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Offensive players must be able to recognize when they are in an advantage situation. Lennie Acuff, head coach of Alabama-Huntsville says, “When we get em’ on the run, we want to keep em’ on the run”- meaning when the defense is in a scramble/disadvantage, we don’t want to let them return back to their basic “shell” position. An advantage is kept by quick decision-making and maintaining the integrity of our spacing on the floor. It is lost when players hold the ball on the catch, dribble without purpose, or lose spacing.
The video clip is a perfect depiction of how we want to play when an advantage has been created. On the possession, the defense commits two players to the dribble post-up, which creates a 4 v 3 advantage on the pass-out of the post. From there, the ball doesn’t stop in anyone’s hands- quick decisions are made, and spacing is maintained. This ultimately leads to a high percentage, rhythm shot from one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA.
The action used to create an advantage can vary from team to team and possession by possession. Some teams try to play more in transition, other teams may rely on dribble penetration, ball screens, off-ball screens, post entries, or a combination of any of those actions. Whatever the philosophy is to create the advantage, it’s crucial that players recognize an advantage on offense and then exploit the defense to create a high percentage scoring opportunity.
Most businesses have a mission statement. Good mission statements are clear, concise sets of words (usually one sentence, maximum of two) that help focus and direct a company’s actions- what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. Coaches, leaders, and individual people can create their own mission statements to help guide who they want to become. I was challenged by an article I read online by Nick Sciria to reconnect with my mission and have decided to share it here. The question to answer is: What is your mission and what are the coinciding principles that you live by to help bring words on paper to life? I’m going to write primarily from a coach’s perspective, but the mission I subscribe to and its principles go hand in hand with my personal life as well. My mission as a coach is to:
Leave people and places better than I found them.
This is a mission that I look at from a micro perspective in individual moments as well as a macro perspective over the course of a season, career, or lifetime. It encompasses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects we can influence in our players. A question that I use frequently in reflection is, “Am I coach who elevates those around me? Does my presence have a positive or negative effect on the environment?” Nobody wants to bring people down or negatively impact their environment, but only through intentional action and self-awareness do we allow ourselves to truly bring out the best in the people and places we interact with. Here are a few principles that are paramount in my mission as a coach:
Modeling: What am I modeling to my players? I am a firm believer that players aren’t always hearing what we have to say, but they’re always watching what we’re doing. How do I treat officials? How do I handle a tough loss? Am I prepared for each practice? If I don’t model the behaviors that I expect in my players, the words I speak fall on deaf ears, and the trust that is crucial to connecting with a player and a team is immediately broken. Outside of that, as cliche as it is, our actions will always speak louder than our words.
Connection: Even in large groups, I try to have one personal interaction every day with every player. During a season, I schedule face to face individual meetings, have team discussions about topics other than basketball, and in and out of season, text players individually on how things are going both on and off the court. There is nothing more powerful that a coach can develop with a player than genuine connection. It is the baseline to creating a relationship that fosters mutual respect. When we know our players and know who they are- we have the ability to reach them on a higher level, which ultimately allows us to have a more profound, positive influence in their lives.
Empowerment: I want players to feel a strong sense of responsibility in everything we do- we want them to have ownership. Giving responsibility to the players is not a sign of weakness as some may perceive it to be. When we empower players, they unlock leadership capabilities and gain individual confidence. I will frequently ask players their opinions, have them run a segment of practice (or an entire practice), and almost always use a questioning approach while giving feedback to allow them to come to their own conclusions & solutions.
Process-Oriented: We create standards as a team that focus our attention on our actions and habits. Those standards are clearly articulated and defined. For example, one of our standards is that when a teammate hits the floor, four players sprint over to pick him/her up. As a coach, I want players to understand what they do and who they are each day are more important than any result. My hope is that they understand that failures aren’t permanent and when used correctly, are opportunities for growth. I was outcome-obsessed as a player (W-L, individual/team accolades) and while outcomes are important, it’s our standards & daily actions that I’ve become obsessed with as a coach.
Joy: I borrowed this pillar from the Golden State Warriors. As a coach, I think promoting joy and a love for sport is an integral part of our responsibility. In relation to my mission as a coach, I believe the more a player enjoys playing, the more they will improve as a player and the more they will learn about themselves as an individual. I am not insinuating that coaches have players play H-O-R-S-E or lightning every practice, I do believe, however, that if players generally dread coming to practice it says a lot more about us as coaches than it does about them as players. We try to keep practices short (nothing over two hours), fresh (content variation/ order variation), competitive, and avoid long-winded speeches. On top of that, we allow room for laughs, jokes, and try not to take ourselves too seriously. There is a fine-line here, but I certainly believe that often we tend to fall on the wrong side of this line (me included).
This list could go on for pages and pages, but the five principles I listed are some things I’ve found important in regards to bringing my mission to life. I would challenge each of you, just as I was, to create or revisit your own mission and the coinciding principles/actions. Write them down, review them often, and commit to being the best version of yourself, which will in turn help you bring out the best in those around you!
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.