up. If I only had 10 minutes to work on shooting with a group of players, 90 out of 100 times I’m incorporating decisions. So many players can knock down shots with no defense and a coach giving them the decision to shoot (one rebounder, one shooter). Throw another player out there and some defense where players don’t have an automated decision and you’ll quickly see that what we accept as “game-like” in our shooting drills is really just technical practice that may have very little carryover to a live game.

Another item of note is getting shots out of game-like situations. One thing I see often is players going through pick and roll “reads” without defense. They follow a pattern that was demonstrated by a coach. Where is the learning or the read when players have nothing to react to? Maybe it’s a difference in philosophy, but if I want to help a player get better at using ball screens, at minimum, I’m showing them a bunch of film before working on isolated reads so they can see context, but even better, I’m putting them in actual ball screen situations and giving the defense different coverages to perform. Many times the best play out of a ball screen is making the right pass, which doesn’t occur when there is no defense on the floor and a predetermined decision to shoot. Lastly, in many individual workouts players are taking and working on complicated shots that they may take one time every five games at best. While I certainly prefer workouts with decision-making present, if a player is going to be doing an individual workout, 95% of high school players or below need to be emphasizing knocking down open catch and shoot shots, understanding how they can create space with the ball (dribble and non-dribble), moving without the ball, finishing with both hands on two feet, and simple, basic moves to beat a defender.

Different situations can certainly call for different things. Isolated drill practice has its place in certain instances. However, I think we are off-based in the common thinking that frequent isolated work is where improvement lies. In too many cases we are simply copying what we’ve seen in other places or doing “feel-good, look-good” workouts that impress parents and allow for repeat business. As a whole, we need to keep challenging common thought to give players the tools to most effectively use their time and maximize their development.

Zone Defense: The Enemy?

If you’ve tuned into the most recent NCAA tourney you will have seen a number of teams deploy zone defenses. Some of those teams have been “regulars” in their use of zone defense over time, others have used the strategy in more recent years. Some use it for a few possessions, some use it for the entirety of the game. The perceived increased usage of zones begs the question: why are teams using it more frequently? Furthermore, does this trend validate teams who use zones across all levels?

Many coaches at all levels are not fans of zone defense. At the youth levels, many agree that kids often times don’t possess the necessary skills to combat the zone defense (skip passes, perimeter shooting, etc.). Within that group of people some will adamantly say zone defense is the most detrimental strategy to youth development. Other coaches think it’s a lazy tactic used by coaches who can’t teach man to man. Some will tell you that man vs man is “the way the game is meant to be played”. As I look around on social media, these notions have become common narratives, but as always, before we blindly accept these narratives, it’s important to question everything and take a deeper look.

If you would’ve asked me in the past what I thought about zone defense- I would’ve advocated against it. In my last few years coaching 8th grade we’ve played no zone on any possession & this season we’ve probably played it on less than 5% of all possessions. I’m better at teaching man to man defense & I do think at the younger levels it establishes defensive fundamentals that are crucial as levels increase (moving your feet to keep a player in front, body positioning off the ball, competitive mindset, communication standards- among others). However, I really have begun to grow tired of the argument that zone defense is killing youth basketball and basketball in general. Many coaches have started to use this as a cop-out because they rely so heavily on their set plays against man to man defense and don’t develop the skills of players and concepts within a team to have a legitimate zone attack. We play against teams in 8th grade (and I see this at many levels below too) that barely look at the hoop for 2+ minutes on a possession, run set plays every time down the court with the coach joy-sticking every kid around the court like a video game and then yelling commands when and who can shoot. I’ll take a team playing zone defense over that ANY day of the week.

Now, if you’re a youth level coach and your primary strategy is zone defense (unless the hoops are lower and the 3- point line is moved in-(argument for another day)) on most possessions, I do question your intention to “develop” players. Especially teams below 7th grade. From my perspective, soft “pack everyone in” zones or diamond traps is a “win-now at all costs” strategy. Again, many kids physically aren’t ready to perform some of the skills it requires to beat these tactics and there are several coaches who neglect teaching crucial defensive principles to take advantage of this fact. When teams get older and players get stronger, things such as selling out on the ball, leaving kids wide open, and having no concept of off-ball positioning or rotation can negatively impact a player’s and a team’s defensive ability.

When teams get to high school and above- I believe any defense scheme goes. There are times I’m actually surprised teams don’t play more zone simply because most opposing teams have a high reliance on their man offense. It’s all they practice and every player is reliant on it- throwing a zone at a team can greatly disrupt the rhythm of their offense. On the flip side, great offensive teams can also pick apart zones quickly and create confidence for their offense especially if the zone has poor principles and rotations. I often say to all my players that we should be “salivating” when we see zones. Our offensive foundation is built on player development, and in my opinion, a team who has players that can pass, handle, and shoot can beat a zone with some simple concepts. As mentioned, however, many teams don’t have a bunch of skilled players and heavily rely on the pattern of their man offense or solely on one player so their zone attack becomes anything but admirable. My question to these coaches who hate zones and their offense is similar to what I just described is why shouldn’t a team disrupt your offense? Why shouldn’t they take your best player away and make someone else beat them?

Lastly, many college teams are going to more zone because their offense has gone more position-less. A team with several long, tall, skilled offensive players is more apt to play a zone because of matchup issues (and potential foul trouble) they may incur on the defensive end. They can use their length defensively to cover a large area of the floor and avoid matchup problems in space with smaller quicker players. Then on offense, they can more easily exploit their mismatches for better scoring opportunities. For people who say “they’re going to have to play man in the pro game”- that’s a bridge most don’t have to cross. And if a player has that ability, I’m okay with a pro coach needing to spend extra time with a player on their defensive concepts- it’s their job that they’re paid very well for.

My final, concluding thoughts are this:

At the youth levels, if kids are physically unable to make diagonal skips and shoot from the perimeter- coaches should avoid going to zones. It’s important to teach solid man principles at young ages- those principles translate to all types of defense as players increase levels.

The bottom line and above all, if you’re a coach that hates zone defense, then develop your players and your zone offense spacing so they can pick it to pieces, in which case you will not have to deal with it any longer 🙂

What is the Role of a Coach?

Before I really dive into this, I want to first say that I don’t coach in NCAA tournaments with thousands of people all over the country watching with millions of dollars on the line. I coach high school and youth basketball. The circumstances are much different, but many of the things I observed watching the NCAA tournament this past weekend I see at all levels of basketball and across many sports. I don’t for a second claim to have all the answers and everyone has their own philosophy, but I like to use this platform that I have to challenge standard thought processes.

As I was watching games this past weekend, I couldn’t help but do some critical questioning regarding the perceived role of a coach. In one particular game that I watched, the offensive team slowed the ball down and the players all looked over at the coach for a solid five seconds on almost EVERY possession as the coach joy-sticked each player into the spot he wanted them before running their set play that often led to an inefficient shot at the end of the shot clock (this team barely scored 50 points in a 40 minute game FYI). This was a common theme amongst several other games I watched too. The thoughts that kept coming into my head were, “What are these teams doing ALL season? What do teams do in their 100+ practices that amount to almost 20 hours a week? How do high-level college players not have a sense of how to play in the flow of a game?”

Unquestionably, coaches want to put their players in position to be their best in a game. Every possession counts in close games and coaches want to maximize each possession- I totally get that. I am not anti set-play, anti-coaching/ strategizing throughout the course of a game. However, I’m in absolute disagreement that players should have to look at their bench EVERY time down the court for direction on “what to do”.  They shouldn’t be so reliant on our direction that they can’t make any decisions for themselves. Outside of that, it is a limiting basketball philosophy. Players become robotic and don’t know how to make plays and decisions in the chaos of a game.

Where this ultimately leads us to is- what exactly is the role of a coach then?

As discussed, some perceive a coach as someone to control their players every movement and decision. Another common perception is that coaches are disciplinarians that need to yell and scream constantly. I try to be open to differing philosophies, but I don’t view coaching that way, especially at the developmental level. Many youth coaches subscribe to this philosophy because they see immediate result. To me, a coaches’ role is to teach and empower their players so that they rely less on the coach as a season goes on. This is not to say that we become invisible as a coach. Each day we are still responsible for creating the learning environment that enhances the learning process. We reinforce principles to help connect the individuals within the team.  Most importantly, we challenge players to be not only better athletes, but better people through the high standards we set. I would challenge coaches, parents, and leaders of any organization to reflect on these questions:

Do I ask questions to help guide self-discovery or do I automatically provide the answer and the quick-fix solution? Do I help people create their own understanding?

Do I trust those in whom I lead? If not, why? When things go wrong, do I analyze my own teaching, feedback, and message? Or do I quickly implement more rules and take away power from other individuals?

Do I allow creativity to flourish or is it “my way or the highway”?

Again, everyone has their own way of doing things, and nothing is cut and dry, but I think there is real power and potential when we view “coach” through the lens of an empowering leader.

Decisions in Youth Coaching

A lot of my time in coaching, especially during the winter months, has been coaching at the youth level. I have coached 8th grade boys for the past five winters. During that time, there have been many tough decisions that are made each practice, game, and throughout the year. I thought I would write a short blog on a couple of those things that may serve as a thought-provoking read for coaches and a different perspective for parents.

One decision that always weighs on my mind as well as every youth coach (and probably all coaches) is playing time. Should youth players get equal playing time? If so, when should equal playing time stop? This is always a constant struggle for me. On one side of the argument is the notion that youth basketball is for long-term development. We never know what kid is going to continue playing the game, who is going to physically mature, or even what a simple change in roles can have on a player’s performance. On the other side, is it really fair to just award equal playing time? What message does that send to kids who put in additional work, practice harder, or simply perform better? What does automatically granting equal playing time tell the kids who don’t practice as hard and don’t perform to a high standard, but yet get rewarded with the same playing time as other kids?

Overall, I think at younger ages (3-4-5-maybe 6th grade) playing time should be pretty close to equal, but some separation should start to occur as kids get older. How much separation is the million dollar question. Throughout my time in 8th grade basketball, I have always played every kid in every half of every game. While in most games there are players who receive more playing time than others, there are other games where I make a conscious effort to spread playing time around and get other kids more opportunity in other roles.

What remains a constant and will always remain a constant is equal opportunity in practice. Never have we maximized touches or opportunities for a set group of kids. There is always an equal amount of repetition and opportunity for instruction. In games, every kid is encouraged to take open shots and in practice every kid is not only encouraged, but begged to try new things and take a step out of what is considered comfortable for them. Each practice we switch up teams, lineups, and players in drills to allow each player to not only have opportunity to play with other people, but compete against every person on the team as well.

Is that THE answer and the perfect solution? I have no idea. What I am confident in, however, is that most players over the years would tell you that they never felt that they were given up on, they all felt as if they were an important part of the team, but they also knew that playing time would be earned, which in several cases was an ongoing motivation to compete harder in drills, commit to the weight room and put in extra time refining skills outside of practice.

Another decision that is always tough for me is how much room to give young players with mistakes. Many parents frequently complain about coaches who remove players after one mistake. I find that many don’t see it from a broader perspective in this scenario, but at times, I do think the hook can be too quick for youth coaches.

From a coaches’ perspective, questions to consider are: Do we remove a player from a game after one mistake? Two? Three? Does it depend on the trust that the player has earned? Do we factor in the type of mistake they make? My overarching philosophy is to coach players through situations and let them learn through mistakes as opposed to giving a quick hook, but again, many factors go into determining this decision. If a player isn’t performing up to a standard that has been clearly established within a team (effort, energy, being a great teammate), then a quicker substitution may be warranted. If it was a poor decision made in a game, regardless of the player, I believe in letting a young player (think this changes as kids get older) play and learn through it. If it was a mistake they commonly have made- and as a coach you have addressed it with a clear (visual and oral) solution offered- then you may need to think about using a quicker substitution to relay a message.

All in all, no matter what anyone will tell you, kids, adults, and coaches all care about the present game. Striking a balance between competing in the present game yet always keeping in mind the long-term process is one of the most difficult things to do as a youth coach. Here are a few thoughts to work on striking that balance as a coach and keeping perspective of the whole picture for parents:

Coaches: Develop connections with every player. Establish non-negotiable standards of expectation as it pertains to player effort, leadership, and attitude. Consider other people’s vantage point. Love and care about the kids regardless of their performance. Make sure every player feels important and provide everyone equal opportunity to coaching and practice repetitions.

Parents: Enjoy your child and their time in athletics. Consider how much time your kid’s youth coach is putting in on what is likely a volunteer basis. Try to see the coaches’ vantage point and how many decisions go into a season and how many things there are to consider not only today, but also for the long term development of EVERY kid. Find lessons regardless of the situation that you can relay to your child. Support your child and if you have frustrations- take a deep breath and a few hours. If they’re still there, then address them if you need to. Consider the practice environment that your child’s coach creates; do they have opportunities in practice to improve? And maybe above all, do an honest, mindful (not right after a bad game) assessment if your kid is having fun.

Thinking About Practice Design

What is “skilled”?

We accept “skilled” as having perfect form on a jump-shot, dribbling through cones like a wizard, and flawlessly being able to execute a wide array of finishes after a perfectly executed sweep below the knees.

Believe me, this is exactly how I looked at skill as a player, and for a couple years when I first started working with other players. I was always advocating “go game speed”, “practice with more intensity”, and “do more repetitions”. Through time and anecdotal experience, I began to realize that there is a lot more to developing a skill than thousands of game speed reps everyday. While I believe it’s important for players to practice hard and practice on their own, being “skilled” has to be re-defined and thought about differently.

Skill is the application of technique. It’s the coupling of action and perception. So many young players are proficient in an action in an isolated environment, but struggle tremendously in a game. Coaches often connect that struggle to toughness and aggressiveness. Trainers blame the coaches’ system, in which the parents immediately jump on board with, they often think, “My son makes all his layups in layup lines and made 5 shots in a row in the driveway, there has to be something wrong with the coach!” While I absolutely acknowledge that in some instances these things may have a factor, I can also assure you there’s more to it. Expecting to automatically translate practice from 1 v 0 to a live 5 v 5 game is crazy. It’s like a kid driving a car for the first time in an empty corn field and then assuming they’ll be able to safely drive in Los Angeles rush hour traffic. There are too many variables and too many decisions for a seamless transition between the two environments.

Often discussed in basketball communities is that kids play too many games, which is the reason they need more skill work. It’s believed that skill work will allow players more repetitions with the ball, which allows them more opportunity to improve during an actual game. The problem for me isn’t the fact that I disagree with how much structured 5 v 5 our youth plays, the problem for me is that many view isolated skill work as the answer. Everyone would likely agree that that more games isn’t the right solution, but I also don’t believe more drills in isolation is either. Does isolated skill work serve a purpose? Yes (introducing technique, building confidence in an action). Do kids need to play 5 v 5 games? Absolutely.

In my opinion, the “most bang for our buck” as it relates to player development is in the middle of isolated practice and 5 v 5 games. Players need to receive opportunities and repetitions to build the action of a skill, but in an environment that is conducive to the interactions and decisions that they are faced with in a game. This is not done through isolated practice. We need to keep challenging conventional wisdom and thinking. Creating more drills without defense and decision-making isn’t the answer. As I mentioned, there is a time and a place for nearly everything, but as a basketball community, I think we need to better analyze how we are designing practices and what we hope to obtain from the drills we are creating and repeating.

Connection in Coaching

I was recently listening to a podcast, The Physical Preparation, with Mike Robertson and Brett Bartholomew. During the podcast, both guys discussed experiences related to coaching & talked about some things that I thought were important to write about and reiterate for myself and any coaches who read this blog.

Passion is contagious. People follow passion and presence (good and bad).

I remember back when I first started out as a coach; I had some knowledge, but nothing in comparison to what I’ve learned through time and the philosophy I’ve developed today. Early on, players improved and teams achieved good results. In terms of my role as a leader and coach, I have little doubt that passion was the leading force behind positive outcomes. Basic knowledge helped, but passion carried me through holes in my knowledge, and to a degree, I’m sure it still does to this day.

Athletes don’t start by following the knowledge of a coach, they follow the person. As I’ve mentioned, knowledge is important and takes people to new heights, but passion, presence, and genuine concern are the prerequisites. When they feel these qualities from you as a coach, they’ll do just about anything you ask, and as many of you know, getting people moving in the same direction is a big part of team success. I find this especially true when coaching at the middle school and high school levels; having the attention & respect of those you lead, coupled with basic knowledge, will lead to some form of results. When you put passion, love, presence, and a quality philosophy together, amazing things become possible.

From my earliest ages, I can always remember my grandpa and my dad talking about the key to business isn’t strategy or sales pitches, it’s people; human connection and understanding. Again, it’s not that they didn’t have good strategy or weren’t intelligent, they knew what came first was a genuine relationship. They knew understanding the person was more important than the product or service itself, which leads me to my next point that was discussed in the podcast.

We have to understand who we are coaching.

Some need an authoritative approach, while there are others who don’t respond well to that. Different situations and days may call for different things. Humans don’t fit into a box. Understanding a players’ personality can help a coach determine the best way to guide their improvement. Personally, I try to be constantly aware of this from an individual as well as a team perspective within the ebs and flows of a season. I frequently ask myself questions such as these:

How can I reach this person? What does my team need from me today? What is their body language telling me? Do they need a kick in the pants or a calming presence? Who am I coaching? Does the person respond to a louder tone or do they prefer individual conversation? What’s their perspective, have I put myself in their shoes?

Just being aware of these questions will help make us better coaches and leaders. I know I don’t always get it right, and neither will you, but putting a concerted effort on connection is as crucial as any strategy you will have. I love talking X’s & O’s, player development, practice plans, strength, and movement patterns, but it’s all secondary to the connection we make with the individuals we are coaching.

If you can’t reach em, you can’t truly teach em!!

Thoughts on College Basketball

This weekend I was watching a men’s collegiate basketball game between Marquette and Lindenwood. Lindenwood is a NCAA Division II University located in Missouri. Without knowing what happened or checking a score, I would guess that many would assume that Marquette probably handled them by 30+ points.

What actually happened?

Marquette won 81-79 with Lindenwood having a decent look from three to win the game as time expired. Would Marquette win by a larger margin if they played again? Probably. What Marquette fans and players found out was that Lindenwood is a really good basketball team, and there is really good basketball played at other levels.

In other action over the weekend, my alma mater, Carroll University, a NCAA Division 3 school, fell to Division I opponent, IUPUI, by 9 and were in a position to win the entire game. Auburn and Toledo, both Division 1 schools, were beat by Division 2 opponents. Within the state of Wisconsin, UW-Eau Claire & UW-River Falls, both Division 3 schools, knocked off Division 2 opponents. Furthermore, if you look around the country at other exhibition scores, you’d see other close margins as well as other lower division schools knocking off higher division schools.

Before I go any further, I am not here to say that NCAA Division 1 basketball is not the highest collegiate level & doesn’t feature the most talent night in and night out. If you looked at those same exhibition scores across the country, you would find that many Division I schools also won by large margins over Division II & III schools. Generally speaking, the best players and teams reside at the Division 1 level, but there are so many that write-off and disregard basketball at the lower levels because of a number. Many don’t grasp how many good players and teams there are outside of the Division 1 level.

I could point to several instances where the only separation between a player at a higher level and a lower level is a few inches of height and measurable athletic qualities. There are also multiple teams at the Division 1 level who would be exponentially better if they played with the same type of ball and player movement as some teams do at the Division 3 level. In many instances, schools at higher levels are more focused on recruiting talent as opposed to developing & coaching it. Over an extended period of time, this can catch up to programs; very few kids are finished products when they reach the collegiate level- they all need continued development. When considering these things, it doesn’t come as a surprise that every year a few Division 1 teams are given all they can handle by high quality Division 2 and 3 teams.

Why am I writing this?

Being heavily involved in player development and collegiate recruiting, the majority of high school players and parents have little idea of what it takes to excel at the collegiate level, let alone at a scholarship level. I truly believe it would be an eye-opening, humbling experience for all players and parents to go watch a game or practice at every collegiate level. I’m all for people setting their sights high, but I also think it’s crucial to understand that there is high quality basketball teams and players at all levels. Such quality that when the ball is tipped, often times teams at lower levels are able to hang around and at times knock off teams that many would think they don’t belong in the same gym with.

Exposure & Basketball

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a statement I recently heard, so I decided rather than be angry about it, I would attempt to make sense of it or hopefully share helpful knowledge to others regarding it.

An 8th grade kid recently told a fellow 8th grade kid that he would never play for a certain AAU program because “they don’t get enough D1 looks”. (Quick side note: the aforementioned program has played a role in helping seven kids in their program the last two seasons receive full scholarship offers to play at the NCAA Division I & II levels).

Where is this information coming from? How are kids this age that focused on “D1 looks” already? It makes me sick to my stomach to know that there are numerous adults feeding kids information like this. I’m not sure if it’s coming from a blatant lack of knowledge or if it is a ploy for personal interests. My guess is that it’s probably a combination of both.

We’ve created a basketball culture in which many players and parents place exposure at the forefront of their priorities as opposed to holistic development. That exposure, as opposed to relationships and development, is believed to be the key to unlocking the coveted D1 dream. The fallacy in which this is has become more widely-accepted by parents and players trickling all the way down to the youngest levels. I always tell parents to caution highly against those who make guarantees of scholarships and starting positions, and who talk more about jerseys and exposure as opposed to the building of a relationship with their child or the structure of their practice plan.

Some reading this may think this is about sponsored vs. non-sponsored AAU basketball- it’s not. I firmly believe there are programs across the country both sponsored and non-sponsored who do a terrific job and equally who do a poor job. What I will say, however, is that many sponsored shoe circuit programs sell exposure in a way that parents and players believe (see example mentioned above) that there is only one route to the coveted end goal. I could give you numerous examples and stories to illustrate that this is simply not at all true.

For those reading this thinking that I’m saying that “exposure” isn’t important- I’d say that’s partially correct and partially incorrect. What I’m ultimately saying is that it is way overvalued. The number one pre-requisite to play at any level is you have to be good enough; that’s surely the case when we talk about collegiate basketball. Players and parents need to worry way less about whether or not they’re being seen and worry way more about if they’re ability aligns with the level they desire to play at. Exposure should never ever be the number one priority for players and parents. This ESPECIALLY is true when we are talking about kids who haven’t even finished puberty yet!!!

The bottom line is that playing athletics at the collegiate level is hard. Earning a scholarship to play athletics at that level is even harder. What will allow a player to be in position to get to that level isn’t exposure, it’s ability, which I think we could all agree is built through work, coaching, competition, and genetics. Depending on where you are as a player will help you determine what you need from a program, but once again, at the forefront of EVERY players’ list should be development & relationships, not exposure! When your priorities are aligned, then and only then will you give yourself the best opportunity to take advantage of whatever else may come next.

When Competition in Youth Sports Hurts Long-Term Development

As I was scrolling through my podcasts the other night, I ran across one that focused on competition as a pitfall to the talent development process. I dove into the podcast with an open mind and found the perspective interesting & reflective. There were some parts I agreed with and some I understood, but agreed to disagree. I decided to write my own short piece on the topic.

One of the things mentioned in the podcast was the idea that highly competitive environments promote behavior changes from coaches. They cause coaches to shift to a restrictive, tactical approach that will often limit a player’s options in hopes of eliminating mistakes and winning more games. You see this all the time across all levels- coaches tell players things they can’t do or tactically design strategies that will maximize their team’s win total. In doing so, a coach often feeds their own ego with the belief that their team is “well coached” due to a strategy they implemented to get their team a win. Is a team only “well coached” if they follow a set of rules and patterns? Or if they win the majority of their games? At younger levels, will those same strategies lead to the same results in the future? Or will a team and a group of players that only know how to follow commands or is constrained under a series of rules made by an adult fall short over time in reaching their true capabilities? I would argue the latter.

When we see coaches using the “joystick” approach (meaning they control all movements of each player like a video game) at young levels to win games, many times the argument is that “we have to start teaching kids to win and be competitive”. Is teaching winning in this manner at young ages more important than developing skills, confidence, and the ability to identify & solve problems on their own? The argument of teaching players to win could be made at a certain age, but I think more and more people are taking a win at all costs approach way too early in a child’s athletic career.

I don’t have it nailed down to a science, but when I coach youth sports, I would lean more toward the side of development, which often times ends up leading to more wins as a season progresses anyway. I coach 8th grade basketball in the winter and my assistant and I have always believed in each kid playing in every half, to limit set plays, and to call timeouts only when necessary. We encourage the kids to communicate and solve their own problems at practice & put every kid in different roles to hopefully advance their skill set and understanding of the game. Are we always perfect in our quest? No, we fall short sometimes, but for the most part our teams take more ownership in themselves by the end of the year & they usually need us less & less as the season goes on. We always have players run parts of or whole practices by the end of the year. We are only there to solve disputes or help guide a drill if need be. To me, that’s a well-coached team- when your players DON’T need you and don’t rely on you to give them all the answers and solve all their problems, but have learned to do these things on their own.

Another point brought up during the podcast was the idea of playing time. This is another thing that poses an interesting debate. Should kids be on a team and not play in youth sports? On one side, some would argue that if they don’t play they will become more motivated to advance their skills and get better. The other side, however is that they become unmotivated and quit the sport. To me, especially at young ages, it’s important to try and develop as many players who enjoy the game and the process of improving as possible. You never know what’s going to happen as kids get older as it pertains to physical maturation, new interests, or injuries. It’s not to say that I believe that equal playing time should be given to every kid on every team, but I absolutely do believe that practice opportunities should be equal at young ages, and I certainly don’t believe in completely cutting out a kid’s game opportunities at the youth level, which I so frequently see. 

Without extending this article too long, ultimately, I think at times the overly-competitive nature of youth sports has promoted a dangerous “win at all costs” mentality from parents and coaches stemming from the need to validate their own egos. It’s imperative at the youth levels that players understand the value of competition but it’s not at the expense of environments where they have room to be creative, solve problems, and DEVELOP. It doesn’t mean that every kid gets a trophy, it doesn’t mean that we just roll the ball out and let kids do whatever they want, and it doesn’t mean that every youth team consists of equal playing time, but it does mean that coaches and parents become more aware the dangerous win at all costs mentality & understand the importance of what it means to foster true long-term development.

Thanks for reading!

Reflections from an Unforgettable Journey

After four years coaching the class of 2018 WI Shooters AAU basketball team, our journey as a group came to an end last weekend. A flurry of emotions came through me as I addressed the group as a whole for the last time. Special kids, special parents, and a lot of memories that will never be replaced. In the days that followed, I have reflected a great deal on all the things we were able to experience. The road wasn’t always smooth, but even through the rocky points, I can say with certainty that we all grew. We became better individually as well as collectively. From a personal standpoint, I learned a great deal about the developmental process, coaching, players, parents, and about myself as an individual. Naturally, I wrote some of it down and have decided to share it here. I hope you can find something that resonates with you in my reflections.

Not everyone is going to buy into what you’re doing as a leader; keep sharing your message and loving people anyway. As a coach, I had parents who disapproved of what I did and the decisions I made within our team- sometimes they made it personal, sometimes they just strongly disagreed with philosophy, but I always did my best to never let it affect how I shared my message and how I loved and coached their kid. It wasn’t always easy, but I always tried to stay true to myself and give people the love and respect they deserved regardless if someone disagreed or agreed with what I was doing.

Surround yourself with great people. We hear it all the time- but it’s absolutely true. I was incredibly fortunate to have directors, fellow coaches, and friends whom I could trust. Having a strong support system can keep belief when there is doubt and hold people together in times of uncertainty. Being surrounded by great people also makes us stronger- we benefit by having their strengths and abilities to add to or supplement what we’re already doing! Whether it’s an idea, a nod of approval, or something they’re seeing that we’re not, being surrounded by great people will always elevate us as individuals in any endeavor in our lives.

Confidence fluctuates. That makes us human. There were times I went into a game with a bad feeling, there were other times I was just really nervous about a particular game. I used to get the same feelings as a player. THIS IS NORMAL. I used to think that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t feel confident all the time. Social media always tells us that, “Preparation leads to confidence.” So I’ve always taken that as “if I feel nervous, I’m obviously not prepared”, but I’ve learned that’s not the truth. We are all human beings and we all naturally go through ebbs and flows with how confident we feel in the moment. Sometimes we are going to be nervous and uptight no matter how much we prepare or how hard we’ve worked. I can remember my first ever speaking engagement to 200 corporate executives who flew in for a conference from across the country. I prepared for months. I gave the speech to a wall over well over 100 times. When the day came to give the speech- I was as nervous as you could possibly imagine. I played out everything that could go wrong, my palms were sweaty, heart was racing, and my arms were shaking grabbing the microphone- what did I do to combat this? Absolutely nothing. I just went on stage and started the speech and by the time I was two minutes in- the nerves were gone and I felt a wave of extreme confidence. No matter how much you prepare, your confidence will fluctuate- that’s completely normal. The solution isn’t to lie to yourself or fight that emotion- the solution is do nothing. Just keep going. Stay in the game. Those nerves will be gone before you know it!

Building great relationships gives you room to make mistakes as a leader. I messed up a lot as a coach and I probably will mess up more times in the future. Like players and officials, coaches are imperfect too. You hope that you make all the right decisions and press all the right buttons- but the truth is often times you don’t. When you have built relationships and when your players know you care and love them unconditionally, it comes back to you as a coach. When you’re off as a coach or when you don’t have your best performance, your players will still trust you and do their best for you, which is one of the strongest testaments to a coach. It all starts with the relationships you foster with your players. When you treat your players with love and respect and care for them as people, not just players, they know, and trust me- they will do just about anything in return to show that they love you right back- even on your worst days.

Mastering self-awareness. How well do we know ourselves? What are the driving forces behind our actions? In order to improve at anything in our lives, it’s important to unbiasedly observe and be completely transparent with ourselves. The more we are aware of our own tendencies, actions, and motivations (good & bad), the more likely we are to respond intentionally and conscientiously to an event or circumstance.

Emotional Intelligence. How well do we understand the people around us? As a coach, parent, teacher, manager, or anyone in a leadership position, self-awareness coupled with emotional intelligence is crucial. Different situations and different people call for different tactics. For me, I always try to have a handle on my players when they walk into practice. Are they upbeat and talkative? What does their body language look like? Are they going to need a “kick in the butt” type of a message or a little extra love and support that day? When we are in touch with and can relate to those in which we lead, we are more likely to deliver beneficial instruction and feedback.

Be patiently impatient. I heard this the other day listening to a podcast and really liked it. It’s another way of saying “trust the process”, but it means that while we trust that the end result will work out the way it’s supposed to- each and every day we are still immersing ourselves in the actions it takes to reach our desired destination. I’m a big believer that things play out the way they are supposed to- but too many times it’s taken as “just be patient and everything will work out”- that’s only true to a point. While we’re waiting and being patient, we better be controlling the things we can or we will just be waiting on a dream or a goal that will never come to fruition.

Enjoy the ride. Such a cliche’ statement, but couldn’t be more true. I feel badly for parents who are constantly caught up in social media, comparing their kid to other kids, questioning every decision a coach makes, or feeling the need to lecture their kid after EVERY game on what he or she did wrong. Not only does it make the parents’ life miserable and stressful, it adds a ton of external pressure to their kid. As hard as it may be, let kids have joy in playing the game and competing. If they really love it- they’ll put extra work into it. When they really have a problem (not just being a little upset after a bad game)- they will come to you. Until then, support your kid, find joy in watching them play, and cheer for their teammates’ success just as much as your own kid. Enjoy the ride, because it will be over before you know it.

Thank you for reading!