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?

by on July 2, 2019
in Fun

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, soccer coach and youth development expert 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 beliefs 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 school-based sports system that allowed millions to participate.

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. 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 into the other school. Assuming each graduating 8th grade class had 5-10 boys playing on its 8th grade basketball team, 75-150 boys who played on 8th grade 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 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 the 3rd and 4th grades while I was at the school, and eventually down to kindergarten. Roughly 10-15 boys per grade in k-8th playing basketball, and this is one school. None 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 to 15 was too much, so they added a second freshmen team, and eventually a second junior varsity team. One high school had roughly 75 players 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 held back the U.S. 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 have only one team for schools with 2500+ students, and many schools have no tryouts because fewer than 15 players turn out. 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 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 is attributed to early specialization and especially 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 specialization is a net positive, as the school’s best athlete plays one sport instead of three, which opens opportunities for two other students to play. 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 its success, and we’re undermining ourselves at every level by turning sports development into a 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:

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

When I have met with federations about talent development and identification, the initial goal is always to find the talented few earlier and pour more resources into them. My answer is the opposite: Find ways to increase participation and delay talent identification. My opposition is likely the reason that none has hired me, as 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 stymie the federation’s development, and none is 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 because it generates 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. We need to invest more money in elementary, junior high school and high school physical education and extracurricular sports, not reduce funding and cede development to private organizations. Schools provide a cost-effective opportunity for almost all children, which is not true of private organizations.

Otherwise, we create a system with no middle. In my area, there are virtually no players to recruit to a junior college with full scholarships. There are very good players who develop in sponsored clubs from 6th-12th grade and sign D1 and D2 scholarships, and there are many 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 cut in middle school from one of the few clubs. Creating more opportunities at younger ages increases the middle at the high school level, and makes for better and more competitive games, which only enhances the skills of the “elite”.

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. There were 15-20 girls per age group at the tryouts for the 6th-8th grade teams. Rather than keep everyone (2 teams per age group) or a full 12-15 per grade (36-45 total), the varsity coach told me that if he had his way, they would keep the 8 most talented players total from the three grades, cut everyone else, and focus on those 8 to develop into a championship high-school team in 4-6 years.

Beyond the obvious short-sightedness 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 this high-school did not have a soccer team, so she was likely to attend their rival high school, and the best 7th grader’s older sister was a star volleyball player, and if forced to choose, she was likely to play volleyball. They could have focused on 8 girls only to lose one to another school and another to volleyball and have 6 girls left from 3 grades despite 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 professionals 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? Create more and better opportunities to keep as many as possible involved for as long as possible. The school system provides the best opportunity.

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