Understanding a coach’s on-court values

The tweet above has been simplified or misunderstood; there are two interpretations, not just one. The obvious point is to recruit skill and shooting. The other is that when a coach recruits athleticism over skill, presumably because the coach believes he/she can develop skills, it is not the players’ fault if those skills have not been developed after two years.

Those who recruit athleticism and toughness rather than skill and shooting, must have a plan to develop skills and shooting or to scheme around the deficiencies. Similarly, those who recruit skills and shooting ahead of athleticism and toughness must have a plan to develop athleticism or scheme around any athletic deficiencies. One recruiting philosophy is not necessarily right, although I have my preference, but the absence of a plan to develop or scheme around deficiencies leads to many recruiting mistakes and poor fits, and these poor fits often end up in the transfer portal by choice or by the coach pushing them out to sign a player who fits better.

The decision to transfer often is not the mistake or the bad decision; instead, it results from a poor original decision. Players decide poorly because they are not truthful with themselves about the things that really matter to them, probably because they are 18 years old and not entirely aware of those things. Coaches make bad decisions, often because they are not truthful with themselves about the things that are important to them.

The tweet was really about awareness.

Does the coach recruit for a specific style? Does the coach collect the most talented players possible and hope to figure out a system? Does the coach know which player types that he/she favors? Does the recruiting philosophy match the allocation of minutes?

I coached a player who attempted nearly 8 three-point field goals per game. A program that attempted 15.13 3FGA/G recruited her, and told her that they wanted to shoot more three-pointers in the next season. Despite signing one of the nation’s best shooters and stating a commitment to shoot more three-pointers, they averaged 15.03 3FGA/G. They actually shot fewer three-pointers per game!

The player listened to the coach’s sales pitch, not her actions. The coach believed that she would change her style of play.

Coaches evaluate their seasons and imagine ways to improve. Most tend to be proactive and aggressive: Play faster, shoot more, play more aggressive defense. When the season starts, they revert to their more conservative personality and core beliefs. Change is hard, and when you perceive your job to be on the line, change is harder.

Players who they signed during their enthusiasm for change may not fit with their style of play. The lack of fit is not anyone’s fault other than a lack of awareness: The player ignored the signs that the coach did not value three-point shooting, and the coach lacked the awareness of her own philosophy. The coach may have believed with all of her heart that she would change, but it rarely happens.

Problems also occur when coaches overrate their ability to develop skills. I am confident in my ability to develop players’ skills, and especially shooting, and have a significant track record to support this belief. Everything from our system of play to our communication style to our practice schedule to our drill design is set up around skill development. That being said, I recruit shooters and skills first, and we scheme around players who cannot shoot.

Whereas I imagine that every coach and every program believes that they develop skills and emphasize skill development, few environments that I have seen do as they say. For example, the coach below has been known for 20 years for skill development. But, how much of what is described actually occurs?

There is nothing wrong with the drill, and every coach in the country uses similar drills. However, does the drill integrate passing and reads? The only player pass is the initial one which is a pass to a stationary, undefended coach. Does the drill involve reads? It is hard to tell because of the short clip, but based on what we can see, not really. It sure looks like the defense is scripted. When the defense is scripted, do the offensive players make reads? Off the DHO where the two players make different moves/shots, there is no defense; who do they read? Finally, is this game-like? There is no live defense, and only one player in the drill, so clearly a designated shooter. Is that game-like?

To reiterate, this is not a bad drill, and this is common at nearly every college program. However, I believe many coaches overrate their ability to develop incoming players’ skills, which leads to transfers when players do not develop into the players that coaches imagined, because these are not game-like drills. Now, with practice restrictions and individual workouts, these may be the best drills possible. This may be a great, efficient practice. However, that does not make the drills game-like, and as long as we view these drills as game-like skill development drills, we overrate the effect that we have on our players’ skill development.

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.

“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.

Social Shift Pivotal to Next-Level Jump

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Winter 2018.

As a 6th grader dominated a camp that I directed, I asked the organizer to move up the player to the older age group that worked out later. He said that they had asked him to move up, but he wanted to stay with his friends. The player was the tallest and most skilled player in the camp; in the 7th and 8th grade group, he no longer would have been the tallest, but he likely would have been the most skilled. Most adults view this as a lost opportunity because he did not challenge himself, and many coaches or ex-players would characterize him as weak because he avoided the greater challenge. Many may see this as a sign of his generation, and all of its faults.

Instead, his physical size and exceptional skill mislead us. We look at him dominate smaller children and forget that emotionally and socially, they are his peers. He may be physically tall, but he is emotionally and socially young. Playing against older players may benefit his skill development or his physical development, but these decisions must factor in the entire child, not just his visible size or shooting skill. Is playing with older players right for his current bio-psycho-social development, to use a term from Dr. Martin Toms of Birmingham University?

After I spoke to him, he came to both sessions; the early session to play with his friends, and the later session to challenge himself against better players, a challenge that he handled. Ultimately, this was the best mix, and one that factored in the total child from a holistic viewpoint, not one focused solely on his sporting success.

Over the summer, an 8th grader from Chicago verbally committed to attend DePaul University as part of its 2022 men’s basketball recruiting class. I learned of the commitment because he had attended clinics that I had directed in Chicago, although I have not seen him since he was in 6th grade. As early as 4th grade, high schools were keeping an eye on him. This is a tad extreme, but not abnormal in today’s youth sports landscape. The end goal of youth sports has shifted over the past two generations. Whereas youth sports once promoted fun, skill development, participation, and friendship, youth sport now is a billion-dollar business focused on procuring scholarships and producing professional players.

Because of this shift in goals and objectives, we lack the patience to allow children to develop in a slow, appropriate manner, and instead rush this development, which was my initial reaction with the tall, skilled 6th grader. When I coached the 8th grader, he was talented and very coachable, and I hope that continues, but research suggests that this environment — one which pushes children and pre-teens into “elite” competition —neglects the child’s social, emotional, and psychological needs. This rushed development manifests itself in early specialization and the professionalization of our youth sports, such as televised youth championships and national rankings of pre-teens; every aspect of youth sport now sells the idea that children are almost-professionals and require professional training, facilities, and competitions.

We ignore the psychological and emotional impact of this rush from developmental to competitive and competitive to elite at younger ages because of their precocious size or prodigious skill. When a 15-year-old basketball player walks into the gym and towers over his coach, or a 12-year-old Little Leaguer mashes a 375-foot home run on national television, we forget that these are children. This rush to elite competition may hinder skill development, which tends to be the primary concern, but the negative psychological effects may have greater consequences in terms of long-term success and happiness.

A Danish study found that the most crucial characteristic of the transition into a high performance or elite environment is a “shift in the social logic of the sport from fun, enjoyment and being together to seriousness, competition and investment” (Larsen et al., 2012). Managing these transitions successfully is a prerequisite for a long and successful career, whereas failure to cope with the demands of transitions may lead to premature career termination (Stambulova, 2009; Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler & Côté, 2009). On a smaller scale, the 6th grader was not prepared psychologically to make this transition away from fun and togetherness to seriousness and investment. Naturally, this must occur for him to pursue elite sports (college or professional), but an earlier transition does not necessarily help his pursuit. Instead, an immature athlete likely lacks the psychological skills and emotional maturity to cope with these heightened demands.

Those who progress to an elite level take responsibility for their own learning and progress (Elferink-Gemser et al., 2016; Jonker et al., 2009; Toering et al., 2010). They “decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own” (Coyle, 2011). This becomes difficult when coaches, parents, and trainers dictate every second of a child’s sporting existence, rather than empowering the child to decide for himself. By allowing the 6th grader to make decisions for himself, he was in control. When I expressed my confidence in him to succeed with the older players, and allowed him to come to the session with his friends too, he took responsibility for himself. He made the decision. Now, he has started to take ownership of his development, which is a key factor in succeeding at a high level.

As another example, this summer, a girl headed to a local NCAA D2 school showed up for numerous workouts at the junior college where I coach now. She turned down my offer in the spring, then randomly showed up in the gym one day. She had my number from when I recruited her, and she texted me almost every day for about three weeks to see our schedule. On most days, she took uber to the gym because her single mom was at work with the car. She made the decision that she wanted to work out, and she found a way; she took ownership of her improvement rather than waiting for a coach or a parent or a trainer to organize something for her.

A critical event in one’s athletic career is the transition from talented junior to the elite senior level, or for most U.S. athletes, from high school to college. This transition is described as a very difficult one, and many athletes acknowledge their failure to cope with it (Stambulova et al., 2009). Rather than transitioning as 17 and 18 year-olds moving to college competition, we have created an environment that encourages this transition in middle school, as with the 8th grader. If many older athletes struggled or failed to cope with the transition, what can we expect from pre-teens?

Among the most prominent demands involved in this transition are learning to balance sporting goals with other life goals, reorganizing one’s lifestyle to fit life as an elite athlete, finding one’s individual path in sport, coping with the pressure of selections, winning prestige among peers, judges and coaches, and maintaining positive relationships (Stambulova, 2009). Delaying this transition allows a child to develop greater psychological skills to complement his prodigious physical skills in order to cope with and thrive through these transitions. When this transition is forced upon a child, he or she may not be prepared emotionally or psychologically, and the lack of preparation may lead to frustrations, struggle, and quitting.

Ultimately, struggle is good for one’s development. Struggle forces one beyond one’s comfort zone, and it is the adaptation to increased demands that stimulates growth. However, with children especially, these struggles should be small hurdles or slightly beyond the child’s current level, not exponential leaps forward. The 6th grader eventually played with slightly older players; he does not, however, need to train like a professional player or devote his entire life to basketball at this age. He can leave the transition to elite competition to his late teens.

Unfortunately, the 8th grader has transitioned to the world of elite competition. This level of elite is in name more than action, as elite, to me, refers more to those competing for world championships as opposed to higher prep player rankings. However, his commitment has changed his environment. His name will be on web sites, and people will write about his games. A bad game will result in writers and anonymous commenters poking holes in his game and questioning his ability, likely calling him overrated. Does an 8th grade need or deserve that much attention and scrutiny? Does it help his transition to an elite level? If he has the emotional maturity, social safety net of supportive peers and family, and psychological skills to cope, he may develop, learn and thrive because of the experiences; without those tools and support, he may lose the joy of playing and the motivation to improve. Are the benefits worth the risk, or would the child be better off resisting the allure of the scholarship and recruiting offers to progress at his own speed once his emotional and psychological maturity has caught up to his physical prowess?

References

Coyle, D. (2011). The new way to identify talent: The G-factor. The Talent Code blog, December 2.

Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., Coelho-E-Silva, M.J., & Visscher, C. (2011). The marvels of elite sports: how to get there?. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(9), 683-84.

Jonker, L., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Toering, T.T., Lyons, J., & Visscher, C. (2010). Academic performance and self-regulatory skills in elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(14), 1605-14.

Larsen, C. H., Alfermann, D. & Christensen, M. K. (2012). Psychosocial skills in a youth soccer academy: A holistic ecological perspective. Sport Science Review, 21(3-4), 51- 74.

Stambulova, N. (2009). Talent development in sport: The perspective of career transitions. In E. Tsung-Min Hung, R. Lidor & D. Hackfort (Eds.), Psychology of sport excellence (pp. 63-74). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Stambulova, N., Alfermann, D., Statler, T. & Côté, J. (2009). Career development and transitions of athletes: The ISSP position stand. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7, 395-412.

Toering, T.T., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., & Visscher, C. (2009). Self- regulation and performance level of elite and non-elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(14), 1509-17.

Long term athlete development

Americans increasingly lack height, not fundamentals

The lack of fundamentals in basketball in the United States continues to be a popular story, but David Epstein’s article in ESPN the Magazine pointed out the bigger problem: Basketball favors height, and the U.S. does not produce enough height.  Read more

Antifragile children and super champions

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2016.

Inside the former middle school turned community center in East Babylon on Long Island, aspiring basketball players train under the tutelage of Jerry Powell in a sweltering gym built decades ago. Stuffed into this small rectangular space, 30-40 players go through drills for 90 minutes at a time as parents line the sideline in folding metal chairs.  Read more

Athletic Development Trumps Elite Selection

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2016.

As Abby Wambach retired after her record-setting career with the U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team, she criticized Jurgen Klinsmann for his strategy of recruiting dual-national citizens living and developing outside the United States. Whereas many viewed Wambach’s comments as xenophobic, and somewhat disingenuous as she never appeared to have a problem with her teammate Sydney Leroux who was raised in Canada, the comments struck me as less about xenophobia and more about the long-term development of soccer in the United States.  Read more

Participation, development, and gold medals

I wrote about this article already, but USOC members continue to retweet and praise the article, which essentially argued that the U.S. failed in the 2012 Olympics, on a per capita basis, because of a lack of sports science and top-down control. Now, it makes sense for USOC sports scientists and administrators to retweet and support this argument, as it lends more credibility to their position, which may increase funding for their salaries and projects.

Read more

Jake Arrieta, perfect technique, and a change in environment

The Chicago Cubs’ Jake Arrieta is the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball right now. “Arrieta has thrown two no-hitters in a span of 11 regular-season starts and has gone 20-1 with an 0.86 earned-run average over a mind-numbing 24-start stretch.” Read more

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