Educative vs Training Environment

Much has been written on Twitter about passing and catching in the last week, prompted by Oregon’s Kelly Graves’ tweet about the high percentage of turnovers in women’s basketball and his implication that a slow, shuffling 2v0 passing drill explained their relatively low turnovers and high assist to turnover ratio.

In the comments, someone pointed out my team’s relatively high turnovers and low assist to turnover ratio last season, although our turnover ratio matched the NCAA average that Graves’ tweeted. This was used to argue that my points were invalid.

I never posted anything about reducing turnovers. I don’t worry about turnovers. We do not stress over turnovers. I work in a developmental level where our goal is to increase scholarship opportunities for our players and prepare them for NCAA D1 basketball.

As I have written previously, I favor an educative environment. In the video below, soccer coach Larry Paul differentiates between an educative environment and a training environment. An educative environment builds and expands options, whereas a training environment reduces options. We aim to expand options, whether through encouraging long passes, behind-the-back passes, one-hand passes, etc.

You will never hear me yell at a post player to “pass it to a guard” or “stop dribbling”, and instead will hear me yell “Go!” as soon as one rebounds the ball. There are not a lot of teams who encourage their 6’3 centers to lead the fast break, but it is likely one reason (of many) that she left with a Division 1 scholarship.

Similarly, it is not in my nature to play conservatively. When we get possession with 3 seconds left in the quarter, 94′ feet from our basket, I encourage a long pass. I want to score. We do not inbound and protect the ball like a smart team; we go for it. Sometimes we score; other times we commit a turnover.

First highlight. Freshman to freshman to freshman. No starters. Not a set play or anything that we had practiced. They organized as they set up for the inbound pass.

Against presses, not many teams look for the 40-foot pass. We do. We do not break presses to get the ball into the front court. We break presses to score layups or shoot open 3s. When the ball goes out of bounds in the front court, we do not inbound the ball and set up; we look to score. Occasionally, we get a 5-second violation or another turnover.

Not many coaches encourage behind-the-back passes. We do. Not many teams have back-up power forwards throwing crosscourt hook passes with their weak hands. We do. I spent the offseason sending texts to two of my guards challenging them to make passes like Milos Teodosic.

Our players play with freedom. Nobody exits the game for a bad pass or a turnover or a bad shot. That’s not our style. Does that lead to more turnovers? Sure. But, despite our turnover issues, our offense ranked as excellent or very good for almost every offensive category at our level, according to Synergy.

There are other factors that explain our turnovers, but my point is not to defend myself or my coaching. Instead, I want to point out that improving passing and catching skills and reducing turnovers are not the same thing. There are two general ways to improve: (1) increase your potential options or (2) decrease mistakes. We improve by increasing our options: throwing different kinds of passes, making different moves, increasing shooting range, etc. Most coaches focus on limiting options in an effort to decrease mistakes and ultimately win the game. That’s not us.

Therefore, our players improved. Our passing and catching improved. Our turnover numbers may not suggest that, but that has to do with our style of play and our level. How?

If you need a form passing drill, I suggest this:

Mostly, our drills are competitive because I worry less about the correct technique and more about the ability to find a pass against the defender:

We add in some two-ball transition shooting drills to practice one-hand passing and add conditioning. These are examples (not my favorite).

We also pass in all of our shooting drills.

In a short practice (we never go over 2 hours), I don’t understand the purpose for an uncontested passing drill when players throw dozens of uncontested passes during shooting drills. Therefore, when we practice passing specifically, we practice the decision-making aspects of passing: identifying the open player, reading cuts, timing, etc.

We clearly are not perfect, but our record, our offensive stats, and our progression of players to the next level, especially with some constraints that we face, suggest that while our turnovers may look high, and may suggest that we cannot pass, they probably are not a big problem and are somewhat indicative of some of our strengths, namely the players’ freedom and confidence to explore and try new things.

Play is Learning

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.16 and Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 7.

There are two distinct voices within coaching and literature. On one end of the spectrum, there is deliberate practice. On the other end of the spectrum, there is play. On Twitter, professor Dave Collins wrote: “Play on its own is important, but surely so too is learning.” This is a problem. Play is learning; it may not be sufficient to reach an expert performance, and the best learning environments support play and build upon the learning that occurs through play, but there is no denying that learning occurs through play. 

For generations, we learned through play. At TED, evolutionary anthropologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo said: “Play is not just child’s games…play is foundational for building relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity: diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, and diversity of connections. When you watch bonobo play, you are seeing the evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.”

The last few decades have reduced opportunities for play in a rush to promote more serious and structured activities that supposedly promote success. During those same decades, rates of attention deficit disorder and similar disorders (Nyarko et al., 2017), obesity (Cunningham et al., 2014), and depression and other mental illnesses (Olfson et al., 2014) have increased. Correlation does not equal causation, but there is evidence that exercise improves behavior and academic performance in those diagnosed with ADHD (Pontifex et al., 2013), reduces symptoms of depression (Barclay et al., 2014), and fights obesity. 

Play is a significant contributor to a child’s cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development (Blasi et al., 2002). Play is essential for healthy brain development, increases physical activity levels in children, develops social and decision-making skills, and enables exploration and discovery of interests (Ginsburg, 2007). “Play is very much an activity of the mind….Engagement in play involves the mind in an active process as a child investigates, explores, and inquires during play” (Blasi et al., 2002). 

Traditionally, the learning process for almost any skill started with play. I played basketball for years before I was coached. I and my friends developed numerous skills through our recess games. By the time that we had a coach, we could dribble, shoot, pass, make layups, and more. We knew the basic concepts. We had not perfected these skills, and some were better than others, but we had developed a good foundation. More importantly, we were motivated. We tried out for the school team of our own volition, whereas my parents signed me up for soccer when I was young. 

I never played soccer or touched a soccer ball before my first organized practice. Everything I learned about soccer was through an organized practice or drill. I enjoyed soccer, and over the years I improved, but not in the same way that I loved basketball or improved in basketball. After eight years of organized soccer, my skills were rudimentary; the coaching, exposure to the game, lack of individual practice, lack of pickup games, and more influenced the differences between my development in basketball and soccer, but the initial entry into the sports is at least partially responsible for the differences. I started basketball through play and it was natural for me to search for pickup games or to practice on my own; I started soccer in an organized environment with a schedule of practices and games, and it was less evident for me to practice on my own or search for pickup games. My interest and motivation for basketball was greater, and consequently, I improved more, developed better skills, practiced more, and played the game better. 

Development is multifactorial, but the initial activities certainly set up a different path in each sport, and the outcomes were somewhat predictable, at least to someone who values play. For someone who believes that play is frivolous or unimportant, the outcomes are surprising or attributable to other factors, such as total hours of engagement. The greater exposure to basketball is a factor, and likely the greatest factor, but it is influenced by the initial opportunities to play and find my passion for the game on my own. I chose basketball; I never chose soccer or baseball, and despite more years of organized practices and games, my skills in baseball and soccer were never as advanced as they were in basketball. 

Ericsson et al. (1993) wrote that conditions for optimal learning required: (1) Motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve performance; (2) the task to take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners; (3) immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results; and (4) repeatedly performing the same or similar tasks. Deliberate practice, then, is effortful, designed specifically to improve performance, requires immediate feedback, and is repetitive (Ericsson et al., 1993).

To a large degree, the first condition is a prerequisite for the following three, but it is the condition that is ignored most often. Ericsson wrote that one must have passion for the activity before engaging in deliberate practice; this is mentioned rarely when discussing his work, but may be the most important point. When a player lacks motivation, the repetitions, carefully designed practices, and feedback will not amount to much. As an example, when I contemplate a major change to a player’s shooting technique, my first consideration is the player’s motivation; will the player invest the time, effort, and concentration required to stabilize the change? If not, why bother? Essentially, I am asking if the player has the motivation to engage in deliberate practice.

Whereas deliberate practice is essential in a situation such as changing a player’s shooting technique, play includes three of the four conditions of optimal learning, at least within sport (and this is an issue with transferring Ericsson’s work to sports, as his research was on chess and violin, which differ from sports such as basketball). 

In play, there is motivation to continue; in fact, that is a key identifier of play. Play can involve great effort; when I played pickup games, my play was at least as effortful as a typical practice. In a sport such as basketball, there is immediate knowledge of results regardless of a coach’s presence. When I shoot, and I miss the shot, I know this immediately. This is knowledge of results. The only condition that play fails to meet is repetitiveness, as play involves repetition without repetition (Bernstein, 1967). Rather than repeating the same task identically, play involves numerous different attempts at a task; when I was young, and I shot in my front yard, I imagined different situations or playing against different defensive players; when I played pickup games, the different defenders forced new moves or shots. I may have performed 20 or 100 repetitions, but none was the same. 

Deliberate practice must be structured to improve specific aspects of performance. Mastering a specific piece of music for violin differs from playing basketball. Basketball is changing constantly and evolving; it is more like jazz, as David Thorpe titled his new book, than a symphony. Varying the repetitions through play may be more akin to deliberate practice than removing and isolating a skill, which is typically how we view deliberate practice. The pop science-y books have led to increased isolated training and early specialization, but these changes have negative repercussions. Early specialization and repetitive movements have been shown to lead to increased injury in athletes (Read et al., 2016); chess players do not lose a season due to carpal tunnel from moving the chess pieces too often at too young of an age. 

Ericsson and colleagues (1993) addressed play and described the differences between play and his definition of deliberate practice: “In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable (Ericsson et al., 1993). Not all learning occurs in this method. I have trained numerous players who enjoyed working out; in these sessions, the activities were structured, coach-led, specifically designed by a coach, and had a goal of improved performance. Because they enjoyed them, does it fail to meet Ericsson’s definition? Do we have to hate what we do in order to learn? I don’t believe so. 

The voices on the deliberate practice spectrum tend to describe play as frivolous. It may be fun or have social benefits, but it does not improve skill. I hear basketball coaches who say that practices should not be fun. Why not? Basketball is play. That does not mean that one cannot do drills or that fun has to be the most important goal of every second of practice, but why should avoiding fun purposely be a goal at all? 

If play is learning, skill improves through play. In a study of German national team soccer players, the national team players compared to amateurs engaged in more non-organized leisure football in childhood, more other sports in adolescence, later specialization, and more organized football only after age 22 (Hornig et al., 2016). They played more and specialized later. In Australian Rules Football, the total number of hours in invasion-game activities differentiated expert and non-expert decision makers, suggesting that it is the involvement in the activities, not their designated purposes, that differentiated the experts (Berry et al., 2008).

When I was young, I skied. I was not skiing to join a ski team. I skied for fun. It was play. The more often that I skied, the better I became. I challenged myself on harder and harder runs. When I fell, I had immediate knowledge of results that I did something wrong. I initiated the activity; I picked the runs. Despite the inherent fun, a full day of skiing, especially as I got older and went after moguls, was effortful. In a sense, the optimal conditions for learning described by Ericsson were present in my skiing, despite the absence of coaching and performance-related goals. It would be crazy to suggest that I did not learn as I progressed from the bunny slopes to black diamond runs with moguls. 

Deliberate practice is not wrong; drills are not wrong. Practice does not always have to be fun, and the goal is not necessarily to maximize fun. However, learning occurs through play. Fun is not bad. Drills are not the only way to learn. Play is not necessarily easy; play can be effortful. Often, play is more effortful because the enjoyment and inner drive to continue leads to more hours spent on the task.

Rather than looking at the clock every 10 minutes until a workout is finished, one plays until he or she decides it is enough or until the gym closes, which is when I left the gym during my high school years. I showed up just before the games started to get into the first game, and I left when they kicked us out of the gym. Nobody forced me. I played for fun, but I learned as much or more in these Sunday night pickup games against older players as I did in all of my practices and camps combined.

Play is learning, and many of our problems, whether societal or within sports, are due to our increasing dismissal of unstructured play as unimportant or frivolous. 

References

Barclay, T.H., Richards, S., Schoffstall, J., Magnuson, C., McPhee, C., Price, J., Aita, S., Anderson, A., Johnson, D., & Price, J. (2014). A pilot study on the effects of exercise on depression symptoms using levels of neurotransmitters and EEG as markers. European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 1(1), 30-35.

Bernstein, N.A. (1967). The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Pergamon Press; Oxford.

Berry, J., Abernethy, B., & Côté, J. (2008). The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 685-708.

Blasi, M., Hurwitz, S.C., & Hurwitz, S.C. (2002). For parents particularly: To be successful — Let them play!. Childhood Education, 79(2), 101-102.

Cunningham, S.A., Kramer, M.R., & Narayan, K.V. (2014). Incidence of childhood obesity in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(5), 403-411.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363-406.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Güllich, A. (2016). Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 96-105.

Nyarko, K.A., Grosse, S.D., Danielson, M.L., Holbrook, J.R., Visser, S.N., & Shapira, S.K. (2017). Treated prevalence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder increased from 2009 to 2015 among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

Olfson, M., Blanco, C., Wang, S., Laje, G., & Correll, C. U. (2014). National trends in the mental health care of children, adolescents, and adults by office-based physicians. JAMA psychiatry, 71(1), 81-90.

Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (2013). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Journal of pediatrics, 162(3), 543-551.

Read, P. J., Oliver, J. L., De Ste Croix, M. B., Myer, G. D., & Lloyd, R. S. (2016). The scientific foundations and associated injury risks of early soccer specialisation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(24), 2295-2302.

College recruiting is overrated

This spring, after six players signed NCAA D1 scholarships, a few NCAA Division 1 coaches made some interesting comments. One, after we discussed our record and such, said, “You had a talented team”. Another implied that they had spoken to one of my players when she was in high school and passed on her, as though they did me a favor. Finally, another asked if I knew that my best player would end up that good.

Five of the six were initial qualifiers; the D1 coach who thought they were talented could have signed any of the five, but none had even a D2 offer, although several talked to D1s and D2s before signing (truthfully, the coach had three chances to sign them: as high school seniors, after their first year at J.C., and after their second year at J.C., and despite their talent, the coach never offered any). If it was evident that they were talented, how did not one of the 351 NCAA D1 women’s basketball teams offer a scholarship to any? If each program signs an average of four players per year, roughly 1400 players signed scholarships, but these talented players had no offers.

The school that spoke to one before she signed with me was as good as any player on that team. The coach basically admitted one of two things: (1) They could have signed her, but their evaluation skills are poor, and they passed on her to sign players who are not as good; or (2) She chose a not-quite-full scholarship at a junior college over a D1 full scholarship. Either way, I thought, “So, you’re admitting that you’re bad at your job.”

Finally, I did imagine that the player would be as good as she is. I watched two possessions on video before offering her a scholarship. Furthermore, I watched two pull-up midrange jump shots, shots that I avoid. I never saw her play defense or pass or go to the rim. In those two possessions, it was easy to see that she had a transferable skill set: She had a good shooting technique, she moved effortlessly, and she had good height for her position (she signed as a 2/3). When she arrived, I learned that she never shot three-pointers. Also, I moved her to point guard, a position that she had never played. She left as a point guard who shot 38% from the three-point line. She is far from the same player as when she arrived, but it only took two possessions to project that she could develop into such a player.

These three comments illustrate the recruiting issues at many programs. We overrate marketing and sales, and underrate evaluation. We see recruiting as “connecting with players”, and not as identifying players who fit a system or who have the foundation on which to develop. Recruiting is social media and fun graphics, taking pictures in uniform and going to expensive restaurants, not identifying and filling needs or seeing the difference between a weakness that can be developed or hidden and one that will inhibit success.

Consequently, nearly every NCAA Division 1 program relies on recruiting services to rank players and tell them who to recruit. Despite employing multiple coaches who are hired ostensibly for recruiting purposes, they pay outside consultants and services thousands of dollars per year. They outsource the evaluation and talent identification and focus on sales and marketing.

Of course, these adults market to 18-year-olds. I am not invested heavily in recruiting because 18-year-olds do not make rational decisions. I made my final college decision because of weather. My players are older (19-21), and they made their college decisions for a variety of reasons, many inexplicable. Who knows why an 18-year-old chooses one school over another? I know my players thought that the recruiting tactics employed by most of the schools and coaches were ridiculous. Over and over, they asked why a coach did something, and my answer tended to be “because they think that they have to do that because they think that other schools are doing it and they don’t want to miss out on a player because they did not do something that another program did.” It seems like nobody really evaluates which strategies actually work.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. Talent wins. This is not debatable. The top programs — Notre Dame, UConn, Baylor — not only recruit top 10 talent, but sign specific top 10 talent. Other programs collect stars and hope to figure out their fit later. They sign as many McDonald’s All-Americans as South Carolina, Baylor, Notre Dame, etc., but fail to reach Final Fours. If talent wins, why?

Evaluation and identification are more than noticing good players. A recruiting service ranks players in a vacuum because the service does not have to win games. Player #1 is marginally better than Player #2 in the rankings’ opinions, but Player #1 is not better in all situations. Kalani Brown led Baylor to the 2019 NCAA National Championship, but she does not fit well with UConn’s style; that does not mean she’s not a great player or that UConn plays the wrong style. It suggests that UConn probably would not recruit her regardless of rankings or stars or that UConn would have to adjust its preferred system to maximize her strengths and hide her weaknesses.

When I recruit, I value certain things. I also trust that I can develop certain skills. I have a strong sense of our style of play. Consequently, I ignore players who went on to sign NCAA D1 scholarships. Am I wrong? Maybe. However, I know out style, and the players did not fit. That does not make them bad players or not D1 players. When I recruit, I am not collecting recruiting stars; I am building a team.

I worry little about sales and marketing; my biggest recruiting tool is current players. They are my salespeople. I trust that by treating players well, running fun practices, developing skills, and working hard to move on players to the D1 level that the current players will see that and explain that to recruits. Part of that is shaped by our constraints; if a player needs to be wined and dined or cares greatly about gear or free stuff, etc., we don’t have it to offer. We sell what we have: Opportunity and a commitment to enjoying basketball and developing. It is not a sales pitch to wow potential recruits, but I do not want players who need to be wowed. I want gym rats who are drama free, and this recruiting approach tends to work on those players and eliminates others.

This year, I looked for two qualities above all else. I want to be + in these two qualities at every position. When I found players with these qualities, I tried to get a sense of their personalities; were they gym rats? If they have these two qualities, and they love to play, I am confident that our style (practice and playing style) will attract them, and I am confident that players who love to play will improve.

I don’t care who recruits the players or what a recruiting service says. I am not battling for the top 5 players; signing a player such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Aja Wilson, Arike Ogunbowale, Napheesa Collier, etc. gives a program an opportunity to compete for an NCAA National Championship. I recruit down in the 100s to 1000s to 5000s where the differences between players is one opinion versus another. Ultimately, I trust that players who sign with me will end up better than others because I trust that few coaches develop players as well. Arrogance, maybe, but I think most good coaches would think the same.

When I see discussions about recruiting, however, the basketball side is all but ignored. Recruiting discussions center on wooing players: The sales and marketing. Players are wooed and arrive to campus and find that the coach is completely different. Recruits go from special (the one being pursued) to the bottom once they arrive. Some cannot handle this. Some feel that coaches lied in the recruiting process. Once the sales and marketing ends, they realize the customer service and the product is not actually what they wanted to buy. They are unhappy or they transfer.

Often, this happens because there is a mismatch between the player and the style of play or the coaching style. The player enjoys being wooed and picks the best wooer, and the recruiters focus on sales and marketing and signing the biggest names or the highest ranked players. Nobody really thinks about the fit.

I saw a player on the transfer portal yesterday. I tried to recruit her as a high-school player, but was told that she was going D1. I never saw where she signed. Once I saw her in the portal, I laughed out loud. Like, seriously, who made this decision? The fit was awful in almost every way possible. Of course she is transferring after her freshman year! Our scholarship may not have been as enticing, and bragging about a junior-college scholarship is not the same as a D1 scholarship, but I guarantee that she would have fit better, had more fun, and developed better here. It is not that the college is bad or the coach is bad; this coach is an acquaintance and I would not hesitate to send a player there. However, not this player. It’s like once the momentum got rolling, everyone got distracted by “D1” and “highly ranked” and nobody stopped to think about fit.

Noticing the top 5-10 players is easy. Selling your program should be easy; after all, if you cannot sell your own program, why would anyone want to go there? The difficulty in recruiting is finding the right fit and evaluating players with room to grow (whether because of right mentality, physical traits, developable skills, etc) versus players who have peaked.

Unfortunately, when we discuss recruiting, these separators are discussed infrequently, which is why recruiting ends up being tremendously overrated for nearly everyone below the top 5-10 programs.

The problem now with the transfer portal is that those coaches and programs who are bad at the important skills — identifying potential, evaluating fit, and developing skills — can get rid of mistakes more quickly and sign transfers who are mature and more proven at the D1 level. There were multiple programs that had 5+ transfers this year; before the portal, that would have been a sign of a coach to stay away from. Now, it’s barely a blip. Other programs succeed almost entirely on Division 1 transfers; why risk signing unpredictable high school players when you can watch them play against college competition and then evaluate their skills and fit?

Offseason Drills

Yesterday, as I worked out with two players, two guys worked out on the other end of the court. At one point, my players wanted to work on ball handling; we started a drill about the same time that the guys started their drill.

For our ball-handling practice, we did triple moves into jump shots or finishes. The smaller guard worked on pull-up jump shots and floaters, and the forward worked on pull-up 3s and different layups. They started from different angles and finished with different shots from different locations on each repetition. They practiced different dribble moves and combinations on each repetition.

On the other hand, they set up chairs to designate where to go. I don’t know their objective, but it looked as though they were using a ball screen (first chair), hesitating to freeze the hedging or switching defender (second chair), and making a crossover into a shot. They did the same exact move in the same direction for the same shot for the entire time.

Their practice appeared to be specific; maybe the guy uses on-ball screens in their offense and has to attack switches better. I don’t know; I am guessing at their objective based on what I saw. It’s possible that the chairs signified nothing more than a spot on the court.

Our practice was general. I like triple move drills to improve dribbling skill because it focuses on the control of the reception of the dribble. Rather than do simple drills or stationary drills to improve control, I prefer drills at close to game speed with actual game-like moves. I also prefer to finish offensive drills with a shot, as the point of any move or pass is to move closer to scoring.

I know that our practice was not game-like. It was a general dribbling drill focused on a specific aspect of dribbling: control on one’s moves.

I fear that many would view their practice as game-like because it resembled a move or a shot that one might take in a game. However, the chair provided no cues and forced no decisions. Without decisions, the drill is not game-like regardless of its specificity to a shot that one may take in a game.

When people walk into the gym, and see these two practices, most gravitate toward the other end. It looks important. It looks like something that happens in a game. The props add an element of organization. They worked at a more rapid pace.

It would be easy to conclude that we were not practicing seriously. I rarely offered feedback unless they asked a question. I choose the triple moves drill because it provides its own feedback. When they mishandle the ball, I do not have to tell them that they lost control – chasing after the ball tells them. We lost control of the ball far more than on the other end; another sign that their practice was better.

Our practice, however, was based largely, although not intentionally, around motor-learning theory. (1) The players had autonomy: They picked the drill, they chose their moves, they started when ready; (2) The task provided relevant and informative feedback; (3) The task challenged the players beyond their current level (as evidenced by mistakes); (4) Delayed feedback controlled by the learner; (5) Random, variable practice that interleaved dribbling and shooting/finishing practice and included different moves from different spots and different finishes on each repetition; (6) Repetition without repetition: We practices for 10 minutes, which provided dozens of repetitions, but they did not practice the same move or same shot twice.

The other end featured block practice and near-constant feedback (could not hear the nature of the feedback).

Despite a theoretical basis on our end, most identify block practice and more feedback as hallmarks of good practice and coaching. This is just an example of the differences between a traditional practice session and how we develop skills. The example above was roughly 10 minutes out of a much longer workout, but these occurred simultaneously and provided a nice contrast for different type of individual practice.

Spend the Offseason #Grinding or Developing Skills

Yesterday, I commented on a video of college basketball players:

Not everyone was happy with the critique.

Challenge accepted.

via GIPHY

What would you tell this coach/program to better use their time and replace this with?

Without knowing the quality that they attempted to improve, it is difficult to suggest alternatives. Based on the feedback, they cared about effort. If that is the goal, mission accomplished, I suppose. The players appeared to give effort. The drill appeared to be hard. If that was the only goal, I have no real alternatives. It is fairly easy to make anything hard.

The tweet said “getting better every day”, which prompted my question. Getting better at giving effort? Okay. Getting better at basketball? Debatable.

To clear up the misconceptions, this is not agility, nor does it have anything to do with playing defense. Looking only at the movements, this is training a slow change of direction. First, they touch the ground, which changes one’s posture compared to that which a player uses in a game. Second, many reach outside their base of support; they reach toward their outside leg. If I move to my right, and need to change directions to go left, I do not want to reach outside my base of support to my right. This slows down my movement. Notice how they stop on nearly every change of direction.

This is not exactly how I do lateral movement training with bands, but it just popped up on Twitter and is close:

Again, depending on goals, this is an alternative, if the goal is to improve acceleration, change of direction speed, lateral movement, movement quality, etc.

I have commented on this previously with regards to a college strength & conditioning coach. Previously, the team ran to a line, turned, and ran back, much like a baseline to baseline sprint in a game. As with this video, there was no feedback, instruction, or corrections for technique, and the players changed directions slowly. Why do you want to use conditioning work to reinforce patterns that slow down players in a sport predicated by speed?

Before we condition players, we instruct a hockey stop for change directions. Therefore, when we condition, we (hopefully) practice the correct technique and develop this pattern. Why invest time training a movement pattern that ultimately has to be corrected in order to move well during a game?

Again, this comes back to my presentation to Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group in 2011. Strength and conditioning coaches (I am assuming this is an S&C workout, not a basketball workout) should be concerned with skill development too, not just putting up numbers. The S&C workout should complement the basketball skill workout, and vice versa. If players train a slow movement here because the goal is to be hard, it fails to complement the basketball-specific movements on the court.

Is this harmful?

Probably not, depending on volume and preparation. However, is that the standard that we set for workouts? It’s not harmful; therefore, it is good?

On the other hand, it may cause negative transfer. If players use these patterns on the court, and consequently move slower, there is negative transfer. The training made players worse. In that sense, one may view it as harmful.

Doesn’t have any value to explosiveness, core, etc.?

I do not see much value in explosiveness or core because their posture and positions are poor. Is that because of fatigue, not the drill? Is it because it is their first time doing this? I don’t know.

However, I know that college coaches constantly complain about the lack of time with their players during the offseason. Consequently, why use that time for an exercise that probably isn’t harmful? Why not maximize the value of the time?

Honestly, the biggest positive to me is that it works on lateral movement because I believe that there is a sagittal bias in training, and basketball is a multidirectional sport.

However, if one wants to improve lateral movement, why not lateral plyometrics? Here is a link to a paper on the benefits of frontal-plane plyometrics. Below are the exercises; consider those additional alternatives.

Why do fake fundamentals persist?

A coach sent a video of a prominent coach starting a camp with his favorite fake fundamentals, and this coach expressed his frustration with the lack of evolution in coaches who are described as among the world’s best. The below is based on my reply.

I have found that coaches take bizarre pride in doing things when they know that players hate them. I am convinced that many feel that it is unfair that players/children today do not face the same struggles as during their childhood, and they intentionally inflict this struggle onto the players who they coach. I suppose it is the coach’s version of “when I was your age, I walked to school uphill both ways”.

I cannot relate because my father’s mission in life was to make sure I did not suffer through the unpleasant things of his childhood and adolescence. He worked to make my life (and my sister’s and mother’s) better and easier. Therefore, I do not understand these coaches who want young players to go through the same crap they did as a rite of passage of some sort.

This is not to suggest that everything about basketball must be easy and fun all the time. We practice defense, have a conditioning test, lift weights and more. Players improve. It is the desire, which I see in many, to make basketball purposefully not fun that I struggle to reconcile.

This attitude starts with the analogies that we use: “We’re going to war”, “boot camp”, “We’re grinding,” etc. Basketball is not war; war is war. Playing a game is not a grind; washing dishes for $6/hour is a grind! Soldiers go through boot camp to prepare for war; one reason is to see if the soldiers will break under extreme mental and physical pressures and exhaustion in order to exclude these soldiers before they get into a war zone and cost lives. I understand that coaches will argue that they want to see which players will break under pressure, but why do we want to exclude players at the developmental levels? Missing a crucial free throw in an u15 AAU game is not life or death. For those who missed it the first time, basketball is not war; it is not life or death.

My initial philosophy boiled down to: Eliminate everything that I hated or thought was irrelevant as a player and do more of the things that players enjoy. I took small steps, as I did not want to stray too far from the good coaches. After I read about former St. John’s University (MN) football coach John Gagliardi, I jumped feet first and eliminated all fake fundamentals.

This should not be revolutionary. Why intentionally do things that you disliked as a player? Some things that players dislike may have value, and part of the coach’s job is to push players beyond their comfort zone. Many drills and exercises could be changed to be more fun and engaging. Why do many coaches feel that is a negative? Fun is not a bad word. It is okay for players to enjoy the experience; that does not make you soft or a bad coach.

The Best Development System – As Many As Possible

“As many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” – Mark O’Sullivan

“Participation. Progression. Performance.” – Daniel Abrahams

For several years, Mark O’Sullivan from AIK in Stockholm, Sweden has advocated a development system that includes “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” Some people who concentrate on elite sport disagree and promote early identification, specialization, and exclusion to invest resources in the few, as opposed to the many, but O’Sullivan’s mantra is based on the belief that one cannot identify the talented few at a young age and, more importantly, that every child has a right to play.

As many as possible for as long as possible was the United States’ biggest athlete development advantage throughout the 1900s. People acknowledge the United States’ large population as its major advantage in international competitions, as well as the country’s wealth, but underestimate the benefits of a school-based sports system that allowed millions of children to participate in sports.

I attended a private boys’ Catholic high school. Many attributed our basketball success to recruiting, as a few players transferred into our school during the height of the school’s competitiveness. However, at that time, I imagine there were +/-25 Catholic elementary schools in the area that fed two Catholic high schools. Roughly speaking, +/-15 tended to feed into my high school, and +/-10 fed the other school. Assuming each graduating 8th grade class had 5-10 boys playing on the 8th grade basketball team, 75-150 boys who played on 8th grades teams matriculated to our high school, not to mention boys who attended schools outside our Catholic schools league.

We started on teams in 5th grade. Because they did not like the idea of cutting 5th graders, they started a second team for 5th and 6th graders when I was in 5th grade. Every boy who wanted to play at my school played on one of the two teams. This quickly spread to 3rd and 4th grades while I remained at the school, and eventually down to kindergarten. roughly 10-15 boys in k-8th playing basketball, and this is one school. None of these boys was cut, although there was some stratification with the A and B teams. Each team played a full schedule and received similar coaching.

When I started high school, roughly 125 boys tried out for the freshmen basketball team every year. The school decided cutting down to 15 was too much, so they added a second freshmen team, and eventually a second junior varsity team. That meant one high school had roughly 75 players remaining in the competitive stream. As many as possible for as long as possible. Many sports did not cut anyone through high school.

Somewhere during the ’00s, we decided that this system was was holding the U.S. back from developing more and better athletes, and we needed more private clubs, private trainers, and earlier specialization. When I played, our metropolitan city had two club programs (BCI and Nike); BCI had two teams (u16, u18), I believe, and Nike had one varsity team. BCI went to the BCI National Tournament and Nike went to the Big Time. Other than local games and leagues to prepare for these tournaments, that was the extent of club basketball. Now, club teams reach down to u8s, and they are viewed as vital to development and exposure. Some call themselves “developmental” programs despite cutting players every year. The large number of clubs has some benefits, as they provide playing opportunities for many, but this is offset in many negatives in terms of participation.

Today, in girls basketball, many high schools only have one team for schools with 2500+ students, and many schools do not need tryouts because fewer than 15 players turn out for the team. When I was in high school, these schools had 3 teams (frosh, JV, varsity and sometimes 4 with a frosh-soph team) and had to cut players to get down to the 36 to 48 players on the teams.

Some of the decline is due to the increasing popularity of lacrosse and softball, although they play in different seasons; softball and lacrosse should not prohibit one from playing high-school basketball. Much of the decline in participation is attributed to early specialization, and especially the club teams. Volleyball and softball club teams are known to hoard their players and prevent multi-sport participation. Basketball clubs do the same, as I know coaches who discourage girls from playing volleyball because they believe it will hinder their basketball development. Some believe that the specialization is a net positive, as the school’s best athlete playing one sport instead of three opens opportunities for two other students to make a team. Unfortunately, those players may never have played previously because they were cut at younger ages.

Somehow, we decided that the biggest factor in the U.S.’s sports success over decades is an impediment to success, and we’re undermining ourselves at every level by turning sports development into private for-profit enterprise. We have moved from a system that embodied the “as many as possible for as long as possible” goal and entered the race to the bottom, to use another of O’Sullivan’s phrases. Rather than support systems that increase participation and allow for late talent identification, we wish to identify the talented few at younger and younger ages and ignore everyone else.

This rush to identify talent as pre-adolescents happens as many criticize NBA professionals for their ability to identify the talented at 19+ years of age:

Now, I do not agree with the above entirely, as the statement is true only if the drafted players never improved or were injured, and if all environments, opportunities and coaches were the same. These same issues affect the talent spotting of younger children, except these other factors are magnified even greater at younger ages. If a 19 year-old is not a finished player, what is an 8-year-old?

In every instance when I have met with a federation about talent development and identification, the initial goal is always to find the talented few earlier and pour more resources into those few players. My answer is always the opposite: Find ways to increase participation and delay talent identification. My opposition is likely the reason that none of these federations have hired me, as many time, the people in these management positions do not have time for long-term progress; they need short-term results to keep their jobs. This turnover and the short-term emphasis also stymies the development of the federation, and none of these federations/organizations are in a better place 5-10 years after I spoke to them.

The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches and the school system (including the NCAA), while far from perfect, is a huge advantage in terms of generating a large pool of participants. The goal should be to increase the participation, especially at the developmental ages, not to find reasons to exclude children from playing a sport.

Otherwise, we create a system that has no middle. In my area, there are virtually no players for me to recruit to a junior college. There are very good players who develop in sponsored clubs from 6th-12th grade and sign D1 and D2 scholarships, and there are a lot of bad players. There is little in between. There is no middle, likely because these players were siphoned off to club teams in other sports or they were cut in middle school from one of the few clubs and quit. Creating more opportunities at younger ages increases the middle at the high school level, which makes for better and more competitive games, which only enhances the skills of the “elite”.

As an example, I spoke to the local varsity coach when I lived in a small town. The school district sponsored 6th-12th grade teams, and we lived in a remote area, so few players played on club teams. At tryouts for the 6th-8th grade teams, there were 15-20 girls per age group. Rather than keeping all of the players (2 teams per age group) or keeping a full 12-15 per grade (36-45 total), the varsity coach told me that if he has his way, they would keep the 8 most talented players, cut everyone else, and focus only on those 8 to develop into a championship high-school team in 4-6 years. Beyond the obvious short-sightedness of this idea due, if nothing else, to the high incidence rate of ACL injuries in female basketball players, the best 6th grader was better at soccer, and her high-school did not have a soccer team, so she was likely to attend a different high school, and the best 7th grader’s older sister was a star volleyball player, and she was as likely to end up playing volleyball as basketball. They could have focused on 8 girls only to have one end up at a different school and another end up on volleyball and have a maximum of 6 girls left from 3 grades despite initial interest from 60 girls! That is one way to end up with no freshmen and no junior varsity teams, not to mention child obesity.

If pros cannot confidently identify talent in adults, why do we trust amateurs to identify talent in children? Furthermore, even if we could identify the best at a young age, why do we want to exclude the others from playing? Create more and better opportunities to keep as many as possible involved for as long as possible. The school system likely provides the best opportunity for this.

Looking back at the 2007 NBA Draft to discuss talent identification

I found an old blog entry from 2007 that discussed talent identification in the lead up to the 2007 NBA Draft.

That is Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tskitishvili. So far, so good.

Certainly missed on Conley, and everyone missed on Oden, but the other six remain in the NBA a dozen years later, which isn’t bad.

Not bad on Afflalo and Dudley (even nailed the Pistons drafting Afflalo!), although Young has had a great career, albeit not as a superstar.

In the lead up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I took issue with an article that described the NBA Draft as a crap shoot:

The NBA drafts players between 18 and 22 years of age. Despite youth coaches believing that they can identify talent in elementary school, these players are not finished products. Only the rare players enter the NBA as ready-made starters; almost every player has to improve to earn playing time and stay in the NBA. Therefore, when we look back after 2, 5, 12 years, some things appear obvious, but that is hindsight because we have learned more about the players in the subsequent years. Should we have known these things at the time of the draft? Sometimes, but not always.

I wrote this about Jeremy Lin during Linsanity:

What if this is really a story about a player who met failure at every step of the way with a Growth Mindset and responded with increased effort and determination to make himself into a better player? Poor Man’s Commish, the authority on the Jeremy Lin story, has commented several times about moves that he has now that he did not have at Harvard or about improvements to his shooting technique. Others have noted his improved quickness since his time at Harvard.

Maybe, just maybe, people made accurate evaluations of Lin at the time. Maybe Lin took note of those evaluations and viewed them as progress reports, not final grades. Maybe Lin heard about his suspect jump shot or need for more quickness and worked at those weaknesses.

The thing that differentiates Lin might not be his ethnicity or Ivy League degree but the way that he deals with criticism or rejection. Rather than losing hope when he went undrafted, maybe it fortified his will and determination and spurred extra effort in the gym. Maybe when he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets, it created an urgency to show more if given another chance.

Maybe Jeremy Lin is not the story of others who made mistakes, but an individual who believed in himself and created his opportunity through a re-dedication to perfecting his craft. While others settled with being pretty good, maybe he strove to be great. While others headed to Europe for a nice payday, maybe he maintained a single-minded focus on his NBA dream.

Maybe everyone was right all along. And, maybe, just maybe, Lin had the will and desire to hit the gym and prove them wrong by improving and stepping up his game at each step along the way. Maybe he persevered when most others would quit; maybe he did not allow others’ perceptions to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe he grew from these experiences which tend to stagnate growth in others.

Maybe the narrative should be about a kid who likes to ball who didn’t let other people tell him what he couldn’t do or achieve and who believed in himself enough to put in the work to make an absurd dream (non-scholarship to NBA) into a reality.

Similarly, it is easy to look back and believe that we should have known that Steph Curry should have been drafted higher, but what role does the environment and coaching play?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

In today’s NBA, nobody would draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but the NBA in 2019 differs from the game that was played in 2007. In 2006-07, Golden State led the NBA with 1967 three-point attempts; in 2018-19, the Spurs attempted the fewest three-pointers (2071), and Houston led the NBA with 3721 three-point attempts (stats from Basketball Reference). Similarly, Curry obviously should have been drafted higher, but it took him changing the geometry of the entire NBA to demonstrate that obviousness. He was drafted into a different NBA than the one in which he plays today.

At the time, maybe NBA GMs should have known more about Durant, Lin, and Curry. As I wrote in 2007, rather than following the adage that you cannot teach height, NBA teams should draft for the psychological skills and intangibles that predict success (competitiveness, focus, discipline) that author Marcus Buckingham argues are equally innate. If a team had identified Lin’s tenacity and grit and drafted him, would it have allowed more time for him to realize his potential?

For youth coaches and parents, there are three primary take aways:

  1. The game evolves. A player who thrives today may not have a role in a decade if he or she cannot evolve and improve. The ability to and willingness to learn and improve is as important as any skill, quality or talent.
  2. The psychological and mental skills ultimately trump the physical gifts. In any sport, there is a minimum physical threshold; a 5’8 male is going to have a very difficult time making the NBA, and a 7’0 male likely will be exposed on a soccer field. Once the minimum threshold is achieved, it is the psychological characteristics that will determine one’s success: Resiliency, grit, mindset, adaptability, work ethic, and more. If you plan to prepare your child for athletic greatness, focus on these skills and characteristics before worrying about his or her jump shot.
  3. The environment matters. Does the environment allow for the player to thrive, like Curry with Kerr or does the environment limit the player(s), like Curry under Marc Jackson? By focusing only on what a player cannot do, do we miss what the player can do? Is there a way to exploit the positives?

Yes, NBA GMs make mistakes. However, many mistakes are obvious in hindsight only because a player improved, the environment changed, the game evolved, or an injury occurred. Decisions are made with imperfect information, but to improve one’s odds, more emphasis should be placed on the psychological traits and the fit with a team’s environment (which, of course, is difficult when coaches change every 2-3 years, which is one reason that organizations such as the Spurs and New England Patriots have an advantage).

“Small Ball” is Skill Ball

I saw the above on SacTownRoyalty, and I feel this argument persists. Traditionalists dislike the modern game, and bemoan the lack of back-to-the-basket post play, and they find any reason to favor bigger lineups.

I wrote about the Warriors previously, and specifically Draymond Green’s influence that allows the Warriors to go small. The Warriors’ small ball is less about height, and more about skill.

When I was young, I suffered through Sacramento Kings’ seasons with Joe Kleine as a starting center because the three-point shot was underutilized and a big center was mandatory.

The Modern Day NBA values skill, whether due to rule changes, analytics, Steph Curry, Billy Donovan/Rick Pitino, Vance Walberg/DDM, European influences, or common sense. Often, skill = small because taller players are not allowed to handle the ball or shoot at young ages. When taller, bigger players cannot exploit mismatches on the interior, height loses its impact, especially in the NBA which has all but passed a rule outlawing second shots (teams rarely send more than one player to offensive glass).

If you cannot exploit a smaller defender, the system discourages you from pounding the offensive glass, and you have to chase smaller attackers around the three-point line, negating some of your defensive prowess, your effectiveness is limited, and often replaced by a smaller, more versatile player.

Now that the modern-day NBA has accepted that skill beats size, size is diversifying and developing skills. No longer do we view a 6’8 player who dribbles and passes as an anomaly, and we expect our 7′ to shoot competently. As more taller players develop all-around skills, the skilled, taller player has advantages due to versatility, defensive length, and more.

The teams listed above did not employ traditional centers; Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez is a three-point shooter; Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid plays like a 1990’s SF; Marc Gasol shoots 3s and initiates the offense; and Denver’s Nikola Jokic is a point-center. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the only starting center without a new-age game, but he’s a great compliment as a rim-running lob threat with defensive mobility.

Furthermore, their size comes because players like Simmons, Giannis, Kawhi, Siakam, and others have size and skills to play multiple positions. These teams are not sacrificing skill to add height; they’re building around skilled players who have size and versatility. Skill is king, but when the skilled player has more size, he is that much more valuable in today’s NBA.

How Quick Beats Tall

Originally Published by Basketball Sense, January 2002

The most common excuse among youth, high school and college teams is the lack of a big guy or an inside presence: “He’s too big;” “We’re too small;” “They’re too strong;” “How are we going to stop him?” These excuses set up teams for unnecessary losses. Height or post play rarely decides any game or championship at any level below the NBA and elite international competition. Teams lose when they fail to shoot free throws well; turn the ball over too much; fail to block out and rebound; get out hustled and outworked; or get severely out shot.  Height is not a determining factor in these scenarios.

The most reliable stat I have seen for determining the game’s outcome or a team’s season outlook is possession margin, which is determined by adding the difference in offensive rebounds and turnovers. If possession margin is an indicator of success, protecting a team’s defensive glass and protecting the ball are the two most consistent ways to win games. Creating possessions through offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers enhance the team’s chance for success.

Teams generally rely on posts for three reasons: 1. Rebounding; 2. Interior defense; 3. Interior offense. A smart, quick team can compensate for their lack of size, and punish teams for their height advantage.

Rebounding, and especially defensive rebounding, is assumed to be the posts’ job, but defensive rebounding success is positioning and toughness. A big team has a rebounding advantage if all things are equal, but below the NBA level, most rebounds are gathered below the rim. Essentially, the skill of defensive rebounding is gaining inside position (a product of solid man to man or zone defense), making contact with the offensive player, and retrieving the ball. A tough defensive team with good position will get almost every rebound, with the exception of the occasional long rebound. 

Offensive rebounding is a special skill — less positioning and toughness, and more quickness and anticipation. If the offensive player anticipate’s the rebound’s location and quickly moves in that direction, he or she negates the size and/or positioning of the defensive player. The likelihood of an offensive rebound increases in transition, on a long shot (produces long rebounds), and when penetration forces defenses to help and scramble, negating their positioning advantage. Smaller teams are more apt to push the ball, attempt longer shots, and penetrate to the basket, putting the defenses at a disadvantage and presenting offensive rebounding opportunities.

Defensively, teams that rely on strong post play tend to be easier to guard because there is a tendency for other players to stand. Defending a team that stands or a player that stands is easier than defending a team that constantly sets screens and moves without the ball. A post player generally receives the ball with his back to the basket. If he or she is dominant, and the defensive team is severely out-manned, it is easy to double team and practice rotations, especially when his or her teammates stand around. It is much more difficult to plan for, and practice rotations to beat a terrific penetrating guard.

Offensively, it is easy to compensate for the lack of an inside game by pushing the tempo, shooting the three and/or penetrating to the basket. First, this puts pressure on the defense. Second, the ability to do all three makes help defense and defensive rotations difficult. Third, it opens up offensive rebounds and second shots. By constantly attacking, the defense is put on its heels, negating its size advantage.

The small team’s biggest advantage is ball handling and ability to pressure the ball on the perimeter. By taking care of the ball, a team prevents its opposition from getting easy shots and increased possessions. It insures itself of getting at least one shot almost every time down the court. By pressuring the perimeter, the team can create turnovers and easy offense for itself, and also make it very difficult to enter the ball into the post players, thus negating its disadvantages inside. 

Height is the most over-hyped aspect of basketball. Rarely if ever does post play determine the championship, unless there is a Shaq-like force. These examples above illustrate how quick beats tall, breaking down the perceived disadvantages of the height-deprived. There is no excuse at all: this is how quick beats tall.

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